Dwight Howard is obviously going to have a major impact wherever he decides to sign. He'll change the finances of a team, mess with the popularity and alter the average age.
Most importantly, he'll alter the chances of winning a championship.
Dwight Howard will meditate on his decision in the mountains or on a ranch near where Phil Jackson gets his Zen on. http://t.co/6CYcCU8gPE— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 3, 2013
With Howard retreating to "get his zen on" and decide what his future holds, a few teams have emerged as the leading suitors. The Los Angeles Lakers are clearly going to play a major part in the proceedings, especially since they laid claim to him before he hit free agency. The Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors have also emerged as hypothetical landing spots.
I'm not even going to bother with the Warriors here, though. They'd need a sign-and-trade to make any sort of deal work, and that's not going to happen.
Let's look at four parts of each team's candidacy: salary considerations, age, chances of winning and a fun number that will come into play.
The Houston Rockets would be offering Dwight Howard a four-year deal worth $88 million, a move they can only make now that they've traded away Thomas Robinson and waived both Aaron Brooks and Carlos Delfino. Given that the CBA allows for a five-percent raise on a previous deal, Dwight is set to make $20,513,178 during the 2013-14 season.
Let's assume that Marko Todorovic doesn't come across the pond for his rookie season, leaving Isaiah Canaan as the only true rookie for the Rockets during the 2013-14 season. The second assumption is that the Murray State product is signed for the minimum rookie salary of $490,180.
That means that Houston would be on the books for $63,241,506 for the 2013-14 season after signing D12. The Rockets would have a bit of room before hitting the expected luxury tax threshold of $71.6 million, and they'd also have 14 players on the roster. It would still be possible to complete a sign-and-trade deal for someone like Josh Smith, sending away Omer Asik—who would now be redundant—in order to stay below the $75.6 million apron.
There isn't much relief coming after the 2013-14 season, though. Only Royce White, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas have club options on their contracts, and Greg Smith is the only player assured of hitting free agency unless he signs an extension before the deadline.
The average player on the Houston roster, even after signing Howard, would be right around 23. That's a remarkably young squad, and D12 would be the oldest player on the team.
As a reference point, Howard won't turn 28 until December. He'd replace Omer Asik, presumably on the roster in general, and certainly as the oldest member of the Rockets.
Houston wouldn't have much veteran leadership, which could be problematic for a team hoping to rise into a champion, but some of the players do have a great deal of experience. Harden and Howard have both played in the NBA Finals, though neither came out on top.
Chances of Winning
Houston finished with a 45-37 record during the 2012-13 season, earning a playoff spot in the brutal Western Conference before bowing out against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Thanks to the remarkable play of the bearded shooting guard, the Rockets overachieved all season. It wasn't a fluky campaign, but it was one that defied logical expectations going into the year. With Howard, low expectations wouldn't be a possibility.
This roster didn't lose any truly crucial parts, and adding Dwight would certainly give Daryl Morey the final piece that he is seeking. Adding Josh Smith, as well, would boost Houston's title chances, but there would be a realistic possibility of a championship even without J-Smoove in Rocket red.
Fun Number: 1.354 billion
That's the most recently confirmed population of China, the most populous nation in the world.
Basketball has been rising in popularity there, and there's a massive Houston fanbase thanks to the affiliation of Yao Ming with the Rockers organization. He was a part of the free-agent pitch to Howard, and he still has enough ties to Houston that China tends to support the team.
This city in Texas may not be the most high-profile market in America, but it has a gigantic global fanbase that could make Howard's jersey a worldwide bestseller before too long.
Los Angeles Lakers
We're going to make the same assumptions here that were made about Houston, giving Ryan Kelly a minimum deal as a second-round draft pick and Howard the maximum $20,513,178 during the 2013-14 season.
Additionally, let's say that Robert Sacre doesn't receive any free-agent offers, and his cheerleading skills return to the Los Angeles Lakers for the qualifying offer of $988,872.
