Howard is real deal, but does he need a fresh start?

In sports, personality and production are two wholly different, unrelated factors. Both shape careers, but only production matters in a grand sense.

One quickly learns as much when afforded the up-close-and-personal view of being around a sports team everyday. Athletes lose their mystique, and it doesn’t take long to see that as awe-inspiring as it is to watch, say, Barry Bonds hit his monster home runs, the prospect of being his best friend for life sounds utterly unappealing.

In the Dwight Howard saga of 2013 – the recurring Dwightmare, if you will – this point is worth bringing up, if not hammering home. No team is going to refuse to sign Howard because he’s been a diva or failed to play nice. When a player has had the career Howard has, those kinds of issues diminish. They can become afterthoughts.

Keeping that in mind, there’s a flaw in the way much of the basketball world views Howard’s free agency this summer. He is not some take-it-or-leave-it player. He is not the kind of guy a team simply walks away from, even when the fit is so horrendous as it was last season. He is not just another center. He is not the kind of player who comes with a buyer-beware price tag – at least not on the court. Maybe he’s not the guy a team mortgages its future on – a la the rumored Warriors sign-and-trade deal – but he’s certainly worth investing in if it can be done without a crippling sacrifice.

In the end, Howard will be paid for what he does on the court. He’ll be paid a max deal this month because he’s a 27-year-old seven-time All-Star. He’ll be paid because he’s a three-time, Defensive Player of the Year, a four-time member of the league’s All-Defensive First Team, a five-time member of the All-NBA First team. He’ll be paid because in 2009-10, he led the NBA in blocks and was second in true shooting percentage, because he is a weapon on both ends of the court, no matter what his critics say. He’ll be paid because until he suffered back and shoulder injuries in the past two seasons, he was the best center in the NBA.

Shall I say that again for emphasis? He was the best center in the NBA, and he probably will be again. After all, he still led the league in rebounding in 2012-13, perhaps the worst and definitely the most trying season of his career.

This is not some broken-down old man, past his prime and demanding the respect due him during it. This is a player with two contracts left in his career, most likely, one who deserves max money in a league where plenty of players who don’t deserve it get it. This is a special player, someone who can be the foundation of a championship squad, if his team builds around him correctly, now and for the next five years.

He’s also Dwight Howard, so of course the whole process is dramatic and irrational. But strip away the theatrics, add in some logic, and what this ultimately comes down to is fit. The past two years haven’t revealed anything about the big man’s game, unless these injuries are something permanent, which is a risk teams have to take. Instead, these seasons have revealed his personality, that he might not be the easiest guy in the world to deal with from a management perspective, that it’s best if he’s kept 100 percent happy, his whims and desires satisfied. Maybe that’s obnoxious and demanding and entitled, but it’s an outgrowth of the modern NBA and the way professional athletes are treated across all sports. These men are, after all, paid millions of dollars to toss a ball around and entertain us.

The story here is not about whether Howard is good enough, or good enough for the money, or good enough for the Lakers; the story is about a fresh start. Does Howard need one? That’s the question now, really, whether L.A. can keep him, whether he can decide that last season was a fluke, that the best chance of winning titles is with the Lakers. Or maybe it wasn’t, and maybe it’s not, and maybe he should go elsewhere. Maybe last season was too much to overcome. Maybe Howard only escapes the specter of himself when he makes the decision to walk away.

Whatever he does, it’s his decision, and wherever he goes, he’s still one of the best players in the NBA.

If you’re a team with the money and the roster space, you don’t turn down a chance to sign Dwight Howard. You just don’t. It doesn’t matter how much you’ll have to tweak your system to make him fit. It doesn’t matter if he suggests you throw more money toward another superstar, like he reportedly asked Houston to do on Sunday night. If you can do it, you do it, plain and simple, unless perhaps you’re the Grizzlies or the Bulls. Only Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert or Brook Lopez are, at this point, good excuses to not take a shot at paying Howard if you have the money.

Of course there might be personality clashes, but at this point, whatever team that signs him can’t claim surprise. Whatever team that signs him will be ready to appease, to kowtow, to treat Howard like a basketball god. Blame the system at least a little bit. That’s just how this works. This guy is the real deal, even if he was injured, even if last season was a disaster. Injuries heal, and disasters settle, and for a player like Howard, teams make sacrifices.

This isn’t about Howard the person; it’s about Howard the player, and Howard the player is a coveted thing.

Throughout all this, the most rational voice has come from none other than Kobe Bryant, the player who reportedly clashed with Howard the most throughout last season, the player with the biggest leadership stake on the team that’s trying to throw $108 million at Howard to bring him back.

“Those guys are hard to find; they don’t grow on trees,” Bryant said in June. “When you have someone like that with his talent level, you have to be able to keep him and lock him in with this franchise.”

There’s not much more to the argument than that. If you have the chance to get him, you try. If your plan was to get him, you don’t abandon it. No team is signing Dwight Howard to be its best friend. He’s being signed to win games, to contend, to be a dominant center. He can do that. He’s proven it, and now he has the clout to bargain for a great supporting cast. Now he needs to shut his mouth, make up his mind and sign on whichever dotted line he so chooses.