COMMENTARY | Dwight Howard is the main attraction on the NBA's biggest stage, and he's about to make the biggest decision of his career as he enters free agency in the summer of 2013.
The burning question around Laker-land is whether or not he will re-sign with Los Angeles. The Lakers took a major gamble when they chose not to trade him before the Feb. 21 deadline after acquiring him in the final year of his contract from the Orlando Magic without any assurance he would stay.
Given his stature in the league as the clear-cut most dominant big man in the NBA, L.A. made a smart move with the gamble. Despite what some fans are saying, Howard is a player any team can build around. There wouldn't be teams like the Houston Rockets clamoring for him if that weren't the case.
But the Lakers needn't worry. Howard will sign a max deal with the Lakers in 2013, and here's why:
1. It's always about the money
If an athlete ever says, "It's not about the money," they are lying. Some players are more passionate than others on their own merit, but when the chance to make more millions comes along, no reasonable player would pass it up.
That's especially true given Howard's case. Under the new CBA, the Lakers can offer him an approximate $30 million more than any other team via a greater number of years and annual salary increases from a percentage standpoint. That's an astronomical amount of money to walk away from, even for a player who's already made enough for several lifetimes.
One thing that is lost on a lot of onlookers is how injured Howard still is through half the season. He's gotten a fair amount of criticism for not playing through a right shoulder injury he sustained in January, but he's been dealing with a major back issue since the start of training camp. He's still not fully healthy, either.
So how does health play into his decision to re-up in L.A.?
Howard knows he's hurt, and that's got to be of some concern to him. If he never gets fully healthy again, this could be his last chance to get a max deal. In other words, because he's hurt, again reference No. 1 above.
3. He cares about his image
Gone are the days of the Charles Barkleys of the world who didn't care about their public image. Players this day in age worry about their public persona for a number of reasons. LeBron James went on record to say he regretted "The Decision" after his free agency debacle in 2010. Howard's in a similar situation with the way he handled his final years in Orlando.
One Dwightmare was enough, and it has to weigh on his mind as he moves forward. If he were to walk away from the Lakers, it would hurt his public perception both by fans and around the league. If he couldn't make it work in L.A., one of the greatest franchises in sports, then it would begin to reflect more poorly on the player, not the team.
If he couldn't make it work with a team full of all-stars, then what kind of teammate would he be to anyone else? That's a question that any league GM would have to ask themselves.
4. It's the Los Angeles Lakers
The late, great Dr. Jerry Buss built something special from the time he took over the Lakers in 1979. Players past, present and future want to associate themselves with the team that transcends the NBA itself. For Howard, walking out on that prestige is not something that will be done lightly, if at all.
The Lakers knew this when they traded for him. They know who they are and what kind of power they hold, and with or without Howard, they'll continue to be that team. Part of the appeal for Howard to stay lies in the fact that his legacy would be greatest in Los Angeles.
5. The Lakers gave him a vote of confidence
General manager Mitch Kupchak recently tabbed Howard as the centerpiece of the team moving forward.
"Dwight is our future," he said on "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" on ESPN Radio. "It's hard to get talent in this league and to have a talent like Dwight Howard, we have no intention of trading Dwight Howard."
That's the kind of trust that resonates with people, especially an emotional player who has been through a lot in what's easily been the most trying season of his young career. The Lakers have made Howard the focus of their plans, and he'll likely reward them (and himself) by re-signing in the summer.
Michael C. Jones covers the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA. He is a regular contributor to SB Nation and the Editor of Sports Out West.
Catch up with him on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets
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