Other suitors, like the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls, were kept in limbo, but never was there a guarantee. The King rode out seven years in Cleveland, made his decision and moved on. And he was hated for it.
Nothing brought his detractors more joy than watching him fall to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. His pain was their joy. When his frustrations boiled over, and he took them out on reporters, his flouters were winning. They had something to write and to talk about the next day.
Seething immaturity made LeBron an easy target. Forget "The Decision"; he was arrogant, ignorant and the quintessential villain.
Then something changed, well before he won his first championship with the Heat in 2012.
Supporters outside of South Beach came out of the woodwork, once again glorifying the ground he walked on, the hardwood he ran up and down.
A surly postgame disposition was replaced with a more humble, grounded and pensive LeBron. He began to take sole ownership of his mistakes, of his intrinsic flaws, more than he ever had before. Weaknesses became his strengths, and strengths became incorruptible and transcendent.
The man who left Cleveland in 2010 wasn't the same player who embarked on a lockout-truncated 2011-12 mission, nor is it the same person fresh off his second championship. LeBron is different; he's changed.
Recovering from past mistakes wasn't easy, and it didn't happen swiftly. It took time—an extra year's worth of trial-and-error experiences.
It took maturing.
Howard finds himself in a similar position. Upon announcing he would be joining the Houston Rockets, the Los Angeles Lakers faithful wrote him off as a coward, a destructive narcissist. Jerseys were burned and his decision became on-stage fodder for certain performers to feed off of.
Still, what Howard put the NBA through was worse.
Never mind the conflicting reports and allegations of further indecisiveness on his behalf this time around. Dwight wasn't the one leaking intel to the media (that we know of), and one could easily argue he was the victim of an accelerated information age where news is disseminated instantaneously, sometimes without regard for accuracy or austerity.
Even so, it was worse. Much worse.
What Howard put the league and its fans through spanned more than two years. When it was LeBron, he never demanded a trade, painting the Cavs and himself into a corner. Some would posit that's worse, because LeBron didn't allow Cleveland to exact adequate value—Miami acquired him via sign-and-trade—off his departure.
But it wasn't more harmful than the he-said, I-said, they-said, someone-make-this-decision-for-me game Howard played for so long.
One day, he wanted to leave the Orlando Magic to become a Laker. Or a member of the Brooklyn Nets. Or the Harlem Globetrotters. The next, he was keeping himself in Orlando for at least another year. Then the next, he had one foot out the door again.
Failure to definitively commit to a mindset, not a team, culminated in Stan Van Gundy's removal and Howard's unceremonious exit. Messy as it was, his departure was best for all parties involved. The Magic could move on, which they did, and the Lakers would receive their cornerstone for the future, which they didn't.
That's the difference between him and LeBron. Howard spurned two teams, openly contradicted himself and left a trail of lost jobs and burnt bridges behind him.
Sure, Mike Brown was ousted from Cleveland (though he's back now) and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert penned an impulsive letter all because of LeBron, but he wasn't attempting to shield himself with an unrealistic desire to please everyone.
For how immature LeBron was back then, Dwight, to me, is worse now. Almost a decade into his NBA career and he's not seen as a pillar of fortitude, rather a misguided kid who has yet to figure out what candy bar he wants to purchase at the checkout counter.
In an effort to please everybody, Howard has turned almost everyone against him. No one wants to hear or read the word "Dwightmare" anymore, most of all Howard himself. He would love to distance himself as much as possible from this soap opera, as would the rest of us.
Like LeBron, Howard will grow from this, from the personal follies and jokes now made at his expense. He'll just never be able to escape it the way The Chosen One did.
Inexplicable behavior aside, avid Association followers have voluntary amnesia. They will forgive and forget. All it takes is a personality adjustment and, most importantly, a championship.
Is there a title to be won in Houston? Not at the moment. Maybe someday, just not when Howard and James Harden are still getting acquainted, the Rockets appear one star piece short and the Western Conference is teeming with powerhouses.
Unlike LeBron, however, a championship (and attitude transformation) isn't going to be enough to completely restore Howard's image, the one he tarnished before he even left Orlando.
LeBron fled a small market for a (slightly) bigger one. Dwight flew the coop in Orlando, had everything he supposedly wanted right in front of him in Los Angeles, then fled to a smaller market (not to be confused with a diminutive one) in Houston.
Lakers fans aren't going to forget that. Beyond them, the rest of us won't, either. We won't harbor the same everlasting resentment, but we will remember.
Therein lies Dwight's problem: We'll never forget.
All the indecision, the lies, the fractured relationships—they will never be forgotten. Howard put the NBA world through hell and back, and then hell again. Completely rebounding from that isn't possible, not even if he wins a ring with the Rockets.
One day, we will forgive Howard. Some already have. There will even come a time when his jovial demeanor isn't depicted as the absence of a will to win or a vindictive taunt directed at those who exist only to see him fail.
There will come a point where we can embrace Dwight again, almost like we did a few years ago. But not quite like it was.
Howard will never reclaim all of the reverence he lost, fully repair the image he inadvertently dragged through the mud. He'll never be lauded the way LeBron is again, no matter how much he accomplishes. Because he's not LeBron. What he did, the entire thing, all two-plus years of it, was sloppier than anything LeBron was a part of.
Only so much can be forgiven or forgotten. So never will it be the same again.
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