Within the Los Angeles Lakers, there had been a belief that a late January team meeting in Memphis could've been the beginning of Dwight Howard's future with the franchise, or merely the beginning of the end. No restraints, no mercy, no holding back. Kobe Bryant had climbed into Howard in a way that was startling, sobering, a moment of penetrating and unpleasant truths.
Every time you trash me to teammates, it gets back to me, witnesses said Bryant told Howard in the visiting locker room of the FedEx Forum. Every time you do one of your impersonations when I walk out of the room, I find out. Everything tumbled out of Bryant, one grievance after another, and the Lakers coaches and players sat watching the two biggest personas in the room push closer together, or irreconcilably apart.
Bryant had come to rage against the idea that Howard's clownish disposition could overtake the locker room, the Lakers' culture, and had warned Howard that he would never, ever let it happen. He hated it with Shaquille O'Neal, but Shaq performed on a championship plane for the Lakers and delivered a disposition to dominate on the floor.
"Kobe talked to Dwight in a way that I don't think anyone one had ever talked to him – not in Orlando, not here, not in his life, I'm betting," one witness in the room told Yahoo! Sports. "He's been coddled, and Kobe wasn't going to coddle him."
Despite Howard's recuperation from his back injury, few believed he had been playing with the proper passion and purpose – not the coaches, not the players, not opponents – and those within the Lakers understood Howard's most rebellious weapon was never confrontation, but holding back on the court.
There were bigger issues than Bryant and Howard in the room, but everyone understood that this meeting – first reported in the Los Angeles Times – had been about the two superstars, about the tension that had been building with the losing, about the push and pull between selling Howard on staying a Laker, or begging him.
In the end, Kobe Bryant didn't chase Dwight Howard out of Los Angeles, nor did Mike D'Antoni, nor did anyone in the employ of the franchise. The Lakers weren't for Howard, and Howard wasn't for the Lakers. Every executive and coach who has ever worked with Howard will tell you: He needs to be the face of the franchise and he needs unconditional love. Those weren't immediately available to him with the Lakers, and they'll be showered upon him in Houston now.
"If he missed two big free throws in Orlando, it was forgotten in 30 minutes," one league official with ties to Howard's past says. "If he missed them in L.A., they talked about it for a week. With Dwight, he has to be the face of the franchise. Anything less than that, and it would be difficult for him to function at his highest level."
In every way, the Houston Rockets are perfectly suited for Howard. He's 27 years old and needs to start competing for championships. He wants to be the biggest star in the franchise, and he gets it. He wants to be the biggest personality in the room, and he becomes it. He wants to play for a Hall of Fame big man, he says, and he has been afforded that with Kevin McHale.
"The conditions need to be lined up perfectly to get the most out of Dwight," one team official who has history with Howard told Yahoo! Sports. "When he's engaged, he can carry a team like few else in the league. Houston is suited for him."
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey conceived and executed an impeccable plan, gutting his roster, drafting undervalued prospects with low picks (Chandler Parsons), signing undervalued players (Patrick Beverley), snagging restricted free agents with toxic offer sheets (Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin) and assembling the assets to make a trade for a star guard (James Harden).
One year ago, Howard wanted no part of the Rockets. When the Magic were considering trades, Howard's reps warned Houston that it shouldn't trade for Howard. He'd never stay there, the Rockets were told. Only, Morey and his assistant general managers, Gersson Rosas, Arturas Karnisovas and Sam Hinkie – now the Philadelphia 76ers' top executive – kept constructing a case, kept monitoring a miserable experience that offered hope for Houston.
For Howard, the Rockets deliver him an adoring market with a rich history of great teams and franchise centers. From Moses Malone to Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson to Yao Ming, Houston has a legacy and legitimacy. Harden made the Rockets relevant again, and Howard makes them contenders.
In the final weeks and days and hours leading into Howard's decision, the most consistent negative recruiting pitch rivals made to him about Houston centered on Harden. In presentations and private conversations to Howard, Harden had been sold as a bad teammate and selfish player, multiple sources told Yahoo! Sports.
"He was told [Harden] would be another Kobe in his life," one source closely involved in the free-agent process told Yahoo! Sports. "It came from a lot of people, but never once from Dwight's mouth."
Houston was aware it was happening and worked to diffuse the campaign late in the process. "It was obviously competitive for Dwight's services, and maybe we were looking like the lead team," Morey told Y! Sports. "But not only were teams advocating for their own position, they tried to tear us down, too. I didn't have any issue with it, unless it became personal."
In the end, the Rockets had been exhaustive in their research, and manufactured a roster, a coach, a pitch and a co-star that made Howard want them. To walk out on the Lakers changes Howard's standing in history, but only if he never wins a championship with Houston.
After that meeting in Memphis, the Lakers played inspired basketball for the rest of the regular season, and Howard slowly, surely started to resemble his old self. Bryant tore his Achilles near the end of the regular season and left the locker room on crutches to join the bench in Game 4 of the playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs – leaving the locker room as an ejected Howard marched into it.
As it turned out, this was goodbye for Howard and Bryant, goodbye for Howard and the Lakers. For everything that Dwight Howard believed he could clutch out of Los Angeles, out of the bright lights and big city, he made the right decision for himself with the Houston Rockets. Kobe Bryant is out of his life now, and perhaps so is the confrontation that Howard loathes in his life.
When Howard called Morey on Friday night to tell him he planned to play for the Rockets, he promised nothing but hard work and championship drive. No more free agency, no more drama, no more excuses. Howard chose Houston for himself, and there's no more blaming Kobe Bryant and Mike D'Antoni, Otis Smith and Stan Van Gundy.
Once again, he has a franchise and a city and a chance to lord over it all. Once and for all, Dwight Howard needs to honor his word and chase a championship.
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Dwight Howard finalizes deal to join Rockets
• Dwight Howard can become a free agent in 2016
• What's next for Dwight Howard, Rockets, Lakers?
• Kobe Bryant sums up feeling about Dwight Howard in Instagram photo
• Slideshow: NBA free-agency tracker