Why did Dwight Howard leave the Lakers for the Rockets?
Why did Dwight Howard decide to leave the Lakers and sign with the Rockets on Friday? After a weekend to let Howard’s choice sink in, here’s a round-up of all the possible answers to that question, from Howard, those involved in the courtship, media and other interested observers.
Houston was the right place
A decision as big as this one might be influenced by dozens, if not hundreds, of factors and experiences. At some point, a decision requires a cumulative analysis. When Howard weighed all the important criteria — franchise trajectory, his role on the roster, his teammates, the coaching situation, money and the ability to compete for a title — he concluded that the Rockets offered a better package than the Lakers, Mavericks, Hawks or Warriors, the other four teams that were reportedly in the running for his services.
• Dwight Howard, on Twitter: “I’ve decided to become a member of the Houston Rockets. I feel it’s the best place for me and I am excited about joining the Rockets and I’m looking forward to a great season. I want to thank the fans in Los Angeles and wish them the best.”
• Rockets GM Daryl Morey, to CSN Houston: “We thought it was actually a pretty straightforward choice, except to Dwight’s credit, he did turn down a significant amount of money to come to the Rockets. It shows me his mindset, he’s really ready to take that next step. If you look at best player — James Harden is the best player out there he could join. If you look at most successful team that he could join, last year Golden State got us by a couple of wins, but if you look at not only the age of our team but if you go on point differential, which predicts the future better, we beat all these contenders in that. We have more draft picks, more free agent money and more great young players for him to join.”
• Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated: “After two tumultuous years, the NBA’s premier center finally decided where he would spend his prime. On Thursday night, over dinner at a restaurant in Aspen, Howard told associates that he was going to sign with the Houston Rockets. He was swayed by the presence of Houston shooting guard James Harden (‘We have the opportunity to really, really grow together, which is very intriguing,’ Howard said), head coach Kevin McHale (‘One of the greatest post players ever’) and former center Hakeem Olajuwon (‘I will get to work with him regularly’). Howard refuted reports that he was leaning toward Houston all along, characterizing his decision as ‘very close.’”
• Dwight Howard, to the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen: “The biggest thing was a championship potential. I watched the team after we got out of the playoffs. I looked at their team. I looked at a couple teams. Their team just stood out. I think this is the best fit for me as far as playing basketball. I’m looking forward to it.”
• Dwight Howard, to HoopsWorld.com’s Alex Kennedy: “I felt like Houston was the best fit for me,” Howard told HOOPSWORLD in an exclusive interview. “I felt that James [Harden] and I would really have an opportunity to grow together. I felt like having a coach like Kevin McHale and having Hakeem Olajuwon, who’s in Houston, can really help me grow as a player — help me as a post player and help my overall game. It was very appealing. I felt like this was a great opportunity for me to start fresh. … You only have a small window to win in the NBA. I think this gives me a good window, a good opportunity, to win. I’m going to do what I can to help this team win. I think, right now, I’m the oldest guy on the team so I’ll be the youngest veteran in the NBA. But it’s a great opportunity. Looking at this team and the team we had in Orlando, it’s a very similar team, but we’re adding a guy like James Harden to that team. It’s a great opportunity.”
• Dwight Howard to Mike Bresnahan and T.J. Simers, Los Angeles Times: “Walt Disney said, ‘Big risks, big rewards,’” Howard said. “He put everything he had into Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the sky was the limit. Now there’s Disneyland and Disney World. It’s a big sacrifice leaving $30 million. Really, really a big sacrifice. But I want to win a championship and I want to get back to being the person who I am and have some fun and enjoy playing basketball. And I think that’s what I’ll find in Houston.”
• Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports: “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.”
• Magic Johnson, to ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin back in June: “I would say that he will probably enjoy playing for Kevin McHale, because Coach McHale, not only was he a Hall of Fame player — and I feel with Tim Duncan, the best power forwards that have ever played the game — but you have an emerging superstar and a guy that you can definitely play with [in] James Harden. And I think that the other young players that they have, [Omer] Asik and [Jeremy] Lin, [Chandler] Parsons, those guys are right there too, with Dwight Howard, will take the next step as being one of the elite teams — one of the best four or five teams in the league and definitely will give themselves a chance to win a championship.”