After the Lakers declined to give qualifying offers to Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock and Devin Ebanks, Chris Duhon was waived, Jodie Meeks picked up his player option and Metta World Peace declined to use his early termination option, L.A. has nine players on the roster to deal with before doing anything with Howard.
If D12 signed for that max deal, L.A. would already be on the books for $97,873,265.
General manager Mitch Kupchak would have to use the taxpayer's exception and minimum deals to sign the remaining five guys necessary to complete the roster, and it would be nearly impossible to add any more quality players.
Even using the amnesty clause on World Peace wouldn't help much.
Fortunately, things clear up after the 2013-14 season. With Kobe Bryant's massive contract expiring, as well as just about everyone else's, L.A. would only owe Howard and Steve Nash money going into the loaded free-agency period of 2014.
The Lakers should be able to avoid the hefty repeater's tax in 2014-15, but they're set for a massive luxury tax bill during the upcoming campaign, even if Dwight isn't brought back.
If the Houston Rockets are young with Dwight Howard, the Los Angeles Lakers are old. Really, really old.
Howard would actually be one of the younger players on this team, as Kobe, Pau Gasol, Nash, World Peace and Steve Blake are all older than he is. That puts him in the more youthful half of the current roster, which doesn't bode well for the Lakers' in terms of injury avoidance during the 2013-14 season.
At least they all have plenty of experience.
Chances of Winning
The 2012-13 season was an unmitigated disaster for the Purple and Gold.
Chemistry issues reared their ugly head over and over again. There were coaching changes, constant "restarts" of the season, far too many injuries and overall chaos. Yet the Lakers still managed to use a second-half surge to finish 45-37 before getting knocked out handily by the San Antonio Spurs.
The major pieces would still be in place, assuming Kobe's Achilles tendon returns to full strength and the rest stay healthy this time around.
Just as was the case last year, the Lakers have championship potential. They just have to avoid that pesky little injury imp and build more chemistry.
Fun Number: 16
The Lakers have won 16 NBA titles (17 total titles if you count an NBL title before the formation of the current Association). Only the Boston Celtics have won more, much to the chagrin of those wearing purple and gold.
This is being drilled into Howard's head, as is the number of Hall of Famers the Lakers have produced. If he can help the Lakers tie their rival's championship tally, he'll be immortal.
It's hard to walk through the Staples Center and avoid seeing the banners.
We've already established what Dwight Howard's salary would be during the 2013-14 season, but the Dallas Mavericks have two rookies to worry about as well. We can give Ricky Ledo the minimum deal, since he was a second-round draft pick, but that won't work for Shane Larkin, who was selected at No. 18 after the Mavs moved back in the draft.
According to Spotrac.com's contract projections, the former University of Miami guard will be making $1,536,960 during his first season at the professional level.
After declining to extend qualifying offers to a number of free agents, Dallas now has eight players under contract for the 2013-14 campaign. Howard would make it nine.
With the big man on board, the Mavericks are on the books for $59,872,936. They'd still have a little bit of flexibility before hitting the luxury tax threshold, but the expenditures are already great enough that they'd need to target veterans who are willing to accept small contracts.
That all changes in 2014, when Howard, Jae Crowder and Gal Mekel would be the only players under contract.
If the Lakers are old, so too are the Mavericks.
Their star player, Dirk Nowitzki, is 35 years old, and amazingly enough, he's actually younger than both Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, who both also qualify for... veteran status. Don't be surprised if this team gets sponsored by AARP during the 2013-14 season.
Howard would bring down the average age of the squad, but it may rise again as the Mavs look to fill out the roster with more ring-chasing veterans.
Shane Larkin is the team's best shot (not in terms of physical stature) at having a truly youthful contributor, meaning that the title window is already closing.
Chances of Winning
The Mavericks struggled to remain afloat during the 2012-13 season, making a late season comeback after Dirk returned from his offseason surgery. They grew out beards that gained more and more length as a .500 record loomed in the horizon.
