With NBA stars such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh changing teams the past year, many have believed up next is Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard.
While the Bulls were unable to cash in on a big-name superstar during last summer's free-agent frenzy, there's renewed hope that they could be a viable destination for Howard. In addition to having the reigning league MVP in point guard Derrick Rose, the Bulls would be able to use attractions like the city and market of Chicago, coach Tom Thibodeau and a team that won a league-high 62 games last season.
Prior to Monday, however, Howard had remained loyal to Orlando, which drafted him first overall in the 2004 NBA draft, and did his best to brush off trade and free agency rumors. After months of making a case as to why the Magic remain his first choice, the five-time All-Star opened up to Esquire Magazine's Scott Haab.
"There's more you can do in a bigger place," Howard told the magazine for its November issue. "I'm stuck in a tough position because I feel like right now, where I'm at, I've done so much. And I just don't know what else I can do. I can't live for everybody else.
"I don't know what decision I'm gonna make as of right now. It's been crazy. Everybody wants me to come here, come play here, come to our team, do this. It's a great feeling, though, to be wanted."
At 25 years old, Howard appears to have his eyes set on winning. Since reaching the NBA Finals in 2009, the Magic's playoff run has ended earlier than they -- and, most importantly, Howard -- have expected. In 2010, the team fell in the Eastern Conference finals, and last season, they were upset by Atlanta in the first round.
Although Magic GM Otis Smith made a couple of bold trades last season when he acquired Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas from Phoenix and Washington, respectively, for Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis, the moves leave the front office in a tight spot economically. Unfortunately for Howard, unless the Magic find a way to get creative, it's going to be tough to surround him with the amount of talent it takes to compete in the East.
The seven-year NBA veteran said he doesn't know what his future holds, but made it clear that leaving Orlando and its people would be the "toughest part."
"They've got burgers named after me in Orlando, they've got a Web site saying, "Please stay." I love the people in the city," the three-time Defensive Player of the Year said. "I've literally sat on the bench with a towel on my head crying, because I feel the passion in the stands."
Having already witnessed stars change jerseys in order to have a better chance at an NBA championship and opposing teams surpass his Magic in the East rankings, it seems like Howard wants to take matters into his own hands. Unlike LeBron James, though, he said won't have a one-hour special on ESPN to announce his decision.
Said Howard: "That's not me."
Still, the losing is taking its toll on the 265-pound Howard. In a statement similar to ones Celtics forward Kevin Garnett made in the final stages of his career with Minnesota, Howard doesn't want to see the prime of his career go to waste. You can hardly blame him.
"I just think about what's going to be best for what I want to accomplish in my life," Howard said. "And I don't want that door to close on me, wherever that door is. I don't want it to close."
In the end, it looks as though the only thing that could keep Howard -- who is under contract with the Magic through next season -- in Orlando past the 2011-12 season is if the new collective bargaining agreement includes a deal similar to the NFL's franchise tag.
Howard's apparent love for the city puts him in a "tough position," but the Magic will be in one, too. In a risky decision, they could elect to keep him and negotiate a contract extension with him and his agent next summer. But after seeing what happened to Cleveland and Toronto last offseason, Orlando could trade Howard for valuable assets, similar to the choice Denver made with Anthony last season.
The Bulls and L.A. Lakers have been mentioned as possible suitors for Howard, who averaged 22.9 points and 14.1 rebounds last season. As trade bait, the two teams have young centers -- Joakim Noah and Andrew Bynum -- both of whom, when healthy, are All-Star caliber big men.
If you're Bulls management, would you, for example, ship Noah, forwards Luol Deng and Taj Gibson and a first-round draft pick to Orlando for Howard and a player who has a bloated contract such as Arenas or Turkoglu? With the league in a labor impasse, it's anybody's guess as to what moves either team can make once the NBA resumes business.
The Bulls appear to be one perimeter scorer away from being in annual title contention, as Dwyane Wade admitted in August, so giving up depth for star power could be a risky, but game-changing, gamble. However, the NBA is a star-driven league, and if the Bulls want to topple the Heat's big three, pairing Howard with Rose might do the trick.
Either way, there's no question the Magic are in a lose-lose situation -- unless something drastic happens with the team or Howard's mindset.