Evaluating Dwight Howard’s current free agent options

Dwight Howard has escaped all the talk surrounding his pending free agency, spending last week at Lake Tahoe where he fished, rode dune buggies and hung out in a cabin. It sure beats laboring through a surgically repaired back and partially torn labrum in his right shoulder. Or hearing scrutiny from Kobe Bryant and the media alike. Or fighting through persisting double teams. Or missing free throws.

But just like it us for all of us when we see a huge inbox of unread emails the day we return from work, Howard will have to tackle one unsettling question. Where he will play next season?

A source familiar with Howard’s thought process told me last week that he’s currently considering the Lakers, the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors. But knowing that a more than a month awaits before he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, that list could change. Whether Howard narrows the list or keeps adding on potential suitors remains to be seen. But we at least have a general idea on where Howard might end up.


Pros: It seems downright offensive the Lakers would need to tick off reasons to convince Howard to stay. After all, they’re the keeper of 16 NBA championships, some of the all-time greatest NBA players (Magic, West, Kobe) and centers (Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, Shaq) and they’re in the land of perfect sunny skies, beaches and Hollywood.

So even if Howard’s first season with the Lakers consisted of injuries (back, shoulder), philosophical and personality clashes (Kobe Bryant, Mike D’Antoni) and scrutiny (media and teammates alike), there’s plenty that should appeal to Howard. The Lakers are setting him up to be the franchise’s next cornerstone along with a five-year, $118 million price tag no other team can match. Howard’s hope to tap into the entertainment industry will only help if he wears purple and gold. And even if there’s uncertainty in the post Jerry Buss era and punitive luxury taxes on the rise, the Lakers are maintaining they’ll still spend the necessary goods to ensure championship success.

Cons: Forget about the Lakers’ tradition, the money and the endless scrutiny Howard would receive if he left two teams in two consecutive seasons. There’s very little the Lakers showed this season that should appeal to Howard.

They passed up Phil Jackson for Mike D’Antoni, who both rarely featured Howard enough inside and had the patience to understand Howard’s physical limitations. The Lakers field an aging roster, making it both impossible for the Lakers to keep up with older teams and for giving Howard the necessary defensive support. And with the late Jerry Buss’ passing, the Lakers haven’t showed any clarity whether the partnership between Jim Buss (overseing player personnel) and Jeanie Buss (overseeing business operations) could carry the same success that ensured the Lakers winning 10 of their 16 NBA championships with their father running the show.

Dallas Mavericks

Pros: The Mavericks are not too far removed from their 2011 NBA title and they have an owner in Mark Cuban who’s made enough moves to shore up enough cap space to shore up a high profile free agent this offseason. There’s also promising signs that Dirk Nowitzki is reportedly willing to take a pay cut once his contract expires next season and that Dallas may trade their No. 13 pick for stronger talent.  Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has also compiled a proven track record in knowing how to maintain strong relationships with his superstars. That quality, coupled with his history in expanding Jermaine O’Neal’s post-game in Indiana, should convince Howard that he would blossom down in Texas.
The experience would amount to a four-year, $87.6 million deal, like all other teams. But Howard could enjoy this experience without paying any state income taxes for all the Mavericks’ home games.

Cons: The Mavericks have yet to benefit from Cuban’s long-term plan following their title run in clearing cap space for younger and better talent while remaining under the salary cap. Of course, landing Howard would solidify Cuban’s forward thinking approach. Even with Nowitzki and Shawn Marion complementing Howard, that may not give him the best chance to win an NBA title in the near future.

Houston Rockets

Pros: The Rockets have several things the Lakers don’t have. They have young talent and strong athleticism in James Harden, Chandler Parson and Jeremy Lin. Houston’s head coach Kevin McHale is also considered one of the craftiest low-post players in NBA history, and the former Celtics standout may know a thing or two about maximizing Howard’s inside game. For a team that nearly gave the Oklahoma City Thunder fits in the first round of the NBA playoffs, Howard’s arrival would coincide with Houston making a likely deep postseason push in years to come.

