Dwight Howard is the best center in the NBA when he is playing up to his potential, but the impending free agent has forced his current team, the Los Angeles Lakers, to look long and hard and the possibility of re-signing the big man this offseason or letting him walk.
Howard’s time in Los Angeles has been far from perfect.
According to Sam Smith of Bulls.com, the Lakers will not only have to consider whether or not they feel Howard is the future of the franchise, the team will have serious competition when it comes time to sign the free agent to a long-term deal:
The Atlanta Hawks will make a hometown pitch with perhaps Al Horford and/or Josh Smith as mates. The rumors are Howard’s family is pushing hard for him to return home as they’ve watching him struggle and be humiliated in recent seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles. The Nets quietly despite denials are back in it again, though their overpaid roster with no cap space makes them a longshot.
While the off-court issues in Orlando and in L.A.—problems with management and other players (h/t NY Daily News)—will hurt Howard’s stock in the free-agent market, the center's ability is enough for teams to forget about the drama and sign him to any deal he’d like.
That puts all the pressure on the Lakers.
Los Angeles Lakers
The 2012-13 season is far from over—on the cusp of being a playoff team for the first time all year—and there is a lot that can happen over the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.
As much money as Howard could get as a free agent this offseason and as much pressure that would be taken off his shoulders going to a smaller market, winning playoff games should trump all of that.
If the Lakers make a deep run in the Western Conference playoffs, Howard isn’t going anywhere.
Los Angeles realizes that veteran Kobe Bryant isn’t going to be around for many more years, and if the team wants to remain perennially relevant in the West then it must re-sign Howard to a long-term contract.
One of the dark-horse teams in the Howard free agency sweepstakes is the Atlanta Hawks, especially considering that the team is located near where Howard grew up and where much of his family still resides.
Atlanta is a huge metropolis, but there is far less pressure to win on the Hawks than in most of the other major markets in the United States. Howard would still be expected to play well and take the team to the postseason, but there wouldn’t be scrutiny like he faced daily in L.A.
That’s a major plus for a fun-loving player like Howard.
If winning is a top priority for Howard, it will be a long-term project in Atlanta, but the ability to be comfortable in his own skin and revert to the face of a franchise may be too appealing to pass up for the star center.
The Brooklyn Nets would have to do some major work to the salary cap this offseason to make a run at Howard this offseason, but as seen by the team’s desire to trade for him in the first place (h/t Sports Illustrated), it wants Howard in Brooklyn.
The question now will be if the team can afford him.
Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries will all make over $10 million next year (h/t HoopsHype), and the Nets would be forced to move at least two of those contracts to make the long-term details of the possible deal with Howard work.
Brooklyn is by far the longest shot of all the teams rumored to be interested in the impeding free agent, but with a rich owner and the desperation to build a winning tradition for the Nets, don't write off Howard to BKYN just yet.