Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal have a lot in common: both centers, both No. 1 overall picks by the Orlando Magic, and both physically dominant and athletically superior.
There's another important thing they have in common.
They will have both left the Magic entering their prime after losing in the NBA Finals.
Howard, 25 and in his seventh season, is apparently ready to leave the Magic. He is owed just over $34 million through next season, after which, he has a player option worth $19.2 million to stay with Orlando or sign elsewhere as a free agent.
Howard is so physically dominant and impactful, that half of the league will come running once a serious announcement about his availability comes out of Orlando.
Not everyone has the means or clout to woo him; however, as only several teams would truly be threats to land him.
It is very early in the game, too early to handicap odds or pick favorites. It is not too early to conjecture the several possibilities for a Howard signing, though. I won't bother with fanciful stretched out ideas about where Howard could go; these are ones that are the most likely in the real world of the NBA.
Here are five favorites to land Howard, provided that he opts for free agency in the summer of 2012 or gets traded before then.
There has been a lot of talk surrounding the Knicks getting either Deron Williams or Chris Paul to join Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire within the next two years. I think there's a better option that would shore up some of the Knicks' deficiencies.
Terminate Chauncey Billups' $14.2 million deal for next season, re-sign him for half that amount because of his age and declining skills, then focus on luring Howard after the 2012 season.
Let's say the Knicks restructure Chauncey's contract for $7 million a year and that Ronny Turiaf doesn't exercise his $4.3 million player option. That leaves the Knicks with six players under contract at just $41 million.
Now, let's say that they sign Howard to a $20 million/year deal and exceed their current $67 million payroll by another $10 million. That gives them Amare, Melo and DH12, plus Andy Rautins, Landry Fields, Toney Douglas and Renaldo Balkman for roughly $61 million.
James Dolan would have an extra $16 million to fill in the seven or so roster spots around a superstar trio that gives "The Heatles," all it can handle. Plus, the Knicks biggest weakness—defense—gets a huge boost by adding the two-time Defensive Player of the Year to the lineup.
Forget the cap hit of Chris Paul or Deron Williams; Chauncey fits the team fine and allows the Knicks to get Howard.
This all depends on whether Tim Duncan decides to retire after 2012, when he will be 36-years-old. It's not a matter of whether or not the Spurs re-sign him or not; if he wants to continue, the Spurs will make him an offer—guaranteed.
Tim will refuse to play anywhere but with his Spurs, and the Spurs won't let him play for any other team.
If Duncan retires, the Spurs will have Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Matt Bonner, George Hill and DeJuan Blair for roughly $43 million.
There is no better time to make a big splash in free agency than on the heels of Tim Duncan's retirement. The Spurs could do it at $63 million in payroll with room to sign role players and their typically golden draft picks.
The Spurs are great defensively right now. Can you imagine them with a 27-year-old Dwight Howard bounding around the paint and blocking shots?
The Rockets and Howard could only really be joined by trade next season. The Rockets have six players with team options for 2012-2013, only one or two (Chase Budinger), of which might be picked up.
After presumably extending a qualifying offer to Courtney Lee for $3.2 million, the Rockets will have their six core players (Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Brad Miller, Courtney Lee, Budinger and Kyle Lowry) for just $37 million.
Yao will not be re-signed after this season, so the Rockets will need to replace his size soon. Trading a bunch of expiring contracts to Orlando at next season's trade deadline would give Orlando immense relief from the disaster that is their salary cap figure.
The Rockets have one of the highest player turnover rates in the NBA, always trading and shuffling new players in and out. Trading for Howard would give them a new rock to build on in the wake of Yao's inevitable and regrettable retirement.
Will Nene re-sign with Denver? The future of Dwight Howard could depend on such a question.
If Nene doesn't get an extension from the Nuggets, the team will enter 2012-2013 with just $22 million in payroll.
Will the Nuggets offload Timofey Mozgov and Chris Andersen to make space for Howard at center? The prospects of Dwight joining the Nuggets depends on this question as well.
Even with a ton of money to throw at Howard, the Nuggets don't have any space to put him in because of the three bigs they would already have.
You can buy as many Ferrari's as you want, but if you only have a three car garage, they're going to have to sit outside.
The Nuggets have incredible flexibility going forward, so I imagine that retooling the roster would not be difficult to do, should they pursue Howard?
I'm not going to bother with salary and payroll numbers here. The Lakers are in the worst cap situation in the league at a current $91 million, which is roughly $36 million over the cap.
This is the most likely destination for Howard because the Lakers are the team he wants to play for, and LA is the city he wants to play in.
If Dwight Howard wants to play for a team, that team will make it happen, financials be damned.
It's not like the Lakers and Dr. Buss are hurting for money, and its not like they're tight with the pocketbook.
Imagine Hollywood Howard donning the purple and gold in a lineup featuring Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom at point forward in 18 months. That team should just get the trophy on opening night instead of waiting until June.
If he joins the Lakers like he reportedly desires, there's another way that Dwight Howard will be just like Shaq.