For Dwight Howard, deciding between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets is not exactly Sophie's Choice. And yet, so many media outlets are reporting that Howard is really agonizing over his decision.
On the face of it, even hesitation seems shocking.
Stay a Laker, and Dwight will be the number one superstar on America's number one NBA franchise, the heir apparent to an NBA franchise rich in lore, Hall of Famers, jewelry and Larry O'Brien hardware. For a professional basketball player, it is like being the cleanup hitter on the New York Yankees.
Join the Rockets, however, and Dwight will arguably be the 1A superstar, behind James Harden. He'll get one less year on his contract. He'll play in a much smaller market. And though the Rockets' mantle does boast two championship trophies, they were won two decades ago.
And yet, the more one understands about the situation, the less clear the choice becomes. In fact, in my mind, the more the choice tips in favor of Houston.
Let's help Howard out with a pros and cons list, shall we?
First, the money.
The NBA's collective bargaining agreement allows for Howard's current team, the Lakers, to offer a five-year deal, whereas all other clubs can only offer a maximum of four years. For the sake of argument, however, let's consider only the first four years. And let's assume the Rockets make the necessary moves to free up enough cap space to offer Howard a max deal.
According to a compilation by Bill Ingram and Eric Pincus of HOOPSWORLD, Howard would make $3.7 million more with the Lakers over those four years than he would with the Rockets. Ah, but Texas has no state income tax, whereas California has a hefty one for millionaires. So including those considerations, Ingram and Pincus calculated that Howard would actually make $1.1 million more as a Rocket.
Where should Dwight Howard choose to play next season?
But there is that fifth year. It's a massive insurance policy against injury for Howard, who spent his share of time in the infirmary this season. A five-year deal would likely come with an opt-out option, but at 31, will Howard still command the same salary draw he will at 27?
Though the money is better in H-Town over the first four years, when the fifth year is considered, the monetary advantage goes to LA.
But contrary to what Donald Trump would have you believe, money isn't everything.
Howard is already worth $65 million. Even at 2 percent interest, that's over one million dollars per year. I've got a buddy who has houses in LA and another city, flies all over the world on lavish trips, has a live-in maid, garages full of cars and motorcycles and never wants for a doggone thing. And he makes less than one million per year.
Point is, either way, Howard is set for money. What he seems to crave is happiness. Isn't that so, Stan Van Gundy?
So what would make Howard happy?
Howard's a blamer when things go wrong, but wants the credit and praise when things go right. In other words, he's the Michael Scott of the NBA.
As I said in another article, in Los Angeles, he will have no one to hide behind. Kobe is determined and focused, but there is no guarantee when, or even if, he'll return. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are both in decline, the former more than the latter.
The Lakers will be Howard's team. And they don't figure to be a very competitive team either. That means Howard is in for more blame than credit.
It's not D12's recipe for happiness.
In Houston? James Harden surely bore too much of the load this season, but he is a friendly, easygoing, humble superstar who seems to only want to earn attention via his play. Having watched him all season in his new role as franchise player, I think Harden would be only too glad to let Howard brag and flex his muscles, while Harden focuses on stuffing the stat sheet and the win column.
Responsibility (or lack thereof): HOUSTON
Howard's on-court options in Houston are better. If he's signed as a power forward, he'll be playing alongside Omer Asik, who will with Howard form one of the NBA's foremost defensive frontcourts.
Both Harden and the Rockets' point guard Jeremy Lin love to share the ball. Lin's assist average would have been higher had he had someone sure-handed like Howard underneath, versus the defensively talented but offensively raw Omer Asik. It's safe to say Howard will be a frequent target of their largesse.
Harden will be the primary scoring option and will be drawing plenty of help defense, so Howard will be able to get his points more quietly and with less coverage.
The Lakers will start the season without Kobe. Pau Gasol's field-goal percentage fell for the fifth straight year last season. Barring signings or trades, Steve Blake and Steve Nash will comprise the backcourt. Though Blake surprised with very strong play at season's end, he is a journeyman; though Nash is one of the great playmakers in the history of the NBA, he's a shadow of his former brilliance.
The long and short of all this is that Howard will be the primary scoring option. He'll draw the brunt of defensive focus and attention, and he'll have to fight for his points. And that's a major reason why Howard wanted out of Orlando: He felt like the team was asking to do too much, and he wanted more help. So we know that's a concern for him.
Houston's star is rising. The young Rockets expect to be higher than the eighth seed next year, with or without Howard. The Lakers, by contrast, will be without Kobe Bryant, rife with aging and fading stars, and because of the cap situation, unable to get help. Their prospects are gloomy at best.
Team situation: HOUSTON
When comparing coaching, there is no contest. In Los Angeles, Howard's coach, Mike D'Antoni, is not reputed for how he utilizes his big men. His reputation apparently hasn't changed in this latest stop on his coaching resume.
Howard's comments to the media made it clear that he felt misused on the court by D'Antoni. Apparently he also felt mistreated off it. ESPN.com reports that Howard told general manager Mitch Kupchak in an exit interview he felt marginalized as D'Antoni deferred to Bryant and Nash for leadership, snubbing Howard.
Worse for D12, apparently Kupchak doesn't care. In the same article, Kupchak said this when asked about Howard's and D'Antoni's relationship: "I think he's fine with Mike D'Antoni, but I'm not really concerned if players like a coach, so I don't ask that question. Our coaches are evaluated by wins and losses."
Translation: D'Antoni has management's backing.
In Houston, Howard will be playing for Kevin McHale, one of the league's all-time great big men. I'd be shocked if McHale and Howard weren't simpatico on an X's and O's level.
McHale also highly values defense and will likely make Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, a team leader in that area.
General manager Daryl Morey has courted Howard for what seems like forever now, and it's safe to say he'll listen very carefully to any concerns and ideas Howard has.
If a player were to choose a franchise based on personality, as big as Dwight Howard's talent is, he's really not a Laker. He was always at his most charming in his earlier years, when he was part of a talented core that included Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, Grant Hill and Rashard Lewis. He likes to be part of a team that's having fun, winning and on the rise.
The Rockets are a lighthearted, easygoing bunch that have developed group handshakes, secret signs from the bench and love to laugh. You get the feeling these guys hang out at each other's houses and play video games while sharing a 'za. And their best days are ahead of them.
The Lakers, by contrast, are playing with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Greatness is always expected of them. Worse yet, greatness has virtually no chance of happening in LA this season.
Examine the situation from every angle except a five-year deal, and the Rockets come out on top. Howard's agent, Dan Fegan—who, as evidence that the NBA world really is small, recently agreed to represent Rockets small forward Chandler Parsons—will be pushing for the extra year, which would spell a fatter payday for him.
But at this point in Howard's career, I tend to suspect the big man would much prefer a smile on his face and a ring on his finger to more money in his pocket.
And if that's the case, he might as well hire another agent—a real estate one.
Check out River Oaks, Dwight. It'll remind you a lot of Beverly Hills…Texas style.