• Matt Moore, CBSSports.com: “Howard for once in his life made a bold decision. Forcing his way out of Orlando was cliche and predictable. Wanting to go to a big market was cliche and predictable. But leaving the Los Angeles Lakers? That’s bold. Wanting to follow in Hakeem Olajuwon’s footsteps instead of Shaquille O’Neal’s? That’s bold. Trusting in a team that has consistently shown it can make smart moves to put together good players over a team that throws money at problems? Really bold. The decision to team up with a team with strong ties to the Chinese market, to build with a young superstar with no injury problems in James Harden, to partner with a big-man coach who can be the figure he’s looked for for so long in Kevin McHale? Those are all parts of a smart decision, a recent development for Howard.”
Los Angeles was the wrong place
The Lakers could offer Howard a five-year offer worth $118 million when outside suitors could only offer four years and $88 million, leading many to assume throughout the 2012-13 season that the All-Star center’s return was a no-brainer. However, cracks did show throughout the season. There were reports of philosophical differences between Howard and coach Mike D’Antoni, and also between Howard and Kobe Bryant. Generally, those reports were pushed back against, but Howard’s play never rose to its full capabilities in L.A. That he dealt with a rehabilitation from back surgery and injuries during the season didn’t help things, but Howard and the Lakers rarely seemed like a perfect fit on the court. Howard left the court for the last time as a member of the Lakers when he was ejected from Game 4 of a playoff series against the Spurs and he appeared to exchange words with GM Mitch Kupchak on his way to the locker room. The season couldn’t have ended in a worse way, short of a lottery trip.
• Dwight Howard, to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated: ”I wouldn’t say it was anything negative [about the Lakers],” Howard said. “It wasn’t the proper time. In the NBA, it’s all about fits and timing, and the timing was a little bit off for the situation to work. It was perfect timing, and a great fit, for a place like Houston.”
• Ken Berger, CBSSports.com: “No, it was never the right time for Howard and the Lakers, and it will never be the right time. They’re cut from different cloths. That was obvious, watching him labor uncomfortably through his only season at Staples Center — a fish out of water, a court jester with no subjects, a performer who didn’t understand his audience.”
• Shaquille O’Neal to the Associated Press: “The Dwight Howard thing, it was expected. We’ve all been in L.A., and not a whole lot of people can handle being under the bright lights. Everybody wants to do it, but when you get there, there are certain pressures. I think it was a safe move for him to go to a little town like Houston. That’s right, little town. I said it.”
• Phil Jackson, on Twitter: “He left a distaste in Lakerland. The Lakers will be fine. Pau fits MDA’s style of [offense]. It was about the future. What [Howard] brings to the game is power and [defense]. This past year didn’t show due … to rehab and confusion. If he is better [off] an Astro, so be it.”
• Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times: “The Lakers didn’t lose a center, they dodged a bullet. Take a hike, Dwight, and don’t let your cape hit you on the way out. Dwight Howard has been formally chased out the door of basketball’s greatest franchise by its legacy, its pressure, and, apparently, a rousing recruiting challenge from Kobe Bryant.”
• Mike Bresnahan, Los Angeles Times: ”‘It’s hard because Howard was supposed to be the answer. He was supposed to bring back the glory days,’ said George Belch, chairman of the marketing department at San Diego State. ‘But so much unraveled at the end. The good news is the fans are like, ‘Good riddance. We’re glad you’re leaving because it just didn’t work out.’”
• Ramona Shelburne, ESPNLA.com: “Howard is the needy sort. Occasional gestures only go so far with him. To feel secure, he needs constant reinforcement. Which is why the Lakers greenlighted the controversial ‘STAY D12′ billboards around Los Angeles. Kupchak came the closest, calling, texting and reaching out to Howard several times a week to encourage him. He also was among the first to call attention to how Howard’s recovery from back surgery was affecting his play on the court, albeit not loudly or early enough in the year for Howard or his camp’s liking. … Ultimately though, Howard just needed more. More attention, more support, more power.”
