Will Dwight Howard be pulling up different shooting sleeves in 2013-14?
Dwight Howard is going to receive a lot of coverage as he attempts to make up his mind for the second offseason in a row. No matter how you feel about the big man on a personal level, you almost have to pay attention to the upcoming saga because he's one of the few players whose decision can dramatically alter the landscape of the NBA.
Wherever Howard goes, that team will immediately improve. That's almost an inevitability, one tempered only by the center's ability to remain healthy.
So far, six teams have emerged as the leading contenders for Howard's services. They're the potential free-agency landing spots for D12 at the moment, although more teams could certainly jump into the sweepstakes at any time.
You'll see my guess as to where Howard lands in this article, but what's yours?
Dwight Howard was born in Atlanta, Georgia and attended Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy before making the prep-to-pro jump into the NBA.
Atlanta is his hometown, even if he's given no explicit indication that he desires a homecoming during his free-agency saga. But seeing as Howard is a man who loves positive attention and wants to be loved, it's hard to imagine that a return to his birthplace isn't at least hovering around in the back of his mind.
Should he buck the odds and sign on board, the Atlanta Hawks and their fans would embrace the big man with open arms. Parades would be thrown. Expectations would be through the roof of Philips Arena.
And speaking of Philips Arena, fans might actually attend games.
A joyous homecoming is one of two primary reasons that Atlanta is still considered a potential free-agent landing spot for D12. The other is the Hawks' cap space.
No other team presents Howard with the realistic possibility of playing alongside Chris Paul, who just happens to be a friend of Howard's and the best point guard in the NBA. You can thank Danny Ferry for that.
Due to some masterful work clearing the Hawks' books of Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, Ferry enters his first full offseason in charge of the Hawks with a near tabula rasa. Only Al Horford, Lou Williams and John Jenkins are on guaranteed contracts for the 2013-14 season, and together, they're worth just over $18 million.
That gives Ferry the ability to sign any two free agents of his choosing, and who better than Howard and Paul to fill the void in Atlanta's rotation?
The two superstars and Horford would form arguably the top trio in the NBA, and they'd immediately contend in the Eastern Conference. Unless Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh rebound and start playing like stars again. Then they'd form arguably the second-best trio in the Association.
Can you imagine Dwight Howard and Kyrie Irving playing together?
The former is the best center in the NBA when healthy, and the latter is one of the challengers to Chris Paul's perch atop the point guard leaderboard. Again, when healthy.
Signing Howard would force the Cleveland Cavaliers into either parting ways with Anderson Varejao or pushing him into a backup role, but it's hard to imagine that being a prohibitive move. Varejao may be a better per-minute rebounder than Howard (23.2 total rebounding percentage in 2012-13 outpaces the best output of Howard's career, per Basketball-Reference.com), but that's about the only area in which he's superior.
If they could bring Howard into a wine-colored jersey, the Cavs would be quickly assembling a terrifying lineup. Kyrie and Dwight are obvious, but Tristan Thompson is developing faster than most expected and the team has the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Plus, Dion Waiters is still full of potential, even if he did submit a rather lackluster rookie season.
Thompson is actually the piece that makes everything work. His expanding range and defensive ability allow he and Dwight to spend time on the court together, forming a workable offensive duo and a stellar rebounding pairing.
Take a look at the Texas product's shot chart during his rookie season, and then look at his sophomore shot locations. That noticeable expansion of his range is crucial because it would allow for this potential lineup to display some semblance of spacing.
Another benefit of a Howard-to-Cleveland move would be the lowered expectations. The Cavaliers haven't been at the center of media attention since LeBron James' infamous choice to take his talents to South Beach, and Howard could escape the constant glare of the cameras.
Of course, when he led the team to the playoffs, that would suddenly change.
It's hard to imagine a better inside-outside frontcourt than the one Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard would form.
What exactly would defenses do to stop that pairing? Do they focus on eliminating the possibility of Dirk draining jumper after jumper while leaving Dwight in one-on-one situations down low? Do they swarm Howard and leave Nowitzki free to beat them with his flamingo fadeaways?
Realistically, the best way to stop this duo would be to let time run its course, sapping Dirk's effectiveness as his age creeps up higher and higher. That, in a nutshell, is the biggest reason why the Mavericks are one of the more unlikely destinations featured in this article.
Yes, Mark Cuban can make an impressive sales pitch. Yes, Dirk and Dwight would be terrifying together. Yes, Dallas' lack of income tax would help mitigate the financial blow of spurning the Los Angeles Lakers.
