As you probably heard, Dwight Howard went a-courting this week, visiting five teams who hoped to be enlisting his services for next year and several years to come. Dwight made little secret of his desire to be wooed, and wooed he indeed was — reports from the sites of the five job interviews (because all job interviews consist of companies desperately pitching themselves to unconvinced potential employees) described elaborate sales pitches that involved Hall of Famer alums of the respective teams, local celebrities, and some no-doubt seriously balling PowerPoint presentations. Promises were made: Of wins, of rings, of local TV deals and probably some cool jet packs and laser sharks and stuff.
It’s unclear, however, if any team promised Dwight the one thing he probably wants over all else: The chance to be liked again. Four seasons ago, Dwight was one of the most popular players in the league, an amicable, goofy tall guy with an active sense of humor and seemingly limitless athleticism and potential. The unquestioned best player on one of the best teams in the league, he seemed well-liked by his teammates and peers, and mostly respected by his coaches. More than most basketball players of his era, stardom really seemed to fit Dwight’s personality — he was a natural in interviews and commercials, and always seemed one good opportunity away from becoming a multi-platform star, famous beyond basketball, like his most obvious predecessor, Shaquille O’Neal. And aside from a couple stray worries that maybe his jokey demeanor and off-court considerations occasionally interfered with him realizing his basketball greatness, basketball fans were generally good with the Dwight Howard experience.
Then, of course, came the Dwightmare. Coming off the heels of the Melodrama in Denver the season before and LeBron’s Decision before that, Dwight became the latest athlete who let his impending free agency and desire to play for a contending team cast a pall over his career and his public image. Howard’s indecision about whether or not to force a trade from the Magic would eventually alienate him from his teammates, get his coach fired and turn fans in and outside of Orlando (as well as the general hoops media) totally against him. The threat of the Dwightmare going on for another season was seemingly quashed by his trade last offseason to the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard’s rumored eventual destination all along, and there he was expected to win the haters back (as LeBron had) by winning a whole lot. But the Lakers’ season was a colossal disappointment, and now Dwight enters this free agency as doubted and disliked as he has ever been in his pro career.
Dwight Howard is not the kind of player to say “f— the haters” and play the villain, or to say “only God can judge me” and tune out the criticism, or just say nothing at all and let his play do the talking, all of which LeBron attempted at various points of his being hated, to limited success. Dwight is a guy who still wants to be liked. Dwight is a guy who needs to be liked. Dwight is a guy who will absolutely factor in how likeable he will be for choosing a certain team in free agency when he makes a decision on where he will ultimately sign.
So let’s help him out, then. Teams probably won’t address this themselves, since talking about him being liked again would correctly imply that he’s not liked currently (though Ramona Shelburne did report that the Lakers’ meeting with him was “honest,” so maybe Nash dropped some serious real talk on him), but nothing’s stopping us from talking about it. How liked will Dwight be if he joins any one of these teams? There’s a pro and con argument to be made for each, so let’s make both of ‘em and come to a conclusion. In order of Dwight’s meetings:
Yes Like: Dwight could very easily become likeable-by-association just by joining the Rockets. Houston established themselves last year as one of the league’s preeminent bandwagon teams, with a super-fun, uptempo style of play that results in a whole lot of three-pointers and a whole lot of points in general. What’s more, they’re also a well-liked bunch of dudes, nice boys like Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and James Harden, with good reputations and oddball demeanors. Dwight would fit into the team’s style and personality as if he’d been there all along, like when the new kid hangs out with your group of friends at middle school for the first time and you just know. It’d be pretty hard to stay mad at him playing on a team like that.
No Like: Dwight will be changing teams again — a given for most of these scenarios — and leaving his crumbling situation for the second time in two years to go play with the cool kids elsewhere. His arrival may also result in the necessary deposing of the well-liked Omer Asik, leading to inevitable and potentially unfavorable comparisons between the two should Dwight’s defense falter as it did early last season, or should he be perceived to not be working hard enough.
Likability Scale: 8/10. Some inevitable minor PR concerns, but Houston seems like a pretty good shot at long-term redemption for Dwight, turning him back into both a winner and a fan favorite.
Golden State Warriors
Yes Like: Speaking of bandwagon teams. Who could be a better team to associate yourself with in 2013 than the Golden State Warriors, hot off a playoff upset of the Nuggets and a breakout post-season for Stephen Curry that turned every NBA fan into Grandma Lana for a couple rounds? Pairing himself with Steph and the rest of the Warriors’ youth movement would be a no-brainer for Dwight’s Q rating — even when the Warriors are bad, they’re still one of the best-liked teams in the league, and now they might actually be good for a few years still. Plus, as a fellow noted God-fearing Christian, Mark Jackson could strike a touching rapport with Howard that he’s lacked with his last few coaches. Assuming they don’t get too preachy about it, anyway.
