Dwight Howard doesn't have many options as a free agent this summer, but because the Houston Rockets have the best available combination of money, young talent and a system that would best accommodate his skills, they're the most likely destination for the big man if he decides to leave the Los Angeles Lakers.
There are plenty of reasons for Howard to stick around in Los Angeles, and they're worth chronicling before we get into the potential advantages of a relocation to Houston.
First, the Lakers can pay Howard more money than any other team—a lot more.
The NBA's collective bargaining agreement has a couple of provisions that are designed to help teams retain their own talent. Consequently, the Lakers are allowed to offer Howard a five-year deal for $118 million. The best any other team could do is a four-year offer worth a decidedly less enticing $88 million.
In addition to a bigger chunk of change, the Lakers can offer Howard a few other things that other teams won't be able to match: a championship legacy, the bright lights of Los Angeles and the big market the ad-hungry Howard seems to crave.
It's unclear exactly how important a championship is to Howard. Most of the recent evidence tends to paint him as a self-absorbed egomaniac who would rather sound like a winning player than be one. Conversely, we know that his insatiable desire for attention would seem to indicate that the commercial notoriety and media appeal he'd get by staying in Los Angeles are both things he'd value highly.
Just for the sake of argument, if Howard actually does want to be a part of a title-winning team, the Lakers could, theoretically, give him one...if he waits until the season after next. L.A.'s books are a disaster in 2013-14, and re-signing Howard would probably make them bad enough to earn some relief from the Red Cross. With over $78 million already committed to next year, retaining Howard would be costly.
But if the Lakers bite the bullet for a year, only D12 and Steve Nash, who'll be in the final year of his deal, will be under contract in 2014-15. L.A. could start fresh with Howard in the middle, and every free agent would be clamoring to join him.
The Lakers' advantages have GM Mitch Kupchak professing his optimism that Howard will stay in L.A. If Howard wants money and attention, Kupchak is probably justified in his hopefulness.
But what if something changes, and big dollars and bigger notoriety stop meaning everything to Howard? If that becomes the case, the Rockets have a distinct edge on the other suitors who'll be trying to pry him away from the Lakers.
With only $38 million committed to player salaries next year, Houston's payroll is ready to absorb Howard's max deal. Plus, if the Rockets decline team options on players like Carlos Delfino, Francisco Garcia and Aaron Brooks, they could trim another $11.5 million from their books.
That would mean they'd have the ability to sign at least one more max player to join James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Howard.
In addition to the ability to provide Howard with even more free-agent help, the Rockets already have the best player on any team D12 could realistically sign with. Harden is just entering his prime, and as a ball-handling guard capable of drawing massive amounts of defensive attention, he'd be an ideal partner for the lob-hungry Howard.
And if Howard is at all up to speed on the changing landscape of the NBA, he knows that the Rockets are at the forefront of the analytics revolution. Thanks to a forward-thinking front office, they're representative of the smarter, more efficient direction the league is taking. If Howard wants to be on the cutting edge, surrounded by coaches and executives with an understanding of what it'll take to win in the coming years, Houston's the place for him.
Stylistically, it's hard to know how the Rockets would play with Howard. They've essentially tailored their style to their personnel over the past few years, which, by the way, is yet another sign of the intelligence of the folks running the show. The addition of Howard would likely transform Houston from a run-and-gun outfit into a more conventionally effective inside-out offense.
The Rockets already have the shooters to surround a dominant big man. Howard could step into that role perfectly.
And if Houston wants to space the floor with its wings while Howard goes to work inside, that could be an effective strategy. Of course, a pick-and-roll attack with Harden and Howard torturing defenses is enticing as well.
Options abound for Howard in Houston, and if he's really interested in winning, he'd do well to give a Texas move some serious thought.
The other potential suitors hardly compare to the Rockets.
Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks will also have the money to max Howard out, but with Dirk Nowitzki as the team's only real talent, it'd be hard to imagine Howard ending up there. He's already tried to join forces with aging stars in L.A., and the experiment was an abject failure.
The Atlanta Hawks are the only other realistic option, but they seem like a long shot for a couple of reasons.
First, Howard's affinity for his native state doesn't figure to be enough to lead to a homecoming. According to ESPN's Chris Broussard, Howard's lack of interest in the Hawks has been obvious for months.
Plus, Josh Smith, who was Howard's AAU teammate, doesn't even figure to be around in Atlanta as he embarks on his own free-agent sojourn this summer.
Howard sort of blew it in Los Angeles. He came off as somewhat childish, repeatedly put his foot in his mouth and failed to get along with Kobe Bryant. He made plenty of headlines for the wrong reasons and generally didn't seem to fit into anything L.A. wanted to do.
So, maybe the best case for Houston as a candidate has to do with its ability to offer Howard yet another fresh start.
The money and attention Los Angeles can offer are both unparalleled, but if Howard wants to turn his focus toward winning, the Rockets are—by far—the biggest threat to lure him away from L.A.
*All salary information via HoopsHype.com