There are a number of positives associated with joining the Mavericks, but there are too many negatives as well. Nowitzki is already 34 years old, and we have no idea how much quality basketball he has left in the tank. There were signs of a decline during the 2012-13 season, and the drop-off could be rather precipitous in the near future.
Even if the German 7-footer remains a superstar, though, there's no guarantee of more help. No third player is currently in place, and the Mavericks' books are almost completely empty for the 2014-15 season. In fact, only the team options on Jae Crowder and Jared Cunningham's contracts prevent Dallas from currently having a completely blank slate for the 2014 offseason.
Money doesn't necessarily guarantee the arrival of stars, and Dwight could easily be left in a situation similar to the one he faced with the Orlando Magic. He both wants and needs help, and it would be nice to know he's going to get it.
If Dwight Howard can accept a lessened role on the offensive end of the court, the Golden State Warriors would be a terrific fit for him. But given the whole bit about him feeling marginalized by Mike D'Antoni's system...
On the Dubs, Howard would be a tertiary option in the offense. Outside shooting and David Lee make up the first two options, although the order swings back and forth on a night-to-night basis.
Assuming he can deal with that, D12 brings so much to the table for the Golden State Warriors.
I won't go so far as to say that the Splash Brothers were the greatest perimeter-shooting duo in NBA history, but they were certainly up there. Stephen Curry's performance was unmatched, and Klay Thompson was pretty darn impressive as well.
And they did that without a constant offensive threat in the paint. Imagine what would happen if defenses couldn't leave Howard unattended down below the basket. It's hard to, simply because there's no precedent. Curry would probably just break Ray Allen's career three-point record in a single season.
Howard also brings his defensive excellence to the table in this situation, plus his always-impressive work on the boards. It's not about that, though.
Especially given the postseason breakout of Harrison Barnes, this potential lineup has the ability to be one of the premier offensive units in all of basketball.
With Stephen Curry running the point, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes working on the wings and David Lee and Dwight Howard serving the big-man roles, how exactly does anyone gameplan? Who do they focus on stopping?
It'll be tough for the Dubs to turn this hypothetical into a reality, but it's so intriguing that they should certainly pursue it.
When Dwight Howard was still playing professional basketball in Florida, the basic strategy was to surround him with a bunch of potent three-point shooters and then let defenses pick their poison.
Most teams chose to let the marksmen beat them, but the Atlanta Hawks occasionally found success against the Orlando Magic by letting Dwight dominate a game. I'll never forget watching Howard record 46 points and 19 rebounds on 16-of-23 shooting in a playoff game, only to lose because his teammates couldn't do anything.
If D12 joined the Houston Rockets, that strategy would no longer work, simply because it would be impossible to completely stop the rest of the roster. James Harden by himself is more offensively talented than anyone Howard ever played with on the Magic.
Plus, the Rockets have marksmen galore. Houston has adopted a more analytical approach to basketball and decided that three-pointers and shots at the rim are the only attempts worth actually taking.
Howard is an absolutely perfect fit for this roster as a result, especially because he's an upgraded version of Omer Asik, one that brings the same defensive skills to the table while carrying along an accompanying bit of offensive competence.
What he could do in Houston is seemingly unlimited, and it's for that reason the Rockets should currently be considered the favorites to win the D12 sweepstakes.
Houston also has the potential to develop a third star. His name is Chandler Parsons, and his versatile contributions are quickly making him one of the fastest risers in the Association.
If Parsons isn't already a top-50 player, Howard would certainly make him look like one.
We can't neglect the Los Angeles Lakers, even though they have nearly $80 million committed before re-signing Dwight Howard. After all, the options are severely limited if D12 isn't brought back into the fold.
Howard's first season in L.A. didn't exactly go smoothly. You can thank injuries, coaching changes, a lack of chemistry, constant media attention and overall turmoil for that.
Will Dwight put himself through all of it again?
Although the Lake Show can offer him a fifth max year and thus more money than anyone else, I doubt it. Howard doesn't want to go through the mental anguish of playing another season in purple and gold, especially if things don't go well once more.
And things aren't guaranteed to go well. Kobe Bryant is aiming to return for the Lakers' first game of the 2013-14 season, but there's no telling A) whether or not he'll be able to meet that aggressive timetable or B) how effective he'll be.
Sure, L.A. would love one more go-around with Steve Nash, Kobe, Pau Gasol and Dwight all attempting to stay healthy, but that's not a certainty either.
The Lakers are assuredly a potential free-agency destination for the big man, but they're losing their luster as the other options start presenting themselves.