Even with the NBA Finals still rolling along, Dwight Howard has been a source of never-ending rumors. Now, some potential sign-and-trade scenarios are being thrown into the mix.
The Los Angeles Lakers would love nothing more than to re-sign the NBA's premier center, but that's by no means the only option for D12. As an unrestricted free agent, he controls his own fate, so while the Lakers can offer him the most money, the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks have emerged as leading suitors.
Some of those aforementioned teams could ease the signing process and give Howard more money by completing a sign and trade—doing so would allow him to sign with the Lakers for a fifth year before being shipped off to the new team. The possibility of a sign-and-trade also allows a new team to enter the picture.
I'll give you a hint: This team also calls L.A. home.
A sign-and-trade will still be tough for the Lakers to pull off. As they're already well over the salary tax before anything happens with Howard, salaries need to be balanced in any potential deal. That limits the options tremendously.
Additionally, Howard still must agree to the deal, so it's not like the Charlotte Bobcats are suddenly going to burst into contention for his services.
All things considered, there are now three leading options.
Send Howard Across Town
If the Los Angeles Lakers are looking for pure, young talent, it's tough to beat the package that the Los Angeles Clippers could offer them for Dwight Howard.
Per ESPN's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelbourne, two intriguing players could be changing hands in a potential deal:
Sources told ESPN.com the Clippers are concurrently weighing the prospect of offering star forward Blake Griffin in tandem with prized young guard Eric Bledsoe to the Los Angeles Lakers in a sign-and-trade pitch to land Dwight Howard after July 1.
At first glance, this move makes quite a bit of sense for the Purple and Gold. They'd get their paws on one of the league's top point guard prospects, a man who is quickly developing into a highly coveted player, as well as a premier power forward in the Association.
While Griffin's development has indeed slowed down with the Clippers, he's still one of the best power forwards in the league. When I most recently ranked the top 50 players in the Association, Griffin came in at No. 26. The only pure power forwards he trailed were David West and LaMarcus Aldridge, although Kevin Love would have ranked higher had he qualified for the rankings.
Despite his defensive struggles and disappearance at the end of the regular season and the playoffs, the Oklahoma product posted a 22.4 PER during the 2012-13 campaign.
If you're pointing to his per-game numbers, don't think that those mean he's declining already. He just played less because the Clippers were so deep. Griffin's per-minute scoring and rebounding numbers did suffer a bit of a dip, but they were subsequently joined by an increased ability to distribute the ball around in the offense.
Meanwhile, Bledsoe routinely displayed his athletic prowess coming off the bench for LAC, and he's still just 23 years old. He's a solid offensive player, but his true value lies on the other end of the court.
During the 2012-13 season, his third at the professional level, Bledsoe held opposing point guards to a 14.9 PER. According to NBA.com's statistical databases, the Clippers allowed 97.5 points per 100 possessions when the sparkplug came off the bench and 103.2 when he was resting on the pine.
That's a massive difference, and it's even more impressive when you consider who Bledsoe was typically replacing. Chris Paul isn't exactly a defensive slouch. In fact, he was named to the All-Defensive First Team this year.
Bledsoe and Griffin would be tremendous building blocks for Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, and the duo would bring something almost entirely new to the organization: youth. That's almost unheard of for the Lakers these days.
So, what's standing in the way of this happening?
(A) The Clippers must agree to part with two of their most talented players and (B) the Lakers must be willing to help out their fellow Staples Center residents. It's the second part that seems to be causing the most trouble.
Honestly though, let's not even give credence to those rumors by mentioning them here. The same ESPN duo that reported the potential deal has already shot them down:
One source with knowledge of the Lakers' thinking said Saturday that any suggestion they could not philosophically allow themselves to make a major trade with the Clippers was "overblown." If the Clippers do indeed decide to formally offer Griffin and Bledsoe in a sign-and-trade package for Howard, indications are that it's a proposal the Lakers will certainly not dismiss outright.
If the Lakers do decide not to complete a sign-and-trade with the Clippers, it won't be because they're afraid of helping out the team that also calls Tinseltown home. It will be because the package isn't enough to trump the financial flexibility gained by letting Dwight walk.
Ship Howard to Houston
Signing Chris Paul and Dwight Howard would give the Houston Rockets one of the best teams in the NBA, but that's a tough sequence of moves to pull off. Doing so, without the benefit of a sign-and-trade, requires a lot of player movement and creativity, and it seems like a pipe dream at best.
However, a sign-and-trade is possible, and it would ease general manager Daryl Morey's interminable quest for superstars rather significantly. The following comes, once more, from ESPN's Stein and Shelbourne:
The Rockets will have the cap space to sign Howard outright after the expected shedding of Thomas Robinson's contract, but sources say that the Rockets will certainly attempt to convince the Lakers to take in return Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin in a sign-and-trade deal for Howard, thus theoretically keeping alive the possibility that Houston could preserve its cap space to pursue Chris Paul and possibly pair Howard with Paul.
While this is certainly a possibility, in what world is the Jeremy Lin-Omer Asik pairing better than a Griffin-Bledsoe duo?
Asik is quite good at protecting the rim. There's no denying that, especially after the Rockets allowed 5.7 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. Considering the porous defense of the starting backcourt in Houston, that's an impressive figure.
He'd be able to fill the void left by Howard on the defensive end of the court, even if he has no hope of matching D12's offensive prowess.
Additionally, Lin is an interesting chip because during his short NBA career, he's experienced the most success under current Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni. It was under the seven-seconds-or-less inventor that he broke out with the New York Knicks, even if the system run in L.A. is quite different.
While Lin and Asik are both intriguing assets for Kupchak to pursue, you'd have a tough time arguing that they present a better package than Bledsoe and Griffin.
The Rockets still present one of the most likely scenarios for Howard, but it doesn't involve him coming to town via a sign-and-trade with the Lakers.
Just Let Howard Walk
While the idea of a sign-and-trade is being tossed about quite a bit, the most likely scenarios don't involve any swapping of players. Other than the Rockets and the Clippers, no one has the assets and desire necessary to make any discussions worth the Lakers' time.
The Atlanta Hawks have no reason to give up pieces—what few they have—for a chance at D12. Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks don't have the ability to put together a desirable package, as any deal would center around the aging duo of Shawn Marion and Vince Carter.
It's the Rockets, the Clippers or no dice for the Purple and Gold.
Allowing Howard to walk makes the most sense for the Lakers. While they'd lose the league's best big man without getting anything in return, they'd finally clear up some room on the books. That wouldn't appease fans, and it certainly wouldn't do much for the 2013-14 season, but during the 2014 offseason, it would become readily apparent why this was the best option.
If Howard leaves L.A. in free agency and the Lakers don't bring anyone back in return, they're set to pay out only $9.7 million for the 2014-15 season. Steve Nash is literally the one player under contract, although that will certainly change slightly during this offseason when minimum deals are handed out to veterans.
Which is most likely?
The Lakers are shedding a ton of salary, and the process will allow them to avoid the hefty repeater tax they'd otherwise owe during that season. Getting the finances straightened out is a goal of this offseason, so avoiding any additional salaries is a positive for the organization.
For L.A., letting Howard walk is a prime example of addition by subtraction.
It might not be the most glamorous move, and it's certainly not one that would generate the most headlines, but it's the best option. Don't expect to hear "sign-and-trade" included in the inevitable report that details where Howard will be playing ball for the 2013-14 campaign.