The Dwight Howard Sweepstakes

J.M. Poulard —  October 25, 2011

At some point, the NBA season will resume and talks will shift towards Dwight Howard’s potential free agency and it will be hard for the basketball world to focus on anything else. After a summer in which LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade entered the offseason as free agents and then all signed with the Miami Heat, the biggest news to follow that development was the potential free agency of Carmelo Anthony, which seemed to derail the Denver Nuggets to some extent as they sought to trade their high scoring forward during the 2010-11 regular season.

The biggest available prize at the moment has to be Dwight Howard: he is the best big man in the league, an athletic freak that affects games on both ends of the floor and a complete game changer.

Mind you, some of his qualities as a basketball player make it impossible for him to shake the Shaquille O’Neal comparisons: the brute force, the unprecedented athleticism for his size, his physical stature and the gigantic expectations all remind us of the Diesel. In addition, the fact that Howard plays for the Orlando Magic (O’Neal’s first team when he joined the NBA) and that he blatantly stole Shaq’s moniker and dubbed himself as Superman all the while selling himself as an entertainer (singing and dancing) and well D12 did little to escape the large shadow cast by the big Aristotle.

Thus, everything the Orlando Magic center does will invariably be compared to the future Hall of Fame center for better or worse. As a result, one would think that Howard should accept these comparisons head on and take it to another level by seeking to do outshine O’Neal.

Shaq was not fond of Dwight referring to himself as the Man of Steel and went as far as making his opinions on the matter public. Consequently, it’s almost as if Howard has to respond to the legend, but not in a public forum. Instead, the best answer D12 can provide has to come on the basketball court. Here are the three best possible responses (keep in mind, once the season resumes, Howard will be in the last year of his contract with the Orlando Magic which means he could only join a team via free agency or via trade if Otis Smith is certain he will lose his star center):

I. New York, New York

The last time the New York Knicks advanced in the playoffs came in the 2000 playoffs, when they advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, but were eliminated by the Indiana Pacers. In addition, the Knicks last made the NBA Finals in 1999 and also in 1993, losing both times to a team with a lethal big man (Olajuwon in ’93 and Duncan in ’99).

The New York Knicks are one of the most storied franchises in NBA history and yet have nothing in recent memory to show for it. The one lasting memory for the Knicks in that past 20 years has to be Larry Johnson’s famous four-point play from the 1999 playoff run; but other than that we would be hard pressed to find any other lasting memory for the Knickerbockers in recent years.

Consequently, New Yorkers have one memory to latch on: the Willis Reed game.

In Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, with the world wondering whether Reed would be able to suit up to play against the Lakers, the star center did just that and played despite a terribly injured leg and gave his teammates the inspiration needed to defeat the a Lakers team that featured Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.

This happened over 40 years ago and yet we see video footage or hear stories about this at least once a year. For all of the media scrutiny that comes along with playing in New York, there is nothing quite like success in the Big Apple. Winners are glorified and immortalized. Names like Clyde Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere are worthy of mention today specifically because the 1969-70 New York Knicks were victorious in the Finals.

Hence, Patrick Ewing will probably never get his just due for failing to win a title in NYC.

Mind you, what would happen if Dwight Howard took his talents to New York City and helped the Knicks win an NBA title?

New York would not only become relevant again in the NBA’s landscape but Howard would be revered for multiple generations as parents would share stories with their kids about the big man that saved New York.

In order for Howard to land in New York, given the fact that the Knicks do not project to have the necessary cap room to sign him, they would have to acquire him by trade; and also D12 would have to agree to an extension before New York would throw all of their chips to get the big man. With that said, here are the potential deals the Knicks could make with the Magic:

  • Amare Stoudemire for Dwight Howard straight up.
  • Amare Stoudemire and Landry Fields for Dwight Howard.
  • Chauncey Billups (expiring contract) and Landry Fields for Dwight Howard.
  • Amare Stoudemire, Chauncey Billups and Landry Fields for Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas.

