Mavericks and Nets share common goal

DALLAS -- It makes perfect sense that Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard will land in Los Angeles in a couple weeks to play with Kobe Bryant.

It almost seems predestined. Just look at the Los Angeles Lakers' ludicrous lineage: Wilt Chamberlain traded by Philadelphia in 1968; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar traded by Milwaukee in 1975; Shaquille O'Neal signed as a free agent out of Orlando in 1996; Andrew Bynum drafted by L.A. in 2005.

Big men -- dominant big men, the most precious commodity in the history of the game -- spring up in Tinseltown like starlets. And here we sit, 16 days out from the March 15 NBA trade deadline and the Lakers hold the primo hand to nab Howard in a trade. The Magic must first decide to trade him, however, and that means giving up the hope -- the fantasy? -- that Howard can be convinced to stay.

Two teams that Howard lists as top destinations play Tuesday night in Dallas -- the woebegone New Jersey Nets with soon-to-be free agent Deron Williams, a wild card in the Howard sweepstakes, and the defending champion Dallas Mavericks with owner Mark Cuban's ready-made roster for implosion this summer and a cap-friendly blueprint to rebuild with a superstar or two around Dirk Nowitzki.

Sometimes the NBA schedule plays funny tricks. Before the All-Star break, Howard and the Magic played at New Jersey. He further seduced Nets fans and Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov by padding a stat line of 20 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals in a blowout win.

Then Howard returned to Orlando and greeted a legion of considerably leery-minded fans at the All-Star Game, serenading them with microphone in hand and spotlight shining down, about how wonderful it is for "our city" to play host to the midseason showcase.

The Avery Johnson-coached Nets, all of 10-25, resume the regular season in Dallas, where the Mavs' dream of not only snapping up Howard, but also taking the Nets' Dallas-reared All-Star point guard Williams, too.

But, back to Howard, the 6-foot-11, three-time defending defensive player of the year who puts up double-doubles in his sleep and 20-20 games with one eye open.

Do the Mavs really have a chance?

They certainly aren't the Lakers when it comes to outfitting centers. James Donaldson hadn't played here since 1992, yet it took until last season for him to finally be unseated as the franchise's No. 1 big man. The list of trees that have traipsed through town since Cuban bought the team is lengthy, mostly loathsome, and loaded down by Cuban's Benjamins.

From Shawn Bradley's extension as a broken-down bit player to Evan Eschmeyer's odd pay day to Raef LaFrentz to Erick Dampier to DeSagana Diop to Brendan Haywood, Cuban has showered centers with contracts that approach $300 million. To Cuban's credit, he's also gotten off the hook early on several deals, such as LaFrentz's seven-year, $69 million mistake and Diop's $32 million full mid-level blunder, by convincing some other team to take them on and pay the bill.

Cuban said he has never regretted handing one out.

"No, not really because you build a team," Cuban said. "You guys [the media] are so intense about how much you pay one guy. Well, the value of the rest of your roster goes to hell if you don't have that one guy, so it's about what it costs to build a team, nothing else, absolutely nothing else.

"Anybody who worries about the price per position is a moron and they deserve to be in last place like they probably are."

For example, Cuban says, Dampier's seven-year, $73 million contract on the heels of his one and only double-double season with Golden State, paid off with a trip to the 2006 NBA Finals.

"We don't go there with no center," Cuban said. "You don't get anywhere."

Of course, the Dampier deal paid off even more handsomely when Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson parlayed the $13 million nonguaranteed final year on Dampier's contract for 7-foot-1 center Tyson Chandler and a championship.

The irony, of course, is that the Mavs finally found their big man -- athletic, good hands, nasty defender, vocal leader -- and Cuban chooses to let him walk.

The new collective bargaining agreement changed the game for Cuban, leading him to chase summer cap space, the golden ticket to make a full-force charge at Howard, as well as Williams, one of the elite point guards for which Howard is apparently desperately yearning.

"I would have been one of those morons if I would have tried to anticipate and try to guess," Cuban said, referring to why he didn't re-sign Chandler to a mega-deal prior to the lockout as Chandler admittedly had hoped. "Whatever the rules are, you read them, you learn them, try to evaluate them and try to make the best decisions possible."

In 16 days, Cuban will better know if a decision on Howard or Williams or both is coming in July. And really, what decision would there be? If one or both want to make Dallas home, then Cuban will surely spare no cost to oblige.

There are rumors swirling that both Howard and Williams will land in Big D in what would be the most ballyhooed free-agent double-dip since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in South Beach. Some suggest Williams is headed home no matter what.

Still, it's not a slam dunk. If the Nets believe they can't get Howard in a trade, they could opt to deal Williams or risk holding onto him with the hope of ultimately alluring both to Brooklyn.

On Monday night, two teams meet in Dallas with vastly differing season goals, but bound by the common objective of contending for future championships by pairing an elite point guard with the top center of his generation.

That is if the Lakers don't get in the way first.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.