Cons: OK, so Howard won’t have to pay state income tax here for all home games. But what’s to like about Houston besides the humidity, smog and bad traffic? Los Angeles may have the two latter problems too, but that city offsets it with beautiful beaches and the Hollywood nightlife.

More importantly, some of Howard’s frustrations with the Lakers won’t disappear in Houston. Howard disliked running pick-and-rolls so much. Too bad the Rockets’ offense primarily centers on that. Howard lamented Bryant shooting so much. Too bad Harden remains a high-volume shooter too. Even if Rockets general manager Daryl Morey remain one of the best in the business, Houston would need to make significant payroll slashings in order to sign Howard to a max contract. All of these issues are correctible, but there could be an adjustment period.

Golden State Warriors

Pros: The Warriors had pursued Howard before during the original “Dwightmare,” but they were treated as mere afterthoughts. Now they’re like the guy who spent the past year shedding 30-plus pounds and changing his wardrobe. Suddenly, there’s interest. So it’s hardly surprising Howard likes Golden State. They have young-and-upcoming talent and a whole lot of athleticism with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. Warriors coach Mark Jackson has bought his players to buy into his philosophies, aided by his positive reinforcement, player background and superior speaking skills. The Warriors, which lost to the Spurs in six games in the Western Conference semifinals, also play for each other.

Whether this is feasible or not remains to be seen. The Warriors are over-the-cap and could only acquire Howard through a sign-and-trade, something the Lakers haven’t indicated they would do. But Howard would give the Warriors a critical piece needed to further their playoff run. He’s more talented and healthier than Andrew Bogut. The Warriors would likely adjust their offense that centers on perimeter shooting in Curry and Thompson to cater to Howard. Jackson’s personality would appeal to Howard, providing a drastic difference to how D’Antoni coached him.

Cons: At what cost should the Warriors even consider doing this? Golden State would have to return $20 million worth of salary to the Lakers. Different scenarios may require  the Warriors to give up Bogut, forward David Lee, Barnes or Thompson, if not more. Why would the Lakers help a Division rival and vice versa? The Lakers haven’t shied away from that in the past (see Lamar Odom to Dallas). But that’s a significant hurdle to climb considering the Lakers currently remain insistent on trying to re-sign Howard.

There’s also questions about how Howard would fit in. He’s still the best center in the NBA when healthy. But will Howard enhance the Warriors’ chemistry or stifle it? How will he handle the brevy of perimeter shooters attempting 3-pointers instead of passing him the ball?

Atlanta Hawks

Pros: Let the nostalgia kick in. Howard would return to his hometown where he’d have a strong network of friends and family. He would team up with Josh Smith (assuming he’s re-signed) after playing together in their AAU days. The Hawks have cleared up enough cap space both to secure Howard and another play for max money. This could just what the Hawks need in building off their six consecutive playoff appearances.

Cons: Howard will listen to Atlanta’s pitch, but this scenario sounds unlikely. The Hawks have $36 million guaranteed to center Al Horford for the next three years. Atlanta has made attempts with Orlando in the past to acquire Howard, and nothing ever materialized.

Verdict: Howard has every right to take his time during the free agency process and weigh all his decisions. A source familiar with his thought process said Howard’s main concern involves “what team he feels has the best chance to win championships, has the best team and system around him.” The source also stressed Howard has not and will not ask the Lakers to make any moves on his behalf.

Based on that framework, Howard’s future with the Lakers remains unclear. But it’s possible for the Lakers to match that criteria. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has struck a good relationship with Howard by publicly supporting him, though he still has defended D’Antoni. Based on the Lakers’ 28-12 record to close out the season, D’Antoni showed more willingness to feature Howard more inside. And even if Howard went through plenty of ups and downs this first season, this hardly seems out of the ordinary. Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal fielded endless scrutiny in their first years with the Lakers when they didn’t initially win an NBA championship.

Whether Howard thinks the same way remains to be seen. But that’s his decision to make.


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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@dailynews.com