No Like: As much crap as Dwight will get for leaving the Lakers for anywhere, he’ll get even more for jumping to a trendier team in the same damn state. And with a lack of cap room to make the deal possible on their own, the Warriors would likely need to engage the Lakers in a sign-and-trade to make it at all possible, resulting in the potential removal of popular players like Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes and/or Klay Thompson, a deal which may strap the Warriors of the necessary talent to contend, and come back to hurt Dwight in the long run.
Likability Scale: 6/10. The cap space thing hurts, as does the same-state thing, but if Curry and Howard found big success together in front of those raucous Oracle crowds, the rest of the NBA would probably forgive pretty easily.
Yes Like: Dwight goes home. In terms of the most marketable angle Dwight could go with in free agency, this is the pretty obvious choice — returning to the state where he grew up to try to turn Atlanta into a real basketball destination. (Or at least get the city to the conference finals for the first time … ever.) Dwight would also get team up with his longtime homeboy Lou Williams, and possibly even Josh Smith if he ends up re-signing somewhat cheap, and probably become fast friends with most of Brick Squad. Maybe Jermaine Dupri would even executive produce his next children’s album. Point is, he could become an inextricable part of Atlanta culture, and everyone loves a good homecoming story.
No Like: With Chris Paul committed to Los Angeles and not a lot of marquee free agents remaining in the wings, Dwight would likely be the only superstar on his team, and while Danny Ferry could do a good job filling around him, it seems pretty unlikely that a Dwight/Horford/Teague/leftovers Hawks would be able to really challenge the Heat, or possibly even the Bulls or Pacers, in the East. Dwight’s best shot at redemption will always be winning big, and it’s not clear if he’ll be able to do that in Atlanta, not to mention how much league-wide apathy his been built up towards the Hawks over the years, and how Philips Arena is half-empty a lot of nights.
Likability Scale: 7/10. The hometown thing is pretty undeniable, but if the team still fails to get out of the second round, nobody’ll care enough to really applaud him for it.
Yes Like: The Mavs are still a generally well-liked team around the league, due to fond memories surrounding their 2011 title run and all-over affection for Dirk Nowitzki. Dwight’s arrival could justify the two seasons Mark Cuban and company mostly threw in the tank waiting around for he or Deron Williams to show up for assistance, and help get vets like Shawn Marion and Vince Carter back to the playoffs, possibly for their final title runs. Post-Dirk, he would represent just about the entire Dallas Mavericks brand, hopefully keeping the team relevant through their rebuild.
No Like: Going to Big D would seem much more like a business decision than a basketball one, as it’s hard to find a plausible explanation for why the Mavericks would represent Howard’s best shot at winning a championship. Folks would assume he opted to go there for a combination of the big market and Cuban’s stellar reputation as a player pamperer, or possibly just because Dirk seems like a less-mean superstar teammate than Kobe.
Likability Scale: 3/10. No real good story here. He’d have to win big and fast for a public turnaround, and with a Mavs roster that’s aging, doesn’t have a ton of trade assets and didn’t even make the playoffs last year, that don’t seem too likely.
Los Angeles Lakers:
Yes Like: Dwight actually stuck around! Despite his conflicts last year with Kobe and his failure to really fit into Mike D’Antoni’s offense, Dwight has decided to tough it out in Los Angeles, try to restore greatness to the legendary Lakers franchise, and honor the legacy of Lakers big men past. At the very least, he could finally get people to stop throwing the “loyalty before anything” quote from his Orlando days back in his face, and he’ll keep that “Stay D12″ billboard movement from being remembered as perhaps the saddest moment in Lakers franchise history.
No Like: It’s still the Lakers, and it’s still more money. Any narrative that Dwight tried to craft about him sticking around to either be part of a historic franchise or finish what he started the year before would inevitably be undermined by the fact that he was getting paid more annually over more years to do so than he would if he went anywhere else, and any credit he got for sticking with the Lakers would be undermined by the fact it was indeed the Lakers, still probably the league’s most-hated franchise, and one who things always seem to go right for. And of course, Dwight’s first season with LA didn’t go so well, and there’s no telling that it would go any better with a gimpy Kobe and maybe no Pau Gasol.
Likability Index: 5/10. The “Dwight stayed!” story is nice, but there’s no brownie points to be gained for staying with the Lakers, no matter what the deal with Kobe is next year.
Houston or Atlanta for you then, Dwight, with the slight edge going to Houston. Will you listen to us, though, Dwight? Jersey sales, adidas commercials and a possible cameo in “Think Like a Man, Too” may hang in the balance.