The Dallas Mavericks' 2015-16 season is just barely in the ground, but in the era of the 24-Hour News Cycle there's no such thing as an "offseason" anymore, so get ready for the barrage of free agency rumors.
It started during the exit interviews, when Chandler Parsons -- ever the recruiter -- took the opportunity to make his pitch for former teammate and likely free-agent to be, Dwight Howard. Parsons was credited as one of the reasons Howard originally chose Houston in 2013, and after being asked about Howard in free agency, said, "I think he's going to leave Houston, so why not come here?"
When Houston's season mercifully came to end shortly after the Mavs' did, the worst kept secret in sports came out: the Rockets had chemistry issues. Howard and James Harden clearly did not coexist well, and Dwight leaving for calmer waters has become a very strong possibility. Furthermore, in ESPN's Insider-only roundtable on what Houston should do next, two of the five writers mentioned Dallas by name as a possible destination for the Rockets' big man, and a third compared Howard's situation to that of Tyson Chandler in the summer of 2010 (when he, of course, came to Dallas in a trade).
Unsurprisingly, following all this, "Howard to Dallas" has become a popular prediction for sports pundits around the web. Just how likely is this marriage, though?
Well, I believe Tim MacMahon when he says that the Dallas front office -- as of now -- does not intend to make a max offer to the 30-year-old center, and I think you should, too. Plus, it's not an unreasonable stance to take, all things considered. Howard is a big name, but his play has noticeably declined in the three seasons since Cuban and company pulled out all the stops to recruit him. Howard averaged just 13.7 points per game on 8.5 shots this season, both the lowest average since his rookie campaign. Dwight has endured a series of nagging injuries (primarily to his back), and for a guy who turned 30 in December, he has quite a bit of mileage on him, having entered the league out of high school back in 2004. He clearly has lost a bit of explosiveness since he left Orlando, where he was universally considered the most dominant center in the league.
Even off the court, there are causes for concern. Howard is a fairly jovial guy; usually smiling, quick to joke, outwardly he gives the appearance of an ideal teammate. Yet, if Dwight does leave Houston(and doesn't return to Orlando as some have dubiously suggested), he'll be playing for his fourth organization since the spring of 2012, and it will be yet another departure clouded by rumors of clashes with teammates, coaches, or both.
Does Dallas really want to take all that on?
Despite all my reservations about his health, his deteriorating skillset, and his presence in the locker room, there remains a part of me that feels this is the best option to add a truly quality piece.
From a purely statistical perspective, Howard is a better version of Tyson Chandler, a player who thrived in Dallas in his two seasons (one of which came when Chandler was two years older than Howard is now). He's an elite rebounder, and a dangerous pick and roll weapon. With Wesley Matthews, Dirk Nowitzki and (hypothetically) Chandler Parsons, Howard would have tons of space to operate, which is something he didn't have last season with Trevor Ariza and the revolving door Houston employed at power forward. Speaking of Parsons, his best chance at living up to the max contract he's going to get is probably by playing next to a great pick-and-roll finisher, like Howard.
(It's worth noting that getting Howard to be that great pick-and-roll finisher is a key. Part of it was the Rockets' scheme, but Howard rolled to the rim fewer times than Pachulia did this season.)
Quantifying Howard's defensive impact is trickier, but this is the guy who Defensive Player of the Year three years in a row. While Howard's recent defensive data is a far cry from those days, Chandler does represent hope that Howard's output might be rehabilitated. Howard is still very athletic for a guy his size, and while the NBA game is moving away from hulking big men, if you're playing in the West that means you have to deal with DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan and Tim Duncan, among others.
Ultimately, I think my biggest worry is just with his attitude in general. Howard still has enormous physical talent, but like so many other guys on the Rockets, his effort was not constant. He may want to go to a team where he will be the undisputed star(which is probably the opposite of what he needs), and the contract, touches and treatment that goes along with that. He may also not be the type who responds well to being challenged, the way Rick Carlisle almost certainly will.
If there's a counter to that argument, it has to be that the Mavericks are one of the few teams in the league who I believe have a winning "culture" in place. Plenty of other teams have more talented rosters, but Dallas annually outplays their predicted standing because they have pieces from top to bottom that prevent the kind of meltdown you see other franchises have. From Mark Cuban, to Rick Carlisle, to athletic trainer Casey Smith, to of course Dirk Nowitzki, and now I think you can probably add Wes Matthews into that mix. It's a group that keeps its roster happy, healthy, and committed.
Here's the bottom line: if not Howard, then who? What realistic alternative nets Dallas a better player? I'm going to go ahead and classify Kevin Durant, Al Horford and probably Mike Conley in the "not happening" category. So, who's left? Hassan Whiteside, a guy with even bigger makeup red flags and a much shorter track record than Howard? Joakim Noah? A superb teammate who shot 43.9% at the rim this past season and may not want to leave Chicago anyway?
I've discussed my view of the small ball option already, and sufficed to say watching the Oklahoma City Thunder obliterate Dallas on the glass did not make me want to walk back my stance on that matter. I think Nicolas Batum is a fine player, but if his signing means Dirk moves either to center or to the bench, consider me less than thrilled.
At the end of the day, Dwight Howard may not be a serious target of the Mavs at all. Pinpointing exactly what Howard's market is going to be might not be that easy, considering the last few months of his contract season went about as poorly as they possibly could have. If a desperate team does decide to offer Dwight the max, I would expect the odds to be greater than 50/50 that Dallas bows out.
Still, I'm not so sure this isn't Dirk's best chance at playing for a top-four seed in the West again. If a short-term deal can be reached that allows Dallas to keep Parsons and Deron Williams (cue joke about Dwight and Deron circa 2011), I think Mark Cuban has to pull the trigger. Dirk deserves something better than a Ian Mahinmi reunion at center as he finishes out his career.