As the 2013 NBA playoffs labor on, we get a break from the impending circus of league free agency that will include stars Chris Paul, Monta Ellis, Josh Smith and Dwight Howard.
Free agency is never an easy process, but for current free agent and former Los Angeles Lakers center Howard, there's a good chance we'll get to revisit why the trade deadline and summer of 2012 were both such frustrating times to follow the NBA player movement scene.
Don't expect Howard to play nice by making a fast decision, either.
The Lakers were knocked out of the playoffs before they really began, suffering a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs just days after losing Kobe Bryant to a season-ending Achilles tear as the season wore down.
Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks all also missed time in the first round against the Spurs, and the Lakers' opening season with Nash and Howard complimenting Bryant and Pau Gasol will go down in the NBA archives under the "disappointing" category.
Howard himself struggled to adapt to the various changes in his professional career for the first time since leaving the Orlando Magic. He was less effective as a team defender, didn't get the ball in the post very often with Bryant holding the ball on possession and was more of an off-the-ball threat when working in tandem with Nash and Black Mamba.
Fans noticed, chastising his poor defensive effort at times and wishing he would toughen up in the face of adversity. True Lakers, and champions, often do.
Now, Howard is a free agent.
If you listen to his exit interview (highlights of which can be found at NBA.com) or the report from Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, Howard is in no rush to decide whether he will take the money and the chance at redemption in LA or start over in a new city:
I'm going to step away from everything for a couple of weeks, Howard said. I'm going to clear my head before I do or talk about anything as far as next season. I think I deserve that and that's what I'm going to do.
A source close to Howard also confirmed that the 27-year-old center will weigh all of his options before getting anywhere near what could be the franchise that he could be remembered with when his playing days are over (via Spears):
He's going to sign a long-term deal, the source said. It has to be the right spot, the right commitment. There is no clear choice. The Lakers choice has longevity. They've won a lot of championships. But at the same time, that's not where they're at anymore.
Howard, as obvious as it is that he is trying to stay impartial to the media about a decision, knows that the Lakers have the most leverage in this matter. He can sign a nine-figure, five-year contract with LA, versus a four-year, eight-figure deal with any other team of interest.
Per Spears' report, optimism toward righting his wrongs in LA is premature at this point—even with the extra $30 million or so hanging over his head.
It seemed like nothing could go right, right from the start, injuries and all that stuff. We get an opportunity to get some rest for guys who are injured. A chance to rehab and think about what we can all do to better ourselves.
When asked if the last part of that statement reflected optimism toward returning, Howard said: You're reading too much into it.
This cryptic tweet from Howard's account (part of a bigger message and should be read as a closing statement) adds more intrigue to an already murky situation:
I hope I get the chance to make it up to you!” Thank u la.— Dwight Howard (@DwightHoward) April 29, 2013
When all the pieces are added together, the evidence clearly shows us that Howard is yet again poised to command most of the NBA offseason chatter with respect to the free-agent pool.
There's little doubt he's earned it as the league's best center on the most-storied franchise in NBA history. But you can't help but get the feeling that history is repeating itself again and the wavering, indecisive Howard is ready to make another appearance this summer.
Howard averaged 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks this season, numbers that are closer to his 2005-2006 stats than his ones from his final season in Orlando. Still, he's going to be a hot commodity this summer, and teams with cap space are going to be lining up to prove to D12 that he's better off playing in a new city than taking more money to return to LA.
The Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks are three teams that have been gearing up for a Howard exodus, although last summer it looked like that reality would happen in Orlando—not LA.
As it is, the two Texas teams likely have the inside track because of two legitimate stars to surround Howard with (Dirk Nowitzki for Dallas, Jeremy Lin and James Harden in Houston), while Atlanta boasts a chance to return home.
In an interview with ESPN 103.3 in Dallas, analyst Marc Stein believes that it's going to be hard to pry Howard from the clutches of LA's grasp, but that it's certainly possible in the big scheme of things (h/t Dallas Morning News):
I think Houston and Dallas are seen as the only two teams that have any sort of shot at getting him from L.A....The overwhelming likelihood is he’s going to stay. You still have to bet on that, but the season ended badly enough that there’s a chance.
All those injuries hurt the cause of the Rockets and the Mavs because the Lakers are not going to go down as the biggest flop in the history of the NBA as far as teams go, and had that happened, Dwight would have been a scapegoat and maybe his happiness level is to the point where he really considers moving.
It's just speculation at this point, but Stein's view on Howard's place in the free-agent market is one that is sure to fly in both NBA circles and rumor sites for most of the summer. All angles are in play, but LA remains the favorite in negotiations with a $30 million bargaining chip and a chance at long-term glory.
Where will Howard land in free agency this summer?
By all accounts, this isn't going to be an easy decision. Especially when you throw in the fact that this is Dwight Howard, a player who held us hostage with a game of "will he or won't he" with respect to his early termination option at the trade deadline in 2012, and again tried to press Orlando management to accept a trade to the Brooklyn Nets.
With Howard, nothing is easy, or quick, when it comes to studying his decision process.
Enjoy the silence surrounding Howard right now. When the NBA finals are over in June, the biggest story of the offseason will be his next place of employment post-free agency.
Heck, it might not be quiet on that front tomorrow—you never know with D12—but one thing is for certain: We're in for another saga that could very well trump anything about indecision we've seen in the All-NBA center's past.
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