With the start of free agency roughly two weeks away, the whispers about where Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard might be headed -- and with whom -- are starting to flood everybody's rumor mill. Everybody wants to talk about the possibility of Howard going home to play for the Atlanta Hawks (possibly with Chris Paul) or to the young and exciting Houston Rockets to play with James Harden (and possibly Chris Paul) or even trying to find his way across the Staples Center to play with Chris Paul on the Los Angeles Clippers.
What few people are talking about, though, is the boring but realistic possibility of Howard staying put with the Lakers and helping them build back toward being a contender. If the Lakers are able to retain him, they reportedly will. However, if the Lakers have to lose him away to a team, Marc Stein and Ramona Shelbourne of ESPN.com are reporting they won't just accomodate any team he wants to join.
• The Lakers have had several discussions with Howard's representatives over the past few weeks and remain confident that they will ultimately keep him with the franchise, even as he's made it clear he will entertain other suitors.
• Yet the Lakers also, according to sources, have not completely ruled out the idea of a sign-and-trade if they come to find next month that Howard is determined to leave. Sources say they are indeed leaning against sign-and-trade scenarios because they'd rather bank the resultant cap space from Howard's departure for the summer of 2014. But sources say they've adopted a keep-all-options-open approach. So they'll at least listen to just about anything.
The second bullet point on this post is the big one. There has been this idea that the Rockets could use Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik as sign-and-trade bait to convince the Lakers to deal them Howard and still give Houston the potential for cap room to sign Chris Paul away from the Clippers. The trio of Howard, Paul, and Harden almost sounds too good to be true, and that's because it probably is. As Stein and Shelbourne report, the Lakers value cap flexibility and luxury tax savings as they keep their house in order for 2014.
• Asik is a quality defensive anchor at roughly half Howard's price. And Lin had the greatest success of his career under Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni. But sources maintain that the Lakers' main priority this offseason -- besides re-signing Howard -- is getting their financial house in order. Which is why the overriding expectation persists that L.A. will rebuff sign-and-trade proposals to simply bank the cap space for the summer of 2014 if Howard bolts.
Why maintain flexibility for cap space in 2014 when the clock is ticking on Kobe Bryant's career as he tries to chase two more rings? Miami Heat forward and four-time MVP LeBron James can opt out of his contract in 2014. The Lakers have only Steve Nash signed past 2014 for $9.7 million. They'll have plenty of cap holds to take away their cap space initially, but that's easily circumvented by renouncing the rights to certain free agents.
If the Lakers can't have Dwight Howard, it looks like plan B could be LeBron James. That's not a bad fallback plan. Of course, this could all be posturing through sources before free agency actually hits to gain leverage in negotiating potential sign-and-trades down the road, but it does make sense for the Lakers to believe it's Dwight Howard or back to the drawing board.