Rockets GM Daryl Morey made a thorough, strong pitch
Prior to the 2012-13 season, Morey was developing a reputation as an executive overly focused on churning through small assets while being unable to close on big-name targets via trade or free agency. Indeed, Howard had previously ruled out the Rockets as a possible landing spot as he weighed his options dating back to his time with the Magic. The book on Morey — and the book on the Rockets — changed when he flipped Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and picks for James Harden, who blossomed into an All-Star this season. All of a sudden, Morey had Harden as his ace in the hole in free-agency pitches. All of a sudden, a player like Howard would be the second leg, rather than the first, of a Big 3 core. Morey had incorporated his love of technology into his previous pitches, but he took things to a new level with Howard this time around.
• Jonathan Feigen, Houston Chronicle: “Batting leadoff in the competition to win Howard, 27, the Rockets delegation gathered throughout the day Sunday in Beverly Hills to make their case directly to the player they have long hoped to make the next franchise center. … They prepared information about the marketing potential that comes with playing for the Rockets, still wildly popular in China with its enormous and avid fan base. They were ready to present information about living and playing in Houston, about their new basketball facilities and the camaraderie and chemistry they believe they have with their players, past and present. … There were books and an Ipad with much of the information presented to be left with Howard and his representatives, along with video testimonials from, among others, Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo.”
• Sam Gardner, FoxSports.com: “Late Thursday and early Friday, Morey took to Twitter to make one last pitch to Howard, hoping to sell him on Houston — using his daughter, her friends and a two-time Emmy winner to attempt to woo the All-Star center.”
• Daryl Morey: “Years of work by Dwight & Rockets went into this. This team is going to be special.”
• Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports: “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].”
Rockets coach Kevin McHale has instant credibility
A Hall of Famer with seven All-Star appearances and three titles to his name, plus a reputation as one of the most technically sound big men to ever play the game, McHale can communicate with Howard on a level that was simply impossible for Magic coach Stan Van Gundy or Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni. Will that level of communication actually pay off in a meaningful way? That’s to be determined, but Howard made it clear that McHale — and Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon, with whom he has previously worked — were valued added parts of Houston’s presentation.
• Dwight Howard, to the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen: “I’m looking forward to having [Hakeem Olajuwon] and Kevin McHale push me. When I sat down with Kevin, he reminded me a lot of the drive of Clifford Ray [a former Magic assistant coach] when Clifford Ray was my big man coach. He pushed me to the limit every day and then I worked out. He always said, ‘I’m going to kick your [butt]’ and at the end of the day give you a hug.’”
• Dwight Howard, as quoted by Mike Bresnahan and T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times: “And no offense to [Lakers Coach] Mike D’Antoni, but we’re talking about Kevin McHale, who had a million moves in the post.”
• Kevin McHale to ESPN.com’s Mike Wallace: ”I had a pretty good feeling on it,” McHale said. “But you never really know until everything is done. We had a great meeting July 1. I really thought positively. We could help each other. He’s just got to get out there and play. … I think Dwight is in the process of evolving and changing. He says he feels way better and healthier now than he has been. His back is healthy. I anticipate him coming in and doing what he did for years: Being the best, most dominant center in the league.”
Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni was the wrong coach
Reports of differences of opinion between Howard and D’Antoni — who was hired after Mike Brown’s abrupt firing last fall — brewed for months. Back in February, Dwight Howard’s father went after D’Antoni publicly for not sticking up for Howard amid reports of a dispute between Howard and Kobe Bryant. Also at issue, it seems, were Howard’s role in the Lakers’ offense and his quantity of touches. All the bad chatter regarding Howard and D’Antoni was confirmed this weekend, as Howard said that he had asked for legendary coach Phil Jackson to return to the Lakers’ bench.
• Ramona Shelburne, ESPNLA.com: “It turned out to be a fateful decision as Howard, who had grown close to Jeanie Buss in his first few months in Los Angeles, asked — via his agents — if [Phil] Jackson could coach the team on more than one occasion. He was told then and several other times that Jackson wasn’t interested in coaching. … During his brief meeting with Howard last Tuesday, D’Antoni said very little. When Howard told him he just didn’t think he’d ever be comfortable playing in his system, the coach showed him how his statistics last season had been some of the best in his career, he actually touched the ball in the post far more than he realized, and reminded him that he’d led the league in rebounding. Howard listened and tried to absorb the information. But it didn’t jibe with his experiences.”
