Let Dwightmare Part II: No Take-Backs, begin.
For the better part of two years, Dwight Howard has been a source of controversy. From his constant flip-flopping to his unceremonious escape from the Orlando Magic to his turbulent inaugural campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers, he's been the center of the attention no one in the NBA should crave.
Now this. Free agency. One more decision for him to make. And then this will all be over for three to five years, depending on his next contract.
Who will Howard choose between this time?
Barring something unforeseen—which history tells us we can't discount—per Alex Kennedy of Hoopsworld, Howard is slated to meet with the Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Lakers.
He'll be evaluating his suitors from a number of different perspectives. Actually, strike that...just one.
According to Dave McMenamin and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles, Howard only cares about winning at this point. It doesn't matter who's coaching (insert Lakers fans' sigh of relief here) or how sexy their nightclub scene is—as long as the team is prepared to contend and win.
Lone parameter in mind, Howard will embark on an introspective journey with only one destination.
Atlanta is flush with cap space and a star power forward-turned-center in Al Horford. Together they could form a menacing duo capable of wreaking havoc in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, not only is Atlanta the furthest thing from appealing, it's a team that Howard hasn't expressed a strong desire to play for.
Teaming up with Chris Paul on the Hawks is one thing, but that's not going to happen after the Los Angeles Clippers brought in Doc Rivers. Atlanta can still sell Howard on Jeff Teague, Horford and perhaps show an inclination to retain Josh Smith, though. That's bound to catch Howard's attention in some way.
Frontcourt dominance isn't everything. The Memphis Grizzlies fared well this past season, but they ultimately traded away their third member (Rudy Gay). Howard could also ask the New York Knicks how the combination of Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony has worked out.
These are different players and the Hawks are a different team, but it's difficult to imagine that frontcourt legitimately contending for a title. Their title odds go way down if Smith isn't there, either.
Mark Cuban's Mavericks are an intriguing fit.
Dirk Nowitzki is still a star who can score from anywhere on the floor and, therefore, limit the amount of double-teams Howard sees. And should the Mavericks be able to net Rajon Rondo in the process—which they may do, according to Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe—their ceiling extends far beyond what most in Dallas currently imagine.
Except the Mavs don't have Rondo, and there's no guarantee they get him. And Dirk is 35—there's no guarantee he stays healthy or continues to play at a high level, either. Dallas hasn't been successful in its recent free-agent endeavors. Deron Williams felt slighted by Cuban and friends last summer, and whether they truly wanted him or not doesn't matter; they were still left to piece together a roster with odds and ends that wasn't good enough to make the playoffs.
Further, Howard, Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were barely enough to make the postseason this past year in L.A. Who's to say Dwight and Dirk will be enough in Big D next season? In Dallas, there are no guarantees.
Cuban and Dirk have a plan. One that begins with Howard, advances through a willingly accepted pay-cut by Nowitzki, and ends with the Mavs creating the latest super-team.
Unlike just about every other team on this list, though (save for the Lakers), the Mavs don't have that superstar to appeal to Howard. Unless he's enamored by the idea of potentially winding up with the Magic 2.0 in the near future, his chances of winning a title in Dallas aren't as high as one would like to believe.
And most certainly not as high as Dirk and Cuban will try to make Howard believe.
Golden State Warriors
Pairing Dwight Howard with Stephen Curry and his band of sharpshooting youngsters would be a great fit for Howard. The best there is, actually. I'm dead serious about that.
It's just not a realistic fit.
Golden State has close to $71 million on the books leading into next season. Any Howard acquisition begins and ends with a sign-and-trade. The Warriors aren't about to give up Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, or even Harrison Barnes, which means the Lakers would be left to accept some version of a package built around David Lee or Andrew Bogut and a slew of randoms (for lack of a better word).
Lee's contract would throw off Los Angeles' free-agency aspirations in 2014, and though Bogut's is expiring, are the Lakers about to foot a more expensive luxury tax bill for a center they likely won't keep for more than a year?
Say the Warriors agree to trade some of their young cornerstones, though. What then? Well, Golden State's appeal suffers exponentially.
