Howard’s Destination Dominates Discussion in 66-Game NBA Season

Dwight Howard is still in Orlando as the National Basketball Association season prepares to tip off 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 wouldn’t be a season at all.

The 6-foot-11 Howard may 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 may 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 the 16-time NBA-champion 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 don’t 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.

Shortened Season

The season was shortened to 66 games from 82 because of the five-month lockout. Also on the first-day schedule is a rematch of the NBA Finals in which the Mavericks beat the Miami Heat, while the Lakers host the Chicago Bulls, the Boston Celtics visit the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Clippers play the Golden State Warriors.

The Heat, led by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, are 9-5 favorites to win the title, according to the Las Vegas Hilton’s race and sports book. The Thunder are the second choice at 5-1, followed by the Lakers and Bulls at 6-1, the Mavericks at 7-1 and the Celtics at 12-1. The Knicks have 15-1 championship odds, while the Magic are tied for 10th among the league’s 30 teams at 30-1.

The focus on Howard’s future may 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 preseason loss to Miami on Dec. 18, 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.”

Anthony Trade

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 during 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.

Paul’s arrival has fueled anticipation about whether he and reigning rookie of the year Blake Griffin can make the Clippers the more exciting team in Los Angeles.

Seeking Stars

It has 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 may be the NBA’s best true center, who stay near the basket on offense, rebound well and complement 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. The Lakers have quality players such as Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum to offer in a trade, and would probably be able to withstand the financial hit of the NBA’s increased penalties for teams exceeding the luxury tax threshold, Kasten said. NBA teams above a certain payroll have to pay a fine, or luxury tax, to the league.

Superman Cape

Howard, who once donned a Superman cape during the NBA’s slam-dunk contest, has sponsorships with companies such as Adidas AG, McDonald’s Corp., Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Mobile and Coca-Cola Co.’s Glaceau Vitaminwater. A move to one of the nation’s top media markets -- Los Angeles is second behind New York, while Orlando is 19th -- could further boost his endorsement potential.

“It’s just a bigger market and so there’s more money to be made regardless of what the team pays,” Rick Burton, professor of sports management at Syracuse University, said in a telephone interview. “To keep a player in a smaller market or less media-active market, you really have to create a relationship where he doesn’t want to leave.”

Shaq Departs

Losing Howard would be reminiscent of the Magic parting with O’Neal, who spent his first four seasons in Orlando. He won three NBA titles with the Lakers and another in Miami before retiring this year as the fifth-leading scorer in league history.

The NBA’s owners and players completed a collective bargaining agreement last month that’s supposed to help bring increased stability to teams in lower-revenue markets.

“The new CBA can’t create competitive balance,” Steve Kerr, an NBA analyst for Time Warner’s TNT network, said in a telephone interview. “They can try to entice guys to stay where they are, but beyond that you can’t get rid of free agency. If a guy wants to go somewhere else, he’s going to go somewhere else.”

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