Dwight Howard is still in Orlando as the NBA season prepares to tip off today, almost two months late. How long he stays there is among the league’s biggest questions, one month after a new labor agreement erased the chance there would not be a season at all.
Howard might be the dominant big man in a league lacking so-called true centers, a three-time defensive player of the year who has averaged 18.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks for his career. He starts his eighth year when the Magic host the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of five games to open the season on Christmas Day.
Howard’s talents might make the Magic the latest NBA team to trade its star player to avoid losing him as a free agent without getting anything in return. Among the possible destinations are Los Angeles and 16-time NBA-champion the Lakers, the New York area with the Brooklyn-bound New Jersey Nets or the Dallas Mavericks.
“Let’s face it, it doesn’t make sense for Orlando to risk losing him and get nothing next year,” Stan Kasten, a former Atlanta Hawks president, said in a telephone interview. “What’s interesting is if Dwight would be amenable, Orlando has a better chance to sign him now than they had before. It just looks like he wants to leave, which is his right.”
While Magic officials have said the team wants him to stay, they risk losing him as a free agent without compensation after this season if they do not re-sign or trade him.
If Howard is traded, he would follow Chris Paul as the second impending free agent All-Star dealt since ratification of a labor deal that was supposed to help keep big-name players in smaller markets.
The focus on Howard’s future might prompt the Magic to make a decision sooner rather than later to avoid distractions as well as to get something in return. Howard was criticized for his play in a 33-point pre-season loss to Miami last Sunday, when he scored five points on 2 of 9 shooting and grabbed six rebounds.
“Because of the situation that’s going on, every little thing is going to be magnified times 100,” Howard told reporters. “I know that. My teammates know it.”
The Denver Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks in February after months of speculation. The Utah Jazz surprised Deron Williams by trading the All-Star guard to the Nets last season rather than see him leave as a free agent.
The Magic, Lakers, Nets and Mavericks are the only teams where Howard would sign a long-term contract, ESPN said, citing an unidentified person close to the situation.
The New Orleans Hornets sent Paul, an All-Star point guard, to the Clippers this month after an earlier trade with the Lakers was canceled by NBA commissioner David Stern.
The trade rumors have also raised questions about the Lakers, who had sought both Paul and Howard. The Lakers this year entered into a 20-year local television contract with Time Warner Cable and are seeking marketable stars with Bryant, at age 33, probably approaching the latter stages of his career.
Howard could give the Lakers a dominant low-post player. He turned 26 this month and might be the NBA’s best true center, who stays near the basket on offense, rebounds well and complements smaller players on the perimeter.
Howard also could be the latest in a line of Lakers stars — including Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant — who draw celebrities courtside.