When the clock strikes midnight on July 1, Dwight Howard will reach unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career.
For the first time ever, he'll have the chance to make himself truly happy by choosing his next team.
What will it take to satisfy him exactly? At this point, it's unclear if anyone, including Howard himself, knows.
Since the beginning of the so-called "Dwightmare" back in 2011, there's only been one constant with Howard: He's such a big flip-flopper that he could consider running for political office once done with the NBA.
Right before the start of the lockout-shortened season in 2011-12, Howard's representatives told the Orlando Magic that he wouldn't be re-signing in Orlando, according to ESPN.com's Chris Broussard. Howard's preferred destination was the then-New Jersey Nets, Broussard reported, which sparked months of trade speculation.
Howard's leverage in the situation came from his contract's early-termination option, which would have allowed him to reach unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2012. The Magic didn't want to risk losing him for nothing as an unrestricted free agent, but also couldn't generate a fair-value trade offer with Howard's camp constantly leaking reports about his desire to leave Orlando.
Teams that weren't on that list had less incentive to offer a knock-your-socks-off package to Orlando, knowing they could be facing a precarious situation with Howard in a few short months.
In essence, the big man only made it more unlikely that he'd get what he wanted.
Still, speculation reached a fever pitch as the 2012 trade deadline approached. One source went so far as to tell ESPN.com's Marc Stein that "I believe that you will see Dwight traded to New Jersey tomorrow."
Instead, Howard pulled a complete about face, signing papers on the day of the trade deadline that guaranteed he'd waive his early termination option. After months of clearly vocalizing his desire to leave Orlando following the 2011-12 season, Howard inexplicably agreed to stave off his unrestricted free agency for one more season.
Let's call this flip-flop No. 1.
That move didn't put an end to the trade rumors, however. In the summer of 2012, the Lakers were "making a renewed push" to acquire Howard, according to ESPNLosAngeles.com, which culminated in a four-team megadeal in August that sent Howard to the Lakers, Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia, Andre Iguodala to Denver and all sorts of young players and draft picks to Orlando.
Surely, a trade to one of the most legendary franchises in the NBA would have satisfied Howard once and for all, right?
Not necessarily, as it turned out.
Howard was all smiles during his introductory press conference in Los Angeles, but the situation quickly soured. Despite rolling out a starting five of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Howard, the Lakers' season was quickly derailed by an onslaught of injuries to each of their four main stars.
Throughout the season, word began to leak that Howard wasn't enjoying his time in Los Angeles as much as the Lakers presumed he would. According to a February 2013 report from ESPN.com's Stephen A. Smith, Howard still hadn't forfeited his desire to join with the Nets, even after being traded to the Lakers.
There's flip-flop No. 2.
As Howard began the process of alienating Lakers fans, he had even more to worry about: his first trip back to Orlando as a member of another team. A week before the March 12 game, Howard managed to burn his few remaining bridges in Orlando during an interview with CBS Los Angeles.
And I always tell people: Hey, my team in Orlando was a team full of people who nobody wanted, and I was the leader and I led that team with a smile on my face.
Needless to say, Howard's former teammates didn't take kindly to that comment.
In an interview with USA Today, Howard later attempted to clarify his remarks, saying, "My whole thing that I wanted to get out about the situation…was just the fact that we were underdogs. We were underrated. We were the team that nobody cared about."
And with that, the trifecta of flip-flopping was complete.
Now, Howard's unrestricted free agency looms large in Los Angeles. The Lakers theoretically have the inside track on re-signing Howard, as they're allowed to offer him an extra year on his contract and roughly $30 million more than any other team can provide.
At this point, there's no winning for Howard in this free-agency fiasco. If he leaves Los Angeles, he'll be seen as someone who shrank from the spotlight, while he'll be seen as a player who prioritizes money over championships if he stays.
Andy Kamentzky, of the Land O' Lakers blog, sums up Howard's impending decision well:
Howard must accept the uncomfortable truth that universal approval and appeal is impossible. The last two seasons of Howard’s career have been a P.R. disaster, in large part because he’s prioritized outside opinion first. It’s impossible to maintain a public life without putting off people, which makes trying pointless. So if an unpopular decision is necessary, at least make it your own for reasons you understand. If people are gonna draw the wrong conclusions, let that happen on your terms. Despite his stature and fame, Howard never appears to be pulling his own strings. For his own well-being, he needs to figure out what he wants from his career, make a decision accordingly, taken comfort in what he knows to be the truth about himself, then let the talking heads and faceless fans say what they will.
Whether that means re-signing with Los Angeles, signing with Houston or choosing a third mystery suitor, Howard simply needs to be comfortable with, and confident, in his decision.
That's because, no matter what he chooses, he'll need to abandon his "grass is always greener" mentality after inking a long-term deal this summer.
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