Part of the Warriors' allure is the amount of shooters they have. Curry, Barnes and Thompson, among others, stretch opposing defenses so thin that Howard will see more single coverage than he has his entire career. Just imagining what Howard could do one-on-one or what his three-point-inclined teammates can do off his double-teams sends a tremor down the back of my spine.
Now, back to reality.
Again, moving any combination of Thompson or Barnes in addition to any others (assume Curry is untouchable) takes away from that dynamic. I won't go as far as to suggest it cripples it, but it hurts it considerably.
Like Howard-and-Curry-might-not-be-enough-contend considerably.
If you think the Rockets are a bad fit for Howard, I understand. Omer Asik and Howard do not fit together. The former cannot play power forward and would need to be moved, so I feel any detractors there.
Everything else, however, seems like a good fit.
James Harden is the top-10 talent Howard has never played next to outside of All-Star games, and Chandler Parsons drills threes like the NBA will fine him for hitting twos. Even Jeremy Lin's adequate pick-and-roll initiation would be a valuable commodity next to Howard.
Adding Superman to this equation—with the hope Houston can move Asik or is willing to pay him to warm the bench—just makes sense. The Rockets will become a Western Conference power overnight, leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to rue the day they helped create it by trading Harden.
Truth be told, there's not much to hate about this scenario. My biggest issue would be the summer of 2014, when Lin and Asik's contracts would prohibit the Rockets from joining that dance party.
If Houston cannot move both Lin and Asik before then, their odds of giving Harden and Howard a third superstar to run with are next to nothing. Parsons could develop into one, but that's a lot of faith to place in a former second-round pick.
Still, this can easily be construed as the best option out there. Superstar dyads of this magnitude are difficult to orchestrate. Any time you have the opportunity to place two top-10 talents next to each other, multiple championships are a possibility.
How long it would take the Rockets to push that limit, if they can at all, remains to be seen.
Los Angeles Lakers
Pretending the Lakers are perfect is futile. But portraying them as some hapless and mangled version of a forever lottery-bound team is ridiculous.
Sure, they're old. And yes, Kobe Bryant is working his way back from a ruptured Achilles. But their championship potential matches that of the Rockets, at the very least. A quartet of Gasol, Nash, Kobe and Dwight will contend when healthy. You remove Pau from that equation with the amnesty clause, and you still have a borderline contender.
Yet this isn't about next season specifically. It's about every year after that.
Los Angeles is poised to be a major player in next year's free-agent market. The Lakers will be able to chase LeBron James and whoever else they please even if they re-sign Howard. Nash is the only other contract on the docket for that season, and assuming Kobe still wants to play, he should be able to be brought back at a substantial discount.
That leaves the Lakers space to sign another superstar. Or maybe even two. With Howard as their primary sales pitch, Mitch Kupchak and Co. can sell LeBron and other prospective targets on a whole host of attractions.
Who says no to that? Seriously, any player who is willing to make a change will have to think long and hard about that proposition, LeBron included. Of course, there's zero guarantee the Lakers get LeBron or anyone else. History tells us they'll get someone, though. It also tells us they're willing to do whatever it takes, at whatever the cost to win.
That's the kind of resources and dedication from which dynasties are built.
It's tough, but we're going with the Lakers (insert public dissatisfaction here), with the rankings going like so:
The Mavs and Hawks don't present opportunities as good as the other three. And though I'll be the first to admit the Warriors as is plus one Dwight Howard would be an incredible outfit, someone needs to explain to me how he gets there without breaking up a large chunk of their young talent.
Really, it comes down to the Rockets and Lakers. Houston offers Howard a better opportunity to win next season, I get that. Harden and Howard would form a prolific duo capable of making it to the Western Conference Finals, maybe even further.
Beyond next season, though, I like the Lakers.
Every team offers its own dose of mystery moving forward. Equipped with Howard, the Lakers have the highest ceiling. Past precedence propels them past what the Rockets have to offer. Los Angeles is going to have mountains of cap space in 2014, and the Lakers have a knack for landing on their feet and then some no matter the situation (see the Howard trade itself).
Just like we can't ignore all the Rockets, Warriors and the rest of the teams have to offer, we can't ignore that the Lakers seem to always get the job done. Kobe has five championship rings to prove it—the same glimmering pieces of hardware Howard desperately wants.