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Keeping an eye on Dwight Howard 05.31.11 at 4:29 pm ET
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No one knows what free agency in the NBA will look like next summer, but if Magic center Dwight Howard terminates his contract after next season he will instantly become the next big prize. Unlike the summer of 2010 when LeBron James and friends were set to hit the open market, the uncertainty over a new labor agreement clouds everything at the moment.

Howard could be joined in free agency by players like Chris Paul and Deron Williams, but Howard is the main attraction for obvious reasons. He’s the most dominant center in the league by far, he’s never been seriously injured and he’ll be just 27 years old at 2012 and still in his prime.

As it stands the Celtics could be big players in free agency after next season (again, depending on the new salary cap rules) with under $30 million in salaries currently on the books to three players — Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Avery Bradley. That number will rise obviously but the Celtics are positioned to be active players in 2012.

Howard has the power to alter the dynamic if he chooses to sign an extension with the Magic that is reportedly on the table. He hosted a free barbecue in Orlando over the weekend and told the Orlando Sentinel that he wants to stay.

“I want to start my own path and I want people to follow my path and not just follow somebody else’s path,” he said. “I want to have my own path, and I want to start that here in Orlando.”

He also dropped Shaquille O’Neals name, which as SI.com’s Zach Lowe pointed out, is probably not an accident. Lowe writes:

“Howard must know that invoking Shaq’€™s name is a big, big thing in Orlando. It transforms what would otherwise be the latest in a series of benign pseudo-commitments to Orlando into a memorable, loaded quote in which Howard distances himself from the player who defined the franchise before him. Howard will never be able to avoid this quote if he leaves.”

An Orlando television station reported that Howard was close to signing a two-year extension with the team, but there has been no further corroboration on anyone’s part.

This has already begun to turn into a drama much like the ones that enveloped James in his last season in Cleveland or like the one that surrounded Carmelo Anthony in Denver. Howard’s case is somewhere in the middle. While James played coy with everyone last season, Anthony forced the Nuggets’ hand by refusing to sign an extension. As long as the possibility of signing an extension exists, the Magic will wait on Howard.

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