The most realistic trade would essentially get Howard and Arenas to New York in a swap for Stoudemire and Billups. Could be an option, but perhaps Howard could better off with…

II. Bringing a title to Orlando

O’Neal left the Orlando Magic in the summer of 1996 for the Los Angeles Lakers. His departure essentially signaled the end for the Magic as an Eastern Conference contender. With Shaq on the roster, Orlando made it to the 1995 NBA Finals (where they were swept) and then made an appearance in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals and were dismantled by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

These are the lasting memories of the former LSU Tiger’s time in Orlando.

Should Dwight Howard bring a championship to Orlando, he would have succeeded where a legend failed and thus would finally earn the respect that he has always deserved as a basketball player from fans and the media.

The one problem with this scenario: notwithstanding the changes that a new collective bargaining agreement could bring, does anyone see the Orlando Magic acquiring top flight talent to compliment Howard?

Their so-called big moves in recent years have been trading for Vince Carter, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas. If you were Dwight Howard, would you trust your general manager to get you there?

Which leads to…

III. Winning in Los Angeles

Nothing would scream “following in Shaq’s footsteps” louder than Howard joining the Los Angeles Lakers. Indeed, O’Neal left the Magic to join the purple and gold and helped them win three titles in entertaining and dominating fashion. However, what would it do for Howard’s legacy if he joined an aging Kobe Bryant and won four rings with him?

Not only would the world look at Howard different (look at what winning two rings did for Gasol’s reputation) but such a development could lead to D12 not only conquering his demons, but could also prove to be the silent remix of Kobe’s June 2010 statement “[this ring] means I got one more than Shaq” (in this case Howard would be saying he has one more ring with Kobe than Shaq does).

Furthermore, Dwight Howard would unquestionably be mentioned alongside the names of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal on the list of great centers to have played for the Lakers.

With Kobe pushing and daring him to be great (when’s the last time you heard a teammate challenged Dwight?), Howard would not only remain the most destructive center in the league but he would finally be deferring to players with a pedigree to either match or surpass his own.

This scenario could prove to be the most tempting and the one that fans latch onto given how realistic and logical it sounds.

Los Angeles would provide Howard the forum he requires to entertain fans with his off the court activities, but more importantly he would be surrounded with players who have been to the mountaintop and that can accept the pressure that comes along with it.

Also, there are few experiences in the NBA that compare to playing with the Lakers. The pressure is always at its highest, the opposing stadiums are always filled and there is a certain prestige associated with wearing the purple and gold today that is the envy of most sports franchises.

Indeed, when superstars wear the Lakers jersey and consistently play great, it gets them mentioned in the same conversation such as Magic Johnson and the Logo.

In addition, by the time Kobe retires, Howard will still be young enough to help the Lakers remain title contenders and should also have a supporting cast to help him on that front given the franchise’s willingness to spend on quality talent to compete for rings.

Here are the packages that the Lakers could offer the Magic to get Howard (one has to assume that Orlando would try their best to unload one of their most unfavorable contracts):

  • Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom for Dwight Howard and Brandon Bass.
  • Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom for Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu.
  • Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Metta World Peace for Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas.
  • Kobe…wait never mind that one.

The most sensible trade involves Bynum, World Peace and Odom going to Orlando (although many could argue that the Magic would demand Gasol, but given that the Magic would be negotiating without much leverage, it stands to reason that the Lakers could swing the deal with Bynum) in a trade for Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas. In a perfect world, Los Angeles would also get Tiger Woods in a swap for Khloe.

The deal would obviously once again hinge on Howard’s willingness to sign a contract extension with the Los Angeles Lakers.

With that said, while teams such as the Mavericks, Heat and Magic have made the Finals in the past few seasons, few have really noticed because the Lakers and Celtics were busy making history.

It’s obviously entirely subjective, but which scenario sounds like the best to you?

J.M. Poulard