• J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: “He’d already told people which direction he was going. I spoke to one of them. The person said Howard told him he was leaving L.A. because he didn’t want to play for Mike D’Antoni and because, well, let’s just say Jim Buss was less than impressive during the Lakers’ meeting with Howard.”
• Dwight Howard to HoopsWorld.com’s Alex Kennedy: “’Well, I asked to have [Jackson] as my coach earlier in the year,’ Howard said, followed by a long pause before changing the topic.”
The presence of Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was problematic
It would be unfair — to both parties — to suggest that Bryant was the driving factor behind Howard’s departure. But Bryant casts a mighty shadow over the Lakers’ present, over the Lakers’ future and over the Lakers’ salary cap situation. On the books for a league-high $30 million next season while he recovers from an Achilles injury, Bryant effectively prevented the Lakers from improving their roster by virtually eliminating their salary cap flexibility. Had they re-signed Howard, the Lakers would have been over the salary cap after paying just three players: Bryant, Howard and Pau Gasol.
It wasn’t just the money, though. The two initially attempted to play nice, but they have polar opposite personalities, an issue that popped up when the fun-loving Howard reportedly did mocking impressions of the super-competitive Bryant. Rumors of a postgame verbal exchange and reports of an air-it-out team meeting also surfaced. Then, as Howard walked off the court in his final game, guess who came out to the Lakers bench and received a standing ovation? Bryant, of course. When it came time to court Howard this summer, Bryant told Lakers.com that he had no plans to retire soon, as if preemptively staking his claim. Once face-to-face with Howard, he then reportedly adopted an “older and wiser” approach in his pitch. One report indicated that Howard was put off by Bryant’s approach; Howard disputed that characterization of the meeting.
Regardless, it’s safe to say these two didn’t exactly hit it off. Shortly after Howard made his announcement, Bryant posted a photo of himself with Gasol on Instagram and reportedly unfollowed Howard on Twitter. Enough said.
• Eric Pincus, Los Angeles Times: ”I feel pretty damn confident I can be at a high level for at least another three years,” said Bryant in a video interview with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, released on Monday.
• Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports: “When Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant spoke to Dwight Howard on Tuesday, his words to the free-agent center resounded an unmistakable and unflinching message: Let me teach you how to be a champion. ’You have to learn how it’s done,’ Bryant told Howard, witnesses described. ‘I know how to do it and I’ve learned from the best — players who have won multiple times over and over.’”
• Chris Broussard, ESPN.com: “Sources close to Howard tell me Kobe’s reported pitch in Tuesday’s meeting about teaching D12 how to win will be a ‘complete turnoff’ to D12.”
• Dwight Howard to HoopsWorld.com’s Alex Kennedy: “’He didn’t say anything of that sort,’ Howard said of Bryant. ‘People twisted a lot of stuff that he said. But in my personal opinion, I’m a winner. I’m a winner because I’ve been playing for nine years when the average career for an NBA player is three years. I’m a winner because I made it to the NBA from a small school in Atlanta, GA, with 16 people in a class. I’m a winner because I’m succeeding in life. I’ve had problems and I’m not better than the next man, but I’m going to push myself to be a winner when it comes to winning a championship. But he didn’t say anything like that and a lot of people twisted what he did say.’”
• Mike Bresnahan, Los Angeles Times: “Howard said Kobe’s challenging pitch at Lakers meeting did not affect him negatively: ‘Kobe did not factor into my decision whatsoever.’”
• Ramona Shelburne, ESPNLA.com: “Howard came at [Bryant and Nash] hard, telling them how upset he was that they never publicly went to bat to for him while he was injured. He felt like they’d disrespected the effort he’d given by coming back from back surgery so quickly. He felt like they had done little to mitigate the criticism he was hearing for his play. Bryant and Nash were stunned. He’d never told them any of this before, or asked them to defend him publicly.”
• Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports: “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.’”
• Stephen Bailey, Los Angeles Times: “Anthony Romulo, 27, of Walnut [a Lakers fan], admitted that while he expected Howard to stay and thought the Lakers could compete for a title with him, the Bryant-Howard dynamic was a tough one to work out. Two ‘volume shooters,’ he called them. ’I hate to say it, I love Kobe Bryant, but Harden does not necessarily need the ball as much as Kobe Bryant,’ Romulo said.”