Dwight Howard certainly didn’t help his tainted image in the NBA community by joining the Houston Rockets in free agency instead of returning to the Los Angeles Lakers. The decision—or perhaps indecision—has made Howard a pariah in Los Angeles, but he made the right call by leaving L.A.
In the short term, the outlook for the Lakers is bleak. The franchise superstar, Kobe Bryant, is recuperating from an Achilles tear that ended his season before he could add to the 8,641 playoff minutes he’s notched throughout a Hall of Fame career. He’ll be 35 years old before the start of next season, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll ever return to All-Star form.
Bryant’s injury has strewn a dark cloud over Lakerland, and the supporting cast provides little to no silver lining.
Steve Nash, the Lakers' 39-year-old point guard, is coming off an injury-riddled campaign. His 6.7 assists-per-game average was the lowest he’s notched since the 1999-2000 season with the Dallas Mavericks. He simply never seemed to jell with the players around him.
Pau Gasol, meanwhile, missed 33 regular-season games. He also recorded career lows in points (13.7) and field-goal percentage (46.6 percent).
So did D12 make the right call by spurning the Lakers and teaming up with James Harden in Houston? The short answer is yes, but the long answer needs to be broken down into various categories.
Over the past two NBA seasons, Howard’s teams have collected a 75-55 record. During that span, two of his coaches got fired, and, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN, Howard felt marginalized by Mike D’Antoni during his time with the Lakers as well.
Howard experienced a roller-coaster season with Los Angeles. The Lakers reached the playoffs in Game 82, then the San Antonio Spurs promptly swept them.
Looking back on those struggles, what’s the incentive for Howard to stick around? Even with a healthy Bryant, the Lakers would be sending out the same gimpy lineup (Nash, Bryant, World Peace, Gasol, Howard) that finished 0-8 when they all started together.
During the 2012-13 campaign, the Rockets finished with the same 45-37 record as the Lakers. Harden blossomed into a star during his first season as a starter, while Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons impressed throughout.
The Rockets undoubtedly give Howard a better chance to win right now. They resemble the 2009 Orlando Magic team that made the NBA Finals. Howard’s interior presence will once again be surrounded with great outside shooting. The key difference between the ’09 Magic team, however, is Harden. He provides a legitimate one-two punch with D12, and he likely won’t question his urgency.
In the short term, Houston provides a better outlook for Dwight. With uncertainty surrounding Bryant, Nash and Gasol (three guys with injury concerns), joining the youthful group of Jeremy Lin, Harden, Parsons and Asik—that foursome missed a grand total of 10 regular-season games last season—is a much safer choice.
But what about the long-term outlook? Did Howard overlook a promising future in Los Angeles that could trump the Rockets’ young roster?
In the NBA, looking to the future starts with adding youth. The San Antonio Spurs are a great example, as they brought in Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Gary Neal to complement aging stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. By comparison, the Lakers have failed miserably in terms of reloading with youth.
The Lakers have a first-round pick in 2014, but they traded away first-rounders for Nash, Jordan Hill and Ramon Sessions in recent years. As a result, reloading through the draft isn’t feasible for L.A. even a couple years down the road.
The only option remaining for the Lakers is to rebuild through free agency. It’s a blueprint that often works out for the storied franchise, but it’s also why the Lakers currently face brutal luxury-tax penalties.
This is an aspect of Howard’s 2013 offseason that I feel has been overblown. The Lakers had the option to give the big man a fifth year and $30 million more on his contract than the Rockets could offer. However, as Alex Kennedy of Hoopsworld pointed out back in May, that factor was close to meaningless:
Houston is also a great place to live, especially if you’re a professional athlete, since there is no state income tax. There’s also no millionaire tax like there is in L.A. When you consider that most superstar players opt out of a five-year deal after the fourth year anyway to test free agency and secure a new long-term deal, the fifth year and extra $30 million that the Los Angeles Lakers can offer to Howard are pretty insignificant. Factor in Los Angeles’ state income tax, millionaire tax and exorbitant cost of living and Howard isn’t leaving much, if any, money on the table at all.
In the end, the money factor proved not to be as gigantic a factor as many people chose to believe. Howard may have left some money on the table, but it wasn’t a black-and-white $30 million figure.
For the first time in his entire career, Howard was an unrestricted free agent able to choose his own destiny. After forcing his way out of Orlando and not landing with the Brooklyn Nets (his team of choice), he was able to massage his ego as numerous teams recruited his services.
Perhaps Howard simply couldn’t handle the pressure of the big stage. Former Laker legend Shaquille O’Neal certainly thinks so, having said, “It was expected. Not everyone can handle being under the bright lights,” according to Florida Today.
When you factor in the thoughts of a two-time MVP who doesn't have a history with the All-Star center, the picture becomes even more clear.
“Ultimately, I think Dwight wasn’t comfortable here and didn’t want to be here,” Steve Nash told ESPN Radio. “And if he didn’t want to be here, there’s no point for anyone in him being here. So we wish him the best and move on.”
At the end of the day, the choice was Howard’s to make. He doesn’t have to live up to the expectations of others, so long as he makes the best decision for himself.
While I doubt that Nash and Bryant are truly wishing him the best for leaving town, they didn’t provide Howard with the best situation in 2013 compared to other NBA teams.
LeBron James was criticized for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers in favor of the more talented Miami Heat. That turned out to be the best decision for him from the standpoint of winning championships.
Perhaps we’ll be comparing the career arc of James with Howard a few years down the road.