Plan D12: Rather play with Kobe, Dirk or Harden?

ESPNDallas.com will compare the Mavericks, Lakers and Rockets in five facets -- other than money -- that could play a role in Dwight Howard's free agency decision in a one-per-day series: owners/front office, coaches, co-stars, supporting casts and franchise tradition. We focused on Chris Paul last week.

Dwight Howard can choose between surefire Hall of Famers who are in their golden years or pair with a young player who has that type of potential.

Does he want to deal with Kobe Bryant’s ego and demanding personality again? Does Kobe’s torn Achilles tendon factor into the decision? Does Howard believe Dirk Nowitzki still has a few elite years left in his legs? Does he consider James Harden a long-term fit as his co-star?

We’re talking about the most infamously indecisive man in the NBA here, so the answers to those questions could change a dozen or so times before free agency opens July 1. Let’s see if we can help Howard by laying out the pros and cons of each potential co-star.

Bryant: As heartwarming as Howard’s post-surgery visit to Kobe’s home might have been, this relationship was rocky at best throughout the season. That’s kind of the way Kobe rolls with premier centers.

As was the case with Shaquille O'Neal, part of the issue is the polar-opposite personalities. Bryant has earned a reputation as one of the most ruthless competitors in sports. Howard often acts like a big, goofy kid.

There’s also the alpha male thing. Bryant won his power struggle with Shaq, and he wasn’t about to subjugate his ego upon Howard’s arrival in Los Angeles. Make no mistake: As long as Kobe is wearing purple and gold, the Lakers will be his team.

And then there’s the on-court chemistry, or lack thereof. Bryant will dominate the ball, plain and simple. The offense isn’t going to run through Howard, especially not with Mike D’Antoni on the bench. Whether Howard wants to admit it or not, that negatively affects his energy, reducing the easy buckets he ought to get in the flow of the game and making him a less effective defender.

Kobe’s comeback from the torn Achilles suffered late in the season is a huge wild card. Can Bryant, who turns 35 this summer, ever get back to being a dominant player? Will the injury force him to change his style?

Another thing nobody knows at this point: How much longer will Bryant play?

Nowitzki: Like Bryant, Nowitzki’s contract expires next summer, but he’s committed to playing at least two or three more seasons for the Mavs. The fact that Dirk’s deal only has a year left makes him a more attractive potential teammate, because he’s promised to take a major pay cut to make room for more talent.

As far as personality and style of play, Howard couldn’t ask for a better fit as a co-star than Nowitzki.

Dirk is more than willing to pass the baton of being the Mavs’ centerpiece to another future Hall of Famer. He’d love to be the second-best player on his team for the first time since the developmental stage of his career. Yet Dirk could still serve as the unofficial locker room spokesman, easing the burden on Howard’s sensitive shoulders.

As long as Nowitzki’s legs are able, the Mavs will always look for opportunities to get him open midrange looks and create mismatches for him. But Nowitzki would be ecstatic to spend much of his time serving as a floor-spacing stretch 4 if the Mavs are able to acquire a low-post weapon. Think of how effective Rashard Lewis and Ryan Anderson were in that role during their days playing with Howard in Orlando. How do you think the sweetest-shooting 7-footer in NBA history would fare with a bunch of open 3s?

The concern with Nowitzki, of course, is his age. He’s about to turn 35 and his numbers dipped the last two seasons, in large part due to knee problems.

How much greatness is left in the big German? The Mavs will point to 37-year-old Tim Duncan as proof that, with good medical care and modern technology, the all-time greats can bounce back from nuisance knee problems and be dominant forces.

Harden: At the tender age of 23, Harden made the leap to elite last season, seizing the opportunity that came with his “The Man” responsibilities after being traded to the Rockets.

With Bryant recovering from a serious injury, Harden should indisputably be considered the game’s premier shooting guard at this point, having averaged 25.9 points, 5.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds for a playoff team. And he’s still a few years away from his prime.

Harden has also proven he can sacrifice his ego (but not money) to co-exist with superstars. He thrived as the Thunder’s sixth man before Oklahoma City’s front office made a financial-based decision to deal him just before last season began.

There’s no doubt that Harden would welcome Howard to Houston. In fact, Harden has reportedly been making recruiting pitches to Howard over the phone for weeks now.

What’s not to like about Harden for Howard?

Well, the Mavs might mention that Harden’s pound-the-dribble-and-shoot-a-lot playing style is awfully similar to Bryant. They had the top two usage rates and most field goals attempted among shooting guards who played at least 50 games last season. Could that perhaps plant seeds of doubt in Howard’s fickle mind about pairing with "The Beard"?

EDGE: Rockets