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Dwight Howard might be the best player willing to come to the Mavericks

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Whether or not Dallas wants him is another question...

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Just three summers ago, Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks went all-in on the courting of free agent center Dwight Howard. Howard was coming off a disappointing season with the Lakers, but was still considered by many to be the most dominant big man in the league, or close to it. Mavs fans may remember this hilarious video, which was not produced by a junior college video production class, but by a half-billion dollar franchise.

A few years later, and things have apparently changed considerably, both for Howard and Dallas' perception of him.  A steady decline in production saw Dwight record his lowest scoring average in over a decade, and well-publicized chemistry issues may have pushed Howard out the door in Houston.

A free agent again, Howard's standing among fans and basketball pundits is at its lowest point since he entered the league, but do NBA executives agree?

That's obviously not a question we can answer, but reading the tea leaves from around the web gives one an impression that Howard will not be as feverishly pursued as he was in 2013. If Howard desires a max contract, as some reports have suggested, he may find the list of teams willing to negotiate fairly short. However, given the cap increase and the flood of money teams are annually desperate to give away, it would be foolish to assume there wouldn't be a list.

How does Dallas factor in? Well, the early posturing from the Dallas camp is as such:

Sources have told ESPN that the Mavs have no intention of offering Howard a maximum contract, which would have a starting salary of more than $30 million annually. These plans are flexible, but sources said Howard's market would have to be significantly lower than that for the Mavs to make a push for the 30-year-old center whose production has plummeted the last two seasons.

Tim MacMahon is not the only one reporting this angle, and generally I tend to believe that where there's smoke, there's fire on these kind of scenarios. Cuban himself has of course offered little comment beyond a recent blurb questioning whether or not the "money train" will truly be coming this offseason, which can be interpreted in different ways, but to me corroborates the whispers that Dallas won't be breaking the bank for just anyone.

Fit with the Mavericks

I've already written about Howard's fit with Dallas once this offseason, and I assume most reading this blog are familiar with Howard's game, but for those who are undecided on this topic, a refresher course:

Though he's played 12 seasons in the NBA, Howard won't turn 31 until December, and as the highlight video above indicates, Howard still is one of the most explosive big men in the league. Last year, Howard had his streak of eight straight All-Star appearances snapped, and as recently as 2011, Howard was awarded Defensive Player of the Year (for the third straight season).

He's led the league in rebounds five times, blocks twice, and field goal percentage once. What are the three things Dallas needs most from its center? Well, rebounding, rim-protecting, and efficient finishing. Howard's game has undoubtedly declined, but Dwight still ranked in the top 10 for his position in rebound rate, and the top 15 in true shooting percentage.

While the numbers still point to Howard as a productive big man, I don't think I would be nearly as enthusiastic about this player if we were basing the decision to acquire him solely on the empirical. If we made every roster-building move based on the statistical record, after all, one can be sure Tyson Chandler would have not been acquired in the summer of 2010.  I think Dwight Howard is the type of player who could see a career resurgence in Dallas, thanks to the strong organization foundation in place, with owner Mark Cuban, coach Rick Carlisle and humble star Dirk Nowitzk, not to mention the outstanding training staff that would hopefully keep Howard in one piece.

Howard is clearly an emotional guy who will need appeals to his ego and his temperament (and before we cry over this, understand the same is true for many star players). Perhaps more than most every other playoff caliber team, Dallas is prepared to accommodate him. They'll be able to give Dwight the touches in the post that Houston seemed occasionally unwilling to, because there is no ball-dominant player in Big D like James Harden. Dallas also has better shooters in their projected lineup -- assuming that Parsons and D-Will return -- which will help space the floor and give Howard more room to operate.

Meanwhile, Howard would have as much of the limelight as he desired, as Dirk Nowitzki is not the type of star who needs the cameras or the commercials. After the DeAndre Jordan debacle, and a rough final few months of the season from Zaza Pachulia, Howard would be embraced as a savior of sorts by many fans and those who cover the team.

For Howard's part, some acquiescence would be required on his end, as well. Dallas is a pick and roll offense that thrived with athletic finishers like Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright on the court. Howard has the physical skill set to be successful in this role, as well, but his time in Houston and his departure from the Lakers paints a picture of a guy who was not entirely on board being used in PnR. That needs to change. Howard can still get his touches in the post, but only using Howard to post up is like only using your Lamborghini to get to your mailbox.

Is Howard finally at a place in his career where he's ready to make certain concessions? He's basically been on an apology tour in the days following Houston's playoff dispatching. It wouldn't be entirely out of the realm of possibility that he's learned some measure of humility. At the very least, his reputation has taken enough damage in recent seasons that I expect wherever he ends up, he'll be motivated to prove his doubters and nay-sayers very wrong.

Likelihood

if you take the rumors at face-value, then Dwight and the Mavs are likely not destined to find partnership. Even if he doesn't get $30 mil per (which he still might), Howard will probably get at least one offer in the $25 mil/year range. There have yet to be any real indications Dallas is open to that kind of contract for Dwight, just as there have yet be any indications Dwight is going to take less to play somewhere like Dallas.

Still, the scenario I keep coming back to is one where Howard -- warts and all -- is the best free agent genuinely interested in Dallas as a destination. He'd stay in the same state, he has a relationship with Chandler Parsons (and don't bet against teammate Jason Terry coming back to Dallas, either on a veteran minimum type deal or in a front office capacity), and the Mavs do check plenty of boxes for a second-tier star: they have a great coach, they're always in the playoffs, and they play in a large market.

The Mike Conleys, Al Horfords and Hassan Whitesides of the world are going to get the full-court press to stay with their current teams, so pray for those guys at your own peril. Even charming Nicolas Batum away is going to require some big bucks, and indications are Batum doesn't want to leave Charlotte. After that group (where Dwight would probably slot in at the back end), you start to get to the tier of players that might be more cost-effective, but don't offer anywhere close to the potential reward Howard does.

I believe Mark Cuban when he says that he wants to win while Dirk Nowitzki is still playing.  Even if Dirk isn't the same force of nature he was a half-decade ago, his presence still feels absolutely crucial to the team's success, in so far as his gravity alters the way every other player he shares a uniform with is defended. I fear just how drastic the change will be when he eventually retires, and how many philosophical adjustments will need to be made, from the way the organization addresses the draft and free agency to the more obvious X's and O's on the court.

if Cuban has designs on building a legitimate contender while Dirk is still around (and it may be prudent to add "while Carlisle is still around" to that statement, because Carlisle has not exactly fashioned for himself a reputation as the right coach for a rebuilding team), then I submit to you it is time to take a risk. Is signing Dwight a surefire way to get back to the Finals? Absolutely not, but a starting lineup that features Dwight in place of Zaza looks to me like a best case scenario for Dallas this offseason, and one of the only scenarios where I'd realistically say Dallas has a shot to host a playoff series next year.

If it backfires -- and considering Dwight's past, that's obviously a possibility -- are you really in a different boat a couple of years from now than you're going to be, anyway?