Reports of last night's meeting between Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic brass provided the latest twist in what has become an increasingly prolonged saga. According to Jarrod Rudolph of RealGM, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, and others, Howard reiterated his trade request and told GM Rob Hennigan and other Magic execs that he has no intention of signing another contract with the Magic, even if it means giving up about $25MM+ in guaranteed money on his next deal.
Howard would reportedly accept a trade to the Lakers in the short-term, would like to be dealt to the Nets in the longer-term, and would be interested in signing with the Mavericks next summer. But which team is the frontrunner to have D12 on its roster a year from now? Let's run through a few of the possibilities, breaking down what would have to happen for Howard to end up with each team:
Howard's reported statements about not re-signing in Orlando sound pretty convincing, but it's hard to forget all the flip-flopping he did at this year's trade deadline, before he eventually waived the early termination option on his contract. Who's to say Dwight won't change his mind again within the next 12 months?
If the Magic keep the star center all season, they'll have the advantage of being able to offer him a five-year, maximum-salary contract with 7.5% raises, rather than the four-year deal with 4.5% annual raises that other teams could offer. As we saw with Deron Williams this summer, it's rare to see players giving up that much money on the free agent market.
Still, it's hard to imagine the Magic taking that chance. They'd be better off taking 50 cents on the dollar for Howard this offseason or at the trade deadline rather than risking letting him walk for nothing next summer.
Despite taking themselves out of the running until January by re-signing Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries to new contracts, the Nets still appear to have a decent shot at Howard. If Dwight is still in Orlando on January 15th, when both Humphries and Lopez will be eligible to be traded, you'd have to think Brooklyn would again become the favorite in the Howard sweepstakes.
If the Nets are going to acquire Howard though, it'll have to be in that small window between January 15th and the February trade deadline. Poised to be well over the luxury-tax threshold next summer, the Nets will be ineligible to sign-and-trade for Howard, and won't have the cap space to sign him outright. A deadline deal is probably Brooklyn's only hope. And who knows, if Lopez starts the season healthy and productive, the Nets' desire to give up a ton of assets for Howard may reduce significantly.
Los Angeles Lakers
With Andrew Bynum in play, the Lakers have the single-best trade chip of any potential suitors for Howard. But that's one of the few things the Lakers have going for them. Los Angeles is reportedly unwilling to take on Orlando's bad contracts along with Dwight, and the Lakers already gave up multiple first-round picks in order to acquire Steve Nash from the Suns.
Bynum is a valuable enough piece that the Lakers are still in the running for D12, but a lot would have to go right — a third team would likely be necessary to facilitate a deal, and Bynum would have to be open to committing long-term to his new team. Plus, the Lakers, like the Nets, figure to be over the tax line next summer barring a massive roster reconstruction, meaning a sign-and-trade deal would be impossible. The Lakers' best chance at acquiring Howard would be to strike as soon as possible, before the Nets re-enter the picture in January.
I've maintained all along that the Rockets remain the most intriguing suitor for Howard. With Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, Houston doesn't have quite as much cap room as it once did to absorb Orlando's undesirable contracts. However, as Eric Pincus of HoopsWorld writes, the Rockets still have enough flexibility to acquire Howard even after signing Asik and Lin.
The Rockets are stacked with future picks and young, inexpensive players, including Chandler Parsons and five first-rounders from 2011 and 2012. Houston will have to figure out which package of players, prospects and picks makes the most sense in a potential deal for the Orlando superstar — the team could potentially move 16 players in order to receive Howard and four unwanted players from the Magic. Considering Hennigan and the Magic are seeking picks, young players, and cap relief, the Rockets appear to be in the best position to provide all three, even if they don't necessarily have a potential star to offer.
Of course, the major roadblock for Houston is that Howard appears to have no interest in signing long-term with the Rockets. Even if the Rockets could land D12 in the coming months, they may find themselves in a situation similar to Orlando's current bind, faced with the possibility of losing Howard for nothing.
A trade for Howard is extremely unlikely for the Mavericks, who would probably prefer to sign the star center outright in free agency next summer. It would require a bit of cap manouvering to create the space for a maximum offer for Howard, but it could be done.
The Mavs exercised patience this past year in hopes of landing Williams and Howard in free agency, and it didn't exactly pay off, so employing the same strategy is a risk — Dallas could be left on the outside looking in if the Magic end up trading Howard to the Nets in February. But if Howard remains on the Magic past the trade deadline, the Mavs become the overwhelming favorites to land him in the summer. And given how well Mark Cuban and the Mavs filled out their roster this season when Plan A fell through, waiting to see if Howard falls into their laps should be well worth the risk.
Atlanta Hawks / Chicago Bulls / Los Angeles Clippers
There's little doubt that any of these teams could put together an appealing package for Howard, but none of them appear willing to seriously engage the Magic unless D12 expresses interest in signing a long-term deal. So far, he hasn't done that.
There are a number of other teams that could potentially enter the fray for Howard, but none of those clubs are among his likely suitors. The Warriors, for instance, had some interest in the 26-year-old at the 2012 trade deadline, but they appear set to move forward with Andrew Bogut in the middle now. At one point, it seemed as if the Knicks could potentially put together an interesting package for Howard, but that doesn't appear realistic anymore.
If you're trying to predict what uniform Howard is wearing a year from now, the teams listed above are your best bets. But at this point, there's no clear favorite. At this point, Howard's long-term destination seems to hinge on the patience of Hennigan and the Magic front office. If they decide they can afford to wait until the trade deadline or beyond to move Howard, it could have a huge impact on where D12 spends his next four or five years.