What could have been with Nets, Howard

Dwight Howard once wanted to call Barclays Center home.

He still hasn't played there yet.

But assuming he doesn't sit out the game due to knee soreness, Howard will make his debut at the $1 billion arena in Brooklyn on Monday night, when the surging Houston Rockets face the struggling Brooklyn Nets.

Howard, of course, holds the distinction of being the first and only superstar to demand a trade to the Nets. (Stephon Marbury requested to be closer to his Brooklyn home prior to being traded to New Jersey in 1998-99.)

It's just that a trade never happened. The "Dwightmare" was just that -- an absolute nightmare.

Rumors swirling on a daily basis. So many blockbuster trade scenarios. So much reason for optimism.

But a deal was never consummated, Howard stunningly waived his early-termination option in March 2012 and ultimately ended up with the Los Angeles Lakers that summer after multiple failed attempts by the Nets to obtain him.

Since then, the Nets have spent a massive amount of money and made a ton of moves in an all-out effort to become a contender. But some of those moves have backfired, leaving the franchise muddled in mediocrity until the summer of 2016, when they will once again have ample cap space and be able to pursue superstar players in free agency.

How did they get here? It all started in December 2011. Howard asked the Orlando Magic to trade him to the Nets. He wanted to team up with the Deron Williams, which would have formed the NBA's most lethal center-point guard tandem. Remember how big it was when the two had dinner together? It was the first time D12 asked. It wouldn't be the last time. The two teams began talking. Multiple scenarios were discussed. Nothing came of them.

Orlando hoped to convince Howard to stay. It didn't appear that he would. Then came the trade deadline. Howard was going to get his wish and become a Net -- until the last minute, when he changed his mind, staying "loyal" to the Magic and getting to play in the postseason, too.

Howard waived his option, and Nets GM Billy King acquired Gerald Wallace from Portland for expiring contracts and the top-three protected first-round pick that became franchise cornerstone Damian Lillard. (The Nets liked only Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Thomas Robinson, but other lotto picks in the 2012 draft included Bradley Beal, Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond.) King then gave Wallace, 30, a four-year, $40 million deal over the summer as part of an effort to convince Williams to stay.

During the offseason, the Nets re-signed Williams (five years, $98.7 million) and traded for Joe Johnson (four years, $89.3 million owed). Howard and his agent, Dan Fagan, went back to the Magic again, trying to push a deal and give Brooklyn a big three that could rival Miami's.

Brooklyn's final proposal to Orlando was four future unprotected firsts, Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries (both sign and trades) in exchange for Howard, Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon and Earl Clark.

Magic GM Rob Hennigan said no.

Concerned that Lopez, a restricted free agent at the time, was going to sign an offer sheet with another team, the Nets pulled out of the Howard talks and inked Lopez to a four-year, $60.8 million max deal. Humphries, who had the same agent as Howard, got two years, $24 million. Fegan was believed to be seeking only $8 million per season for Humphries, but King fully guaranteed his deal in the hopes of revamping talks when Lopez and Humphries would be trade eligible on Jan. 15. A $12 million annual wage would help match salary down the road.

It never worked out.

"I did want to go to Brooklyn. That's the place where I told the Magic that I really wanted to go," Howard said in October 2012.

In August 2012, the Magic completed a blockbuster trade to send Howard to the Lakers. They received promising 7-footer Nikola Vucevic, who is averaging 18.4 points and 11.1 rebounds per game in 2014-15 at age 24. Did the Nets ever really have a chance?

Following a disheartening first-round playoff exit with the Williams-Johnson-Wallace-Lopez core, King pulled off what turned out to be a once-lauded, cataclysm of a blockbuster deal with the Celtics in July 2013, moving the firsts he was going to send to Orlando (unprotected 2014, 2016, 2018 and the rights to a pick swap in 2017) to Boston in exchange for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The contracts of Wallace and Humphries were included in the trade to make money match. It is believed that one of the firsts in the deal was included for the Celtics to take on the final three years of Wallace's contract.

Some felt the Nets gave too much. Garnett, who had to waive his no-trade clause for the deal to go through, was contemplating retirement. Meanwhile, Boston GM Danny Ainge was just days away from possibly having to waive Pierce, one of the most popular players in franchise history. Only one third of Pierce's $15.3 million wage was guaranteed, and with the team in rebuilding mode, there was thought that Ainge wouldn't pay the remainder. It appeared the Nets had a ton of leverage.

But after hiring Jason Kidd as head coach, King wanted to put his team in position to chase a title. They paid an NBA-record $90.57 million in luxury taxes and got as far as one second-round playoff win. The Nets decided to pass on retaining Pierce over the summer, and he has become a huge contributor in Washington.

Williams, Lopez and Johnson have all recently been on the trading block for the Nets, who do not have total control over one of their firsts until 2019. As a result, it has become extremely difficult for them to rebuild. They cannot afford to be a lottery team this season (actually, the next few seasons) because their pick would go to the Hawks as a result of the Johnson swap (which included the right to swap firsts in 2015).

But the playoffs are no guarantee for the 16-21 Nets -- even in the weak Eastern Conference. Thirteen of their next 16 games are against teams that would qualify for the postseason if the season ended Monday. It is unknown what their roster will look like by then. They have a nice building block in Mason Plumlee, but little else. Mikhail Prokhorov called King a "very strong GM" in November, but the Nets owner can't feel very good about where the team is headed right now. Perhaps they can still turn things around.

Seeing Howard, assuming he does play, on the herringbone-patterned court Monday night night will be strange -- if only because he'll finally be playing in the place he once wanted to call home, albeit with the opposition. Oh, what could've been.