There were plenty of reasons for Dwight Howard to choose to leave the Los Angeles Lakers and join the Houston Rockets in free agency last week — the chance to earn $88 million in a state with no income tax, the chance to play with a dynamic young All-Star guard in James Harden and darn good role-player/pal Chandler Parsons, the chance to work with a Hall-of-Fame big man in Kevin McHale who's proven to be a sharp, flexible head coach, etc. Perhaps the biggest factor of all, though, as Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski wrote after Howard's decision, was the chance to be the No. 1 "face of the franchise."
Apparently, Howard didn't think he'd ever really get that chance at Staples Center, despite claims by Lakers brass to the contrary, because of a certain legendary shooting guard who wears No. 24.
It seems Howard's move to Texas was keyed, in part, by the Lakers' "refusal to establish a clear timetable for moving on from the Kobe Bryant era," according to a report citing "sources with knowledge of Howard's thinking" — which seems like a pretty difficult thing to reliably pin down, so, y'know, buyer beware — by Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein of ESPN.com:
Sources told ESPN.com that Howard and his representatives — in a handful of meetings with Lakers officials before he became a free agent July 1 — strongly suggested the center would have a difficult time re-signing with the team if Bryant stayed with the franchise beyond the 2013-14 season, the final year of his contract.
The Lakers [...] had gone to great lengths to assure the 27-year-old that they saw him as the future face of the franchise and that the torch would be passed from Bryant to him in short order.
But with Bryant saying publicly just a week before free agency that he was thinking of playing at least two or three more seasons, it was hard for Howard to envision when he would assume that role, sources said.
"How can it be Kobe's team and Dwight's team?" one source said. "It was about the passing of the torch."
Before we go further, let's address a note in the Shelburne/Stein story that sounds like a backstabbing bit of internecine politics: that "Howard's camp [...] asked the Lakers whether they were at least considering releasing Bryant through the league's amnesty provision." All that really means, though, is that Howard's "camp" is pretty much just like the rest of us.
Bryant will make more than $30 million this season as he comes off Achilles tendon surgery, eating up more than half the Lakers' salary cap and ensuring that, once again, they will be an capped-out, luxury-tax-paying club with few instruments at their disposal to improve their roster. Yes, using the amnesty on Metta World Peace would get them under the "apron" (the point $4 million above the luxury-tax line), which would afford the Lakers a bit more flexibility in terms of adding pieces with cap exceptions and (depending on how they're structured) possibly sign-and-trade deals moving forward. Jettisoning Kobe, though, would get the Lakers back under the cap, putting everything back in play in terms of a total franchise reboot.
If you're Howard — if you want to be competing for titles yesterday and your future is tied to L.A. being able to rebuild around you — that matters. There are tons of reasons why the Lakers would never amnesty Bryant — and, according to Shelburne and Stern, the Lakers said they weren't considered it — but it's a question worth asking.
OK, now to the meat:
It's somewhat difficult to square Howard's discomfort with not being a clear No. 1 in L.A. with his prior reported desire to play alongside Chris Paul (one of the NBA's snarliest alpha dogs) and his reported interest in Houston adding a third max-level superstar alongside him and Harden. That sounds an awful lot like wanting to have your cake (surround me with elite superstars who make it easier for me to win a championship) and eat it (make sure I'm the leader, the singular voice, the most popular, famous and important player) in a way that doesn't seem realistic.
Then again, those scenarios would involve Dwight playing alongside superstars either in their prime or on their way toward reaching it, rather than on the other side of it and coming off a serious late-career injury. Given the salary cap/roster-building stuff discussed above, Howard being reticent to re-up without a coherent plan for when the Buss family and Mitch Kupchak intend to part ways with Bryant and what they intend to do afterward seems extremely reasonable — especially when you consider that Bryant doesn't want to take a pay cut in a new deal when his current contract runs out next summer. For Dwight, the prospect of spending his prime on teams paying max money to a no-longer-game-changing Kobe approaching 40 had to have been daunting.
Let's be honest, though — that's also mostly because it would have meant spending those years playing with Kobe. That's where a "me or him" stance from Dwight feels odd, because before he ever came to L.A., it was clear that Bryant wasn't going anywhere any time soon and wouldn't be "passing the torch" right away.
Immediately following the four-team trade that sent Howard to Los Angeles, Bryant told Woj, "I'll play two or three more years, and then the team is his." As Bryant batted around the idea of retirement last summer and fall, he was always looking two or three years down the line. That the torn Achilles tendon he suffered in April and the disappointing season through which the Lakers had suffered to that point might have extended his timetable by a season (or two) isn't surprising in the context of how maniacally competitive and title-focused Bryant is.
But why do we have to fault Dwight for maybe not wanting to deal with a maniacally competitive guy who always seems to be talking down to him for the next handful of years?
At every step along the way — from Dwight's preseason debut ("Let's play some mother-bleepin' ball") through the early-season struggle in getting things together ("I'll kick everybody's ass in this locker room if it doesn't happen") and on-and-off play from Howard that bled into late January ("I've constantly tried to help him out, tried to talk to him") and all the way through a disappointing close to the season and his eventual "pitch" for Dwight to stay ("You need to learn how it's done first, and I can teach you here") — Kobe asserted his primacy, his dominance, his alpha-dog status. For all the proclamations, whether delivered verbally or visually, by Kupchak that Howard was the Lakers' future, that message always sort of seemed to be drowned out by the messaging that came from Bryant throughout the season.
Now, that's not to say Bryant was necessarily wrong on the latter score — last year's Lakers were Kobe's team, and for the Lakers to be a title contender, they needed Howard to be better, more committed, a more consistent defensive deterrent and a more willing participant in the pick-and-roll game than he was. He'll need to be all those things in Houston, too, and it will be McHale's job to succeed where Mike D'Antoni didn't in getting Howard on-board with the Rockets' high-volume, spread screen-and-roll-based attack.
To some degree, though, this is workplace decision-making.
Let's say you worked with a very talented, experienced and accomplished project leader who you also felt constantly talked down to you. This is a person whom management has told you time and again wouldn't be your project leader for long, but whom management also isn't going to push out the door, because he's still good for business and still popular with the client base. Moreover, despite management telling you they would deal with this situation, they've shown a repeated disinclination to do so or to lay out any sort of framework for actually following through on that promise.
When your contract comes up, if you get a great job offer from a competitor promising equivalent salary at a lower cost of living in what you think looks like a much healthier professional and personal atmosphere, and your current employer isn't going to make any movement toward improving your situation so that you don't have to deal with that overbearing project leader anymore ... I mean, the list of "pros" associated with making that move is substantially longer than the "con" side, right?
You can understand Kobe feeling like Dwight hasn't earned the right to be the top dog yet and that, from his perspective, offering the challenge of learning from him how to be that guy represents coming toward the middle. You can understand the Lakers not wanting to accelerate Bryant's departure for fear of how moving away from him would be perceived by the fans who've cheered him for 17 years, and not wanting to be viewed as choosing a player without a championship who's come to be viewed as an immature waffler (or perhaps even a liar) over one of the greatest players in franchise and league history.
But you can understand Dwight not wanting to wait around for a day that might never come, too.
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