Dwight Howard has picked the Houston Rockets. Now what?

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Kelly Dwyer
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The nonsense first started during the height of the also nonsensical 2011 NBA lockout. Dwight Howard was unhappy with the team that the Orlando Magic had put around him, and he wanted out. He also didn’t want anyone to know anything about this, staying the good guy in his mind all along -- but these things tend to get out. Howard was the first to blink, though, opting into his 2012-13 contract with the Magic just to look the part of the nice guy, talking up loyalty before turning around and asking for a trade.

Howard won’t be traded this summer. He’s to be charmed, privately, before making his own basketball decision on the next four or five years of his life. And finally, after endless dragging on, Howard has actually beaten the NBA to the punch. Instead of waiting all summer, Howard is moving to the Houston Rockets, according to Sam Amick of USA Today, and he’ll sign with the team once the NBA’s moratorium ends on July 10. And according to Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, the final paperwork should be sussed out late Friday or early Saturday.

The Rockets won. They finally felled the Los Angeles Lakers.

In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been a fair fight, but Dwight’s personality and notorious unease with change and/or letting people down put the Lakers in the lead to re-sign him until the offseason set in. It was figured that all Los Angeles had to do was pat Dwight on the back, tell him how much he’s loved and wanted, before procuring a five-year max deal and heading to get ice cream after the Dodgers game.

Houston couldn’t offer five years, but they trumped the Lakers with actual basketball-related assets. A flexible coach in Kevin McHale, who is noted for his work both as a big man and with younger big men. A young roster featuring an All-Star guard of its own in James Harden. Four years, at nearly the max, and most importantly an excuse to flee the crumbling Lakers empire, now built on the broken wheels of former stars, led by a man in Jim Buss that seems to be flexing his muscle in all the wrong places, at all the wrong times.

The Lakers will recover from this, because the Lakers always recover. The same sense of timing and luck and touch that helped them build what seemed like a new dynasty around Howard last summer will carry over as the team moves on. The team has multiple options in place to score scads of cap space in the summer of 2014, when several big-name free agents could be available. Once the cap holds are set aside and Kobe Bryant’s return (he’s a free agent in 2014) is figured out, the team could gear up for one more run with their all-time superhero.

The problem with that knowledge is that they were supposed to be doing that, already, in 2012-13. And 2013-14. And now the team will be forced to fix 2013-14 on the fly, mindful that all the impressive assets that teams will come calling to trade for (Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, even Steve Nash) can’t be parlayed into contracts that move beyond the summer of 2014. That means the Lakers of 2013-14 may look a lot like the Lakers of 2012-13, except without Dwight Howard, and possibly without 20 games from Kobe Bryant as he doggedly rehabs from an Achilles tear.

This also isn’t to say Houston isn’t without its issues. Jeremy Lin had an up-and-down season in his first full campaign as starter, the team’s depth was compromised as it chased down room to sign Howard with, and ESPN’s Brian Windhorst is reporting that center Omer Asik is less than thrilled with the Howard transaction.

Dealing Asik – a center who at times contributes Dwight Howard-level defense in front of the relative obscurity of League Pass watchers – would seem to be an answer to that depth problem, but even that will be a rough go. Asik will make around the league’s average salary next year (a bargain), but be paid nearly $15 million in 2014-15, in spite of only counting as around $9 million to a team’s salary cap. That convoluted distance between actual pay (Asik is good, but not $15 million good) and cap hit could get in the way of an owner signing off on dealing for one of the NBA’s best young centers.

Then there is the issue of Howard, himself.

He’s turned into one of the NBA’s least-liked players simply by poorly playing out what we all should have the right to do freely – improve our working conditions and choose our own destiny in a free market with demand for our services. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Dwight Howard wanting a trade from Orlando, as the team that former general manager Otis Smith had put around him was an overpaid mess. And there’s nothing wrong with Howard leaving two members of the draft class of 1996 behind as he jumps to a younger team.

The execution, paired with his injury-plagued and disappointing play in 2012-13, turned this into a farce. And the pressure to make everyone forget this particular farce could cause Howard to overreact, which is how he got into this mess in the first place.

Some aspects of this need to be discussed, though.

Dwight Howard made a basketball decision. He took less money to play with a better team in a smaller market, one that will have him working away from his current home in sunny-and-72 Los Angeles for months at a time. He’ll be judged on a global scale, in terms of influence and endorsement runs, with Yao Ming. And, more importantly, he’ll be judged alongside Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon, two Rockets legends who dragged their teams to the Finals and eventual championships.

Howard is willingly taking all this on. And that, for a person that has made our life so annoying for the past two years, is worth admiring.