Dwight Howard's image will vacillate long after he's decided whether he wants to leave the Los Angeles Lakers, and the decision he makes will have a major impact on where it eventually settles.
It's hard to remember now, but Howard was once one of the more popular players in the NBA.
Before his falling out with the Orlando Magic, his athletic play, performance in the Slam Dunk Contest, constant goofiness and the ear-to-ear grin that never left his face made him into a fan favorite. It was nonsensical to hate Dwight.
But after the messy ending in Florida, the Dwightmare of last summer and a remarkably disappointing season with the Lake Show, Howard's stock fell faster than the market in mid-September, 1929.
Now, the smiling face of the center position has become a stomach-churning one, synonymous with indecisiveness and immaturity. But eventually Howard will have to make a choice once more.
If he leaves the Lakers, he'll either go to the Golden State Warriors (not a chance), Atlanta Hawks (dream on), Dallas Mavericks (a possibility) or Houston Rockets (solid chance). Let's take a look at what each location would do for his image.
With the Golden State Warriors
Let's just get this out of the way first: The Golden State Warriors are not going to end up with Dwight Howard.
Even if D12 comes out of the mountains and proclaims that he'd like to become the newest member of the Warriors organization, it will not matter. He would have to join the Dubs via a sign-and-trade, which the Lakers will not do.
Period. End of story.
But, just for the sake of the argument, let's say that Golden State does manage to wrest Howard away from the Lakers. Somehow, even though it's pretty clear that the presumed Andrew Bogut and Klay Thompson/Harrison Barnes deal wouldn't fly.
This would immediately become one of the easier situations for Howard's image to thrive in. He'd be joining a team America fell in love with during last season's playoffs.
Although they're quickly becoming a powerful team in the Western Conference, especially as Barnes and Thompson continue to develop, the Warriors remain the underdogs that draw a ton of rooting interest.
Maybe it's the nature of the team, given the lack of recent success. Maybe it's Stephen Curry's face, one that makes him look like he should be suiting up for a middle-school team. Maybe it's Mark Jackson pacing up and down the sidelines and motivating his players during huddles.
Whatever it is, the Dubs are a likable squad. Championships wouldn't be expected, simply because it doesn't seem feasible for the current version of Golden State to win titles.
After all, what's gone right for this franchise over the past few decades, other than a couple playoff upsets?
The sight of Curry throwing alley-oops to D12 would also help his image out tremendously.
Verdict: Image easily rebounds to pre-L.A. levels.
With the Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks would present the most difficult challenge for Dwight Howard in terms of maintaining his image.
Championships would be immediately expected, but they'd be awfully difficult to come by. That's the price you pay when boasting the services of Dirk Nowitzki and a championship banner signifying a win that is quite fresh in the memories of many NBA fans.
2011 wasn't that long ago.
However, how exactly do you plan on winning another title if you're the Mavs? I fail to see the long-term plan, or even the short-term one, for that matter.
If Dallas signed Dwight for a max deal, Mark Cuban's organization would be on the books for approximately $60 million, assuming that it paid the incoming first-year players—Ricky Ledo and Shane Larkin—salaries typical for rookies in their respective draft spots. The squad would prominently feature Dirk, Dwight, the declining shells of Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, the aforementioned rookies and some roster-fillers.
There isn't the cap space necessary for another big move, and that ain't a championship-caliber roster.
Things change during the 2014 offseason, when Dwight, Ledo, Larkin, Gal Mekel and Jae Crowder (club option) are literally the only players under contract. Dallas would re-sign Nowitzki to a much cheaper deal, but there's still no guarantee (A) that superstars come flocking to the Mavericks or (B) there's chemistry if they do.
Winning a championship is a difficult task for even the most stacked teams, and it's hard to see the Mavericks working their way into that category, especially as old age forces Dirk into an inevitable downward spiral.
Yet the expectations would still remain should Howard come to Dallas.
Verdict: Image can't survive.
With the Atlanta Hawks
If Dwight Howard signed with the Atlanta Hawks, completely spurning the more reasonable suitors and bucking the odds for the allure of his hometown, he'd do a great service to the intactness of his image.
Hawks fans are notoriously bad at showing up for home games.
According to ESPN, only 15,125 people showed up to the average contest in Atlanta, thereby filling up just 80.8 percent of Philips Arena. That leaves the Hawks ranked 26th in average attendance and 23rd in percentage of the stadium filled.
Those aren't numbers becoming of a playoff squad.
It wasn't that uncommon to hear MVP chants ringing from the rafters in The Highlight Factory. Problem was, they usually came from the opposing team's fans who filled up the stands and tried their darnedest to drown out the home crowd.
This would change as soon as Howard put on a Hawks jersey.
The big man is from Atlanta, and he went to prep school at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. According to Google Maps, that's only a 22-minute drive from Philips Arena. His local flair would immediately convert Hawks fans, especially since he'd be the first marketable superstar the franchise could lay claim to in recent memory.
A championship would be gravy. The Hawks would be relevant once more, both to the entire NBA and to the fanbase.
Verdict: Image and smile are both trending in the right direction.
With the Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets remain the most logical landing spot for Dwight if he chooses to leave the Purple and Gold behind, and they also present us with the most confusing interpretation of what would happen to his image.
On one hand, D12 would be held to a high standard if he joined the Rockets.
He'd be pairing up with James Harden and a deep roster that is fully capable of competing for a title. Although Houston was going up against a Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder squad, it still looked to be just one piece shy during the postseason.
The bearded shooting guard is a top-10 player in this league, as is Howard when he's healthy. Chandler Parsons is on the rise, Omer Asik is a defensive stud, and there are countless young players with potential under Daryl Morey's supervision.
If the Rockets, assuming Howard is brought on board, don't truly compete for a championship, even in the big man's first season with his new squad, it will be a disappointment.
The bar is set higher here than anywhere else—excluding L.A., of course—but that doesn't mean he can't reach it.
Houston doesn't have much cap relief coming at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season, and Morey couldn't be a major player during the star-filled free-agency period coming next summer. However, the roster is already primed for success, and the team is young enough that it will only get better.
Where will Dwight Howard end up?
Howard won't turn 28 until December, but he'd be the oldest player for Houston. That should say a lot about the team's long-term chances, especially as the Rockets would already be considered one of the favorites in the Western Conference.
Verdict: Image is in flux, with chances to go either way.
Image is almost certainly a major criterion in Dwight's decision-making process. Of the four teams he could choose—other than the Lakers—two present him with the opportunity to have a positive image. The outlook for one doesn't look so good, and the Rockets are still up in the air.
How much of a factor this will be remains in flux as well, but we'll find out before too long.