Howard can take easy way out of LA, or stay and become a legend

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The courtship is over, and the choice is clear for Dwight Howard.

What will he do?

Chances are, he'll do what nobody else of his stature has ever done or would ever do -- because, that's Dwight.

Two years ago, Howard wanted out of Orlando and had a list of three teams: the Nets, Lakers and Mavericks. Through a series of unfortunate events, Howard wound up with one of them -- the most storied franchise of them all. He wound up in LA, with a team that has won 16 championships, in the entertainment capital of the world.

He got to be teammates with the most prolific winner of our generation, Kobe Bryant, and has a chance to continue to be. He got to play with the franchise that is responsible for giving the NBA some of its most legendary figures -- Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant, and on and on.

Did we mention the 16 championships?

Finally, Howard stands at the center of the most terrifying maelstrom that has come along in the NBA in decades. What is that, you ask? It's called the Lakers with cap space.

That means that Howard, who has traveled from Orlando to LA and now to a free-agent courtship with four other teams, is 12 months away from being the centerpiece of an unprecedented constellation of star power. If you thought the Lakers' courtship of Howard was something -- with the banners and the hashtags and whatnot -- wait until they knock on LeBron James' door on July 1, 2014.

Dwight, LeBron and Carmelo Anthony on the Lakers, with Bryant saying this week he has three good years left in him? It would make the Heat's Big Three look like a bad pickup game at the Y.

As the basketball world awaits Dwight's decision, the rest of the teams competing in the NBA have their fingers crossed that he fails to see all of that. The rest of the teams are hoping that he runs from the greatness of the Lakers, from the mystique and resources and cache that the late Dr. Jerry Buss built. The rest of the NBA is hoping that he thumbs his nose at the place where basketball legends are made and buys into the shortsighted notion that he's better off going to Houston to play with James Harden.

Well, to be fair, James Harden and Josh Smith. League sources told CBSSports.com on Tuesday night that the Rockets acted quickly on Howard's desire to bring another star to Houston with him and have begun their pursuit of Smith, the Hawks' free-agent forward and Howard's former AAU teammate in Atlanta, in a sign-and-trade arrangement.

No offense to Harden or Smith. No offense to Daryl Morey, who has expertly positioned his roster and payroll for this moment. No offense to Mark Cuban, who has not only the resources but also the basketball acumen and championship track record to give Howard a winning environment in Dallas.

No offense to the Hawks or Warriors, who are on their way.

But seriously: Who walks away from the Lakers?

Who walks away from the Lakers when they'll have $50 million in cap space next summer, when James, Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are free agents?

With Howard in the fold, the Lakers would walk into the recruitment of James next summer with the best center in the league and room for two other max players. The rest of the NBA would be ducking for cover.

If Howard chooses the Lakers, the shenanigans and drama that has consumed his career for the past three years would cease. I'm not big on loyalty being a trait that professional athletes should exhibit, since hardly anyone shows it to them. But Howard more than anyone else in the sport needs some loyalty on his resume. He'd check that box if he re-signed with the Lakers.

He'd be signing more than a piece of paper that states he'll be paid X amount over X number of years to play basketball professionally. He'd be signing up to enter the pantheon of the all-time greats. And he'd be signing up for having the foresight to see beyond the next 12 months and embrace a future in which the Lakers have two Hall of Famers and money to spend on two more.

In the short term, with an old roster and with Bryant's Achilles injury, it would be a challenge. And by choosing the more difficult road in the short term, Howard would get image points for that, too.

The Lakers' recruitment of Dwight -- on billboards, on Twitter, in the awkwardly worded team statement after their two-hour meeting with him on Tuesday -- has made some uncomfortable. But everybody needs to understand something: There hasn't been a peep, not a whisper of the Lakers entertaining a desperation sign-and-trade arrangement to salvage an asset or two if Howard decided to leave.

Think about that. Nobody in the NBA can afford to lose a player of Dwight Howard's talent and get nothing in return. Nobody ... except the Lakers.

If Howard leaves, the Lakers will be fine. They'll still be the Lakers -- still will have 16 championship banners and a winning legacy built by Dr. Buss despite the best efforts of his bon vivant son, Jim, to ruin it.

In fact, the Lakers would be better than the Lakers as we've known them. In 12 short months, they'll be the Lakers with Dwight Howard and cap space. Which means they'll be able to get whatever players -- and whatever coach -- they want.

If the Clippers can have Chris Paul and Doc Rivers, who could the Lakers have with money to spend?

So the question remains: What will Dwight do? I don't know. Nobody knows; not even Dwight.

I just know that if he stays with the Lakers, he'll put the NBA on notice that he's finally figured it out. If he stays with the Lakers, he'll take the first step toward repairing his image, proving his loyalty and entering the exclusive club of legends who've been made there.

He'll be signing up for something hard, something challenging to live up to. It isn't easy to win championships and be great.

I also know this: If he leaves, he'll just go back to being Dwight Howard. Somehow, that makes the most sense.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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