COMMENTARY | The Dwight Howard saga wears on.
Whether or not the Lakers are better off without him is a topic for another story (they're not, by the way), but the fact is they have mortgaged their pride and their future on the fact that he will re-sign with them this summer and try to become the next great center in Laker-land.
The Rockets can rock the Lakers' world by acquiring Howard and throw a serious wrench in their immediate plans. That's because where the Lakers have obvious factors in their favor, the Rockets can come back with something almost equally as enticing.
No one knows what Howard is thinking, but the fact remains that the decision to stay in Los Angeles isn't as cut-and-dry as it seems. The Rockets have a counter to everything the Lakers can throw at him.
Let's look at it one factor at a time:
Though the Rockets have two championships in their own franchise history, they can't compete with that of what many consider the gold standard of professional sports organizations. The modern Lakers were built behind the genius of late owner Jerry Buss and have a total of 16 NBA titles to show for it, 10 of which they won under the Buss regime.
Though there are questions remaining about the future of the franchise under Buss' son, Jim in the wake of his father's passing, the Lakers are a branding staple of the NBA and will always have their great legacy to fall back on.
How heavily will this weigh on Howard's mind as he makes his decision? Can he put the 2012-13 season behind him and look at the big picture in terms of what it really means to be a Laker? If the answer is yes, then this will still work in L.A.'s favor. But again, we're talking about history, and what matters most in Howard's career is the future.
Athletes love to patronize fans with the "it's not about the money" cliche. But one thing is certain when it comes to pro sports -- It's always about the money.
Here are the facts: The Lakers can offer Howard roughly $30 million more than any other team by retaining his Larry Bird Rights via the three-team deal that brought him to Los Angeles last offseason from the Orlando Magic and relieved Lakers fans of the Andrew Bynum headache. The Bird Rights advantage will exist in the form of a five-year deal as opposed to four years, with his annual raise being 7.5 percent as opposed to the Non-Bird 4.5.
But in Texas, there is no state income tax, so for 41 game checks, Howard would retain more of his salary. That means that he would save a significant amount by playing in The Lone Star State as opposed to playing elsewhere with the Golden State Warriors or the Atlanta Hawks.
Plus, he would be 31 years-old when his next free agent deal would go into effect, and he could sign another max deal at that point for five years. He would've missed out on big dollars early on, but could make it up on the back end of his career if he stays healthy.
That last point, his health, is a big "if" given his years in the league, injury history and the undeniable effects of father time.
Still, the Rockets are able to close the gap a great deal monetarily because of geography and the fact that they'll likely be willing to give him another maximum contract offer down the road.
Speaking of gaps being closed, L.A. struggled so badly this season, that they are probably not as enviable of a destination for other stars. For example, if Howard spurns the Lakers and their competitive advantages in free agency to play elsewhere, it will be a major indictment on the dismal state of the team and their grim future prospects.
Great players want to play with other top talent in today's NBA. Gone are the days when players took satisfaction from sizing themselves up against one another by aiming to play against and beat the best. The Lakers used to have a major edge because free agents knew that other great players dreamed of donning the purple-and-gold.
His decision will ultimately be the true litmus test as to whether or not the Lakers still have that "it" factor in the perception of today's superstar.
The Rockets are leading in the youth and talent department. In addition to James Harden, one of the best young players in the game, the Rockets boast a budding star in Chandler Parsons, a major draw in Jeremy Lin and a host of complementary players that can score and take pressure off Dwight. Harden has already begun recruiting Howard, who will provide instant defense and improve their team significantly on that end of the floor.
The Lakers, on the other hand, are stuck in salary cap purgatory with aging players and potentially the wrong coach for the job. Mike D'Antoni has struggled to get the most out of his team as constructed. That's a bad combination, and one that Howard reportedly isn't pleased about.
The silver lining is that barring the Lakers making a trade, all of their largest current contracts come off the books next offseason. That means that they will have the freedom to re-tool and potentially chase LeBron James. But if the Lakers aren't the Lakers, at that point, then he may not even think about playing in Southern California.
In L.A., Howard would be the leader and go-to superstar, but if he truly cares less about that than winning, then he'll strongly consider Houston's pitch.
Lifestyle / Marketing Opportunities
Another important factor for players is the ability to grow themselves as a brand and de facto corporation. LeBron James went on record saying he wanted to be a global icon, and he's been able to do that to this point in his career. Howard is in the same generation of NBA stars where off-court success is defined by the opportunity to market oneself as far and wide as possible.
Kobe Bryant has mastered it, taking his brand overseas to places like China and Turkey, all while being the king of Los Angeles back in the United States. Howard's not in Orlando anymore, and his year in Los Angles likely exposed him to a host of new opportunities to do things he wouldn't otherwise get to do if he played anywhere else.
Hollywood isn't just about drama, it's about glamour, fame and the like. If Howard cares about any of that, then the Lakers hold an advantage.
Again, no one knows what he'll do, but looking at Houston's case against all of L.A.'s best assets, it's going to be an even matchup that only further randomizes the Dwight Howard sweepstakes.
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Michael C. Jones covers the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA as a Southern California-based sports journalist and editor. He contributes to SB Nation in addition to Yahoo! Sports and is the Managing Editor and Founder of Sports Out West.
- Sports & Recreation
- Dwight Howard
- Houston Rockets
- The Rockets
- the Lakers