Ultimately, the players were all able to shave, but they couldn't take part in the postseason.
Adding Howard would give some immediate relief to the organization, but it's tough to see the Mavs having enough pieces to truly compete. With the title window shutting quickly as Nowitzki adds wear and tear to his tires, that's problematic.
It's this year or bust for the Dirk era, and this year doesn't look too promising.
Fun Number: 2.4 billion
The entrepreneur now commonly associated with "Shark Tank" has been one of the more outspoken owners in the NBA for a while now. He loves making headlines, but he has an even bigger passion for winning basketball games.
Dwight could rest assured in Dallas knowing that he has an owner who will do whatever it takes. Cliche as that may be, it's true for Cuban. If he has to go into the luxury tax or skirt the line between tampering and legal business transactions, he'll do it.
Often, ownership that cares that much can have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the organization.
The Atlanta Hawks have so much financial flexibility that tanking for Andrew Wiggins is still a distinct possibility if general manager Danny Ferry can't land Dwight Howard. But let's say he does reel in the biggest free agent in the pool.
If so, the Hawks would have 10 players under contract, assuming the rookies signed and all non-guaranteed contracts were kept. It would be foolhardy to include Jeff Teague in the equation because his qualifying offer won't fly. The restricted free agent could be brought back after the Hawks match an inevitable offer sheet, but we can't include him in the calculations yet.
Lucas Nogueira and Dennis Schroeder must be considered, though.
According to Spotrac.com's salary projections, they'll make $1,703,040 and $1,617,840 during their respective rookie seasons.
With those two and Howard added to the mix, the Hawks are on the books for $47,436,873. With the salary cap expected to fall in around $58.5 million, Atlanta would still be able to sign one more high-level piece before filling out the roster.
Things don't clear up much more for Ferry and Co. in 2014, as John Jenkins, Jared Cunningham, Shelvin Mack and Mike Scott are the only players who can be released from their contracts. Then again, they already have an insane level of flexibility.
The Atlanta Hawks are another young team, unlike the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers. Of the players currently on the roster, only four guys were even born in the '80s.
DeShawn Stevenson (32) is the eldest member of the team, and Al Horford (27) comes in as the second oldest guy.
This will likely change during the free agency period as Atlanta stockpiles veteran players who are willing to take pay cuts for a shot at playoff glory (if Howard signs) or playing time (if he doesn't). But, right now, this is quite a youthful collection of players.
Chances of Winning
Atlanta was a solid playoff team during the 2012-13 season, going 44-38 to earn the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. They bowed out in the first round thanks to the Indiana Pacers, but this wasn't exactly supposed to be a strong season for the Hawks.
It's also a bit irrelevant, as the entire roster is changing this offseason. Ferry's entire goal when he signed with the Hawks was to deal for expiring contracts, all with the hopes of landing a major star to circumvent the typical rebuilding process during the 2013 summer.
Howard would do the trick, and he'd immediately give this Atlanta squad a terrific shot at playing winning basketball. A D12-Horford frontcourt would be terrifying for opponents, especially when surrounded by solid long-range shooters.
Fun Number: 15,125
Only the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Hornets, Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks had a lower average attendance at home games during the 2012-13 season, according to ESPN.com. Philips Arena drew 15,125 people to the average home game, which is a number far too low for a playoff team.
It wasn't uncommon to hear MVP chants for opposing players during Hawks games, and that's never a good sign.
Howard would immediately change this.
Horford is a great player, but he's not a glamorous one. Josh Smith could have been a crowd-drawer, but he was too inconsistent and frustrating. Atlanta hasn't had a marketable superstar—superstar, not star—for a long time.
That said, the most important number for the Hawks, just as it is for the other teams vying for Howard's service, is 20,513,178.
If that number appears on the books for the Hawks, Rockets, Lakers or Mavericks, it means that they get to boast the services of the league's best center during the 2013-14 season.