Coming out of Wednesday's meeting between Dwight Howard and Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, it was very clear Howard has his heart set on being a Net or a Laker before the season begins. This is what he wants and he seems extremely determined to get it. Howard has gone so far as to issue a threat to every other team in the league:
Howard has publicly leaked that if he is not a Laker or a Net, he will sign with the Mavericks next season.
Reportedly this threat has scared off some of the rental teams who believe they can do enough to convince Howard to stay long term. Certainly, such a threat has hurt the trade packages Orlando has received from opposing teams and it has led to Hennigan throwing his hands up and saying Orlando has not found a deal with acceptable compensation as the reports say. Howard would disagree, but he is not exactly helping by limiting Orlando's trade partners this much.
You very much reap what you sow and Howard is preventing himself from getting that full Bird Rights max contract by trying to force the Magic to trade him only somewhere he wants (and not leaving Orlando as an option -- it is exceedingly clear he does not want to be with the Magic any longer). And so with no trade offers on the table, and with the Nets and Lakers using up their available cap space, Howard may very well start the season in Orlando. Whether he will actually play for the Magic is a question for a few months from now.
The Mavericks though are a somewhat new player.
Recall back in December when Howard originally requested his trade that his agent, Dan Fegan, was given permission to talk with the Nets, Lakers and Mavericks. Dallas has always been on Howard's list, albeit a distant third or fourth (if you believe Orlando was a legitimate option... which it might have been considering Howard opted in to the final year of his contract -- a mistake he surely regrets now). But Mark Cuban has always been there.
It is no secret that Cuban is willing to spend money on his team. His team has long been a taxpayer and the Mavericks owner spares no expense. When Dallas let Tyson Chandler walk after winning the championship, everyone suspected Dallas had ambitious future plans. Those plans included a pipe dream of signing both Deron Williams and Dwight Howard this summer.
Williams nearly signed with the Mavericks, but decided to return to the Nets and open up the new arena in Brooklyn. It seemed like Dallas struck out. Well, maybe they did not if Howard seems to have Dallas as his fallback plan. In all likelihood, Orlando has seen the best offers from Brooklyn and Los Angeles. This makes it more and more likely that Howard will start the 2014 season in Dallas (unless something crazy happens, which it could because it is... well, Dwight Howard).
So why Dallas?
The relationship with Cuban and the things he has done turning the Mavericks around the last decade-plus is certainly part of it. Cuban has spared no expense in treating his players to everything. He is a passionate owner who will work with and relate to players. His players love him and that is what Howard is looking for -- a strong relationship between player, coach and owner. This was something that was somewhat lacking in the latter years in Orlando as he felt ignored.
It also helps that Dirk Nowitzki is around to add support from another superstar. That is something Howard has desperately wanted in Orlando.
Oh, but things are not so simple. They never are.
Dallas has done a great job positioning themselves to make a run at Dwight Howard. Dallas has $39.1 million committed in salary next year, according to HoopsHype. The salary cap this year is around $58 million, so Dallas would have around $19 million to offer Howard if the cap number stays the same. That would not be enough to offer him a max contract unless the Mavericks renounce rights to certain players. It is possible that the Mavericks could clear the $20 million or so to sign Howard to a max deal outright. Trading Shawn Marion and the $9.4 million expiring contract he has in 2014 would be a big help.
The Mavs can renounce all their free agents, sign Crowder and James to non-guaranteed deals for 2013-14 (and simply cut them), trade Marion's expiring deal ($9.066 million with and early-termination option at Marion's choice) between now and next season's trade deadline (a real potential game-changer) and pull lots of other simple moves to open up Howard-size cap space. Dallas will have the sign-and-trade route, a path Brooklyn and the Lakers will not be able to use next summer, since those two teams will be at or above the payroll level where the new collective bargaining agreement prohibits teams from entering into sign-and-trades.
So it's fine for Howard to use the Mavs as a threat, and for all of us to place Dallas as the three-time Defensive Player of the Year's theoretical free agency front-runner. But let's not go overboard in detailing Dallas' potential cap space, or forget that the Mavs will have to somehow field a full roster around the Nowitzki/Howard pairing if they do pull it off. Howard is worth these machinations, but they are tricky.
Yes, Dallas is not quite the slam dunk it appears to be. Right now, it seems Howard is using the Mavericks more as a threat to get to Brooklyn or Los Angeles and limit Orlando's trade options. Howard's options though might be limited if Dallas cannot carve enough cap room out.
More than ever, this looks like a game of chicken between Orlando and Howard. Howard has blinked a few times and the Magic continue to drive for a deal that benefits them while Howard hopes he gets one that benefits him.
Dallas? All they are is a threat and a fallback plan.
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