Dwight Howard's next move isn't clear yet, but no matter which… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
Dwight Howard won't make his decision as a free agent until July -- to be [the Lakers] or not to be [the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks or any other number of suitors].
Whatever the choice, Howard is going to need to take a leap of faith.
Should Howard decide to stay in Los Angeles, how quickly will the Lakers shift back into championship contenders?
The Lakers are already dealing with lowered expectations after a down season. Kobe Bryant's Achilles injury is a significant uncertainty, even if the All-Star guard hopes to be back by opening night.
"People close to [Howard] say he's still leery of Kobe Bryant, a big sign of immaturity, as well as down on [Coach] Mike D'Antoni, keeping his record perfect since he's been down on previous coaches," writes former Times columnist Mark Heisler for LakersNation.com.
The Lakers have been adamant that D'Antoni will return next season, with an opportunity to show that the team's 28-12 finish to the season (despite injuries) was no fluke. Perhaps with a healthy roster and the benefit of training camp, D'Antoni can prove to Howard that he's the right coach.
Of course Howard will have to place his trust in D'Antoni and the organization, despite an offensive philosophy that Howard doesn't necessarily have faith in.
"If Howard takes the money and stays, he's likely to come back next season with issues, like those that arrived with last season," writes Heisler.
Arguably the Rockets and Hawks have the means to put a better team around Howard in the first year. Houston can boast a lot of young talent, a deficiency on the Lakers' roster.
James Harden emerged as one of the league's top shooting guards, although Heisler warns his "bread-and-butter play is the pick-and-roll, which Dwight couldn't run with Steve Nash, so good luck."
The Hawks are facing possible tampering charges after sending a letter to season ticket holders suggesting players like Chris Paul and Howard were possibilities for the franchise.
Would both Los Angeles stars defect to the south in Howard's hometown, potentially joining All-Star forward-center Al Horford?
Howard may choose to believe in Mark Cuban in Dallas, although Dirk Nowitzki is in the same role of aging star as Kobe Bryant. The Mavericks can boast slightly more youth than the Lakers -- but their path back to the NBA Finals may be just as murky.
The Lakers and Mavericks stand to have significant cap room in summer 2014 to lure another star to play alongside Howard.
Only the Lakers can offer $118 million over five years but a deal with the Rockets or Mavericks over four years at $88 million is comparable with a four-year contract with the Lakers (taking California state income tax into account).
Howard earned just a lukewarm reception from the fans in Los Angeles who were generally leery, given his lack of commitment.
Whatever his decision, Howard isn't guaranteed success.
His strengths (rebounding, shot-blocking, defense, low-post scoring, etc.) are also coupled with weaknesses (free throw shooting, low-post scoring, etc.). With the right pieces, Howard can dominate in the paint but he's still relatively limited offensively.
Howard needs the right situation to truly flourish. That might not be the Lakers next season, but they could still be the best long-term choice given their fan base, location and organizational history.
The Lakers can give him the biggest contract and may revitalize the franchise with a successful summer of shopping in 2014.
Houston can provide a greater chance at instant gratification.
Ultimately, it's going to come down to which organization Howard decides is worthy of his faith.
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Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.