In what will become his third team in the past three years, Dwight Howard made a move many in the past would’ve considered unthinkable.
He left the Lakers for the Houston Rockets. Howard walked away from a five-year contract for $118 million and agreed to a four-year deal worth $87.6 million instead.
“This wasn’t a cake walk,” Howard said in an interview with this newspaper. “Every team made it tough. After each meeting, I felt I wanted to play for each team during the season.”
A few odd developments, however, preceded the Lakers lost the coveted free agent they pleaded to stay through face-to-face meetings and billboards scattered through Los Angeles. Amid a flurry of media reports publishing Howard’s decision, his agent, Dan Fagen, denied a deal was done.
Howard said he talked with Atlanta, Golden State and Dallas to inform them he wouldn’t play there. Howard then flew from Aspen, Colo. to Los Angeles to meet with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, a plan that caught the team off guard. So Howard said he chose to call Kupchak instead.
“People were saying I was flip flopping again and that wasn’t the case,” Howard said. “After that, I contacted Mitch. Once I contacted him, “I said I respect you, I respect what you did for me and the Lakers. Then I called Houston after that. Before that, I don’t know what happened. I knew everybody would try to turn this to a spectacle. The one thing I wanted to do with this was with class.”
Kupchak returned the favor.
“Naturally we’re disappointed,” he said in a statement. “However, we will now move forward in a different direction with the future of the franchise and, as always, will do our best to build the best team possible, one our great Lakers fans will be proud to support. To Dwight, we thank him for his time and consideration, and for his efforts with us last season. We wish him the best of luck on the remainder of his NBA career.”
Kobe Bryant wasn’t as gracious.
After unfollowing Howard on Twitter, Bryant immediately posted a picture on Instagram that showed Pau Gasol placing his hand on Bryant’s head. Bryant added the hashtags in Spanish, including vamos (“Let’s go), juntos (united), lakercorazon (Laker heart) and vino (Bryant’s nickname for ageless wine). Such a reaction could be interpreted as Bryant suggesting Howard lacked those qualities.
Howard often didn’t respond well to Bryant’s demanding leadership style.
Howard also had philosophical differences with Mike D’Antoni’s offense, which featured him more on pick-and-roll plays than post-ups. It didn’t help Howard labored through back and shoulder injuries. Although he posted 17.1 points and a league-leading12.4 rebounds, those contributions marked the lowest numbers since the 2006-07 season with Orlando.
“None of that was a factor in my decision,” Howard said. “We got some stuff out. That’s in the past. I learned a lot playing from those guys and hopefully I can use what I learned to help this team.”
The Lakers had believed Howard would add to their 16 NBA championships. Kupchak openly envisioned the Lakers retiring Howard’s jersey and building a statue of his likeness outside Staples Center. The public saw him as the next lineage of great Lakers centers, including George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.
Howard wasn’t interested.
The Lakers lost in a first-round playoff sweep to the San Antonio Spurs. The Lakers’ future Hall-of-Fame roster sparks questions about their health, including Bryant (torn left Achilles tendon), Steve Nash (right hamstring) and Gasol (knees). A bludgeoning payroll limits the Lakers to acquire players this offseason at the mini mid-level exception ($3.2 million) or veteran’s minimum ($1.4 million).
“The timing was off with the Lakers,” Howard said. “The timing is great for Houston. They’re a team that’s on the rise.”
The Rockets have youth, a healthy point guard (James Harden) and a coach who has a strong playing background in post play (Kevin McHale). Rockets general manager Daryl Morey cleared up enough cap space, possibly to receive another star to complement Howard. Howard’s allegiance with Houston could also increase his sponsorship opportunities in China stemmed from Yao Ming’s popularity.
After going through his three pages worth of questions to each team, Howard liked Houston’s answers better.
“I feel like a guy like Kevin McHale and having Hakeem in Houston, I think it’s really going to help my game grow,” Howard said. “One thing that intrigued me about Houston is their coach and how it talked about really pushing me to be to where I need to be. That was really intriguing to me. That was something that I enjoyed doing. I’m going to have somebody push me to the limit.”
Whether Howard’s latest departure will lead to NBA riches or a never-ending cycle of unhappiness seems uncertain. The Lakers’ future appears just as unpredictable.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org