Escape from L.A.


After years of speculation and indecision, the Dwight Howard saga finally ends in Houston…or does it?

Last August, while the U.S. men’s basketball team was in the midst of winning its second straight Olympic gold medal in London featuring elite NBA players, there were big moves being made stateside in the league ranks. After failed attempts by teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Houston Rockets, and Dallas Mavericks to put together a trade with the Orlando Magic for their disgruntled center Dwight Howard, a vast four-team trade was concocted that ended with the Los Angeles Lakers, of all franchises, getting the big man. L.A. had to surrender All-Star center Andrew Bynum in the trade, but they were willing to do it in order to continue their dynastic legacy of elite centers that began in the 1950s with George Mikan and includes the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabber, and Shaquille O’Neal.

Fans were blindsided by the deal, shocked that the Lakers had enough cap room and enough assets to pull off the trade. With Steve Nash newly signed and Metta World Peace as the starting small forward, a new “super team” was assembled in the City of Angels. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, Laker teammates who were about to face each other for the gold medal in a game between the U.S. and Spain, were badgered on Twitter and by international media about the reports, and gave answers of awe and extreme satisfaction. Even the harshest Laker haters gave them an “A+” grade for the transaction. James Harden, who was also in London playing alongside Bryant, paid little mind to the move, having no clue what role he would play a year later. It was seemingly all but sealed that the Lakers were set to win the Western Conference and be the big boys on the block to stand up to the newly crowned champion Miami Heat.

However, like a lot of Hollywood dreams, things took a very bad turn in the regular season. There was zero chemistry on the newly assembled team with head coach Mike Brown wanting to run a Princeton offense, Howard slowly recovering from his back surgery although he was determined to start the season, Gasol playing out of position next to Howard, and Kobe already giving death stares on the bench when the team started off 1-4. Brown was quickly fired and replaced by a former ally of Nash’s in Phoenix, Mike D’Antoni. Bryant was familiar with D’Antoni as an assistant coach on the Olympic team and approved of the hire while Dwight brooded about playing time and having to adjust to a faster tempo of offense so early into the season.

But the change in coaches did not do much good. The month of January was particularly torturous for the Lakers as they started the new year 2-10 and still outside of the playoff window. Although they scratched out a 45-37 record to barely get into the postseason in the final week of the regular season, it came at a cost. Bryant tore his Achilles tendon late in a game against the Golden State Warriors and was done for the year just one week before the playoffs began. Nash was so badly banged up that he needed two epidurals just to get through the season, which ended with a swift four-game sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.

Gasol and D’Antoni were clearly at odds over his role in the offense, with more Poutin’ Pau moments than the law should allow. And then there was Dwight, the centerpiece behind the team’s future, who refused to sign an extension with the Lakers when he got traded so that he could explore his options in the summer of 2013. That should have been the first sign of impending doom for general manager Mitch Kupchak. Nobody leaves the majesty of Laker-Land once they get a sniff of the franchise’s championship aura.

But like a lot of things in the league over the last three years, things were different this time around. Howard had one of his worst statistical seasons (despite leading the league in rebounding) and had by far his worst season from a P.R. standpoint amid unhappiness and frustration with Kobe and swirling talks that the newly anointed Superman of L.A. was going to leave in free agency. The year before, it seemed like Dwight Howard had magically landed in the middle of basketball paradise, the new chosen one for a franchise that was maybe the richest in NBA history. Now the season seemed like a borrowed one, as if it were all just a dream from which David Stern was just waking up.

In the 2003-04 season, Kupchak had pulled off a similar one-year “super team” with Kobe, Shaq, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, but upon reaching the NBA Finals, the dream eventually turned into a nightmare as they lost badly to the upstart Detroit Pistons. The team broke up soon after. This incarnation was an even bigger nightmare (or should we call it Dwightmare?) as they barely made the playoffs, had already recycled one coach, and was on the verge of losing their youngest superstar. In the summer of ’04, Bryant was the star free agent and it took trading away O’Neal and a lot of pushing and pulling to convince Kobe to return to the Lakers. Now, Bryant and Kupchak were on the same side of the negotiating table, trying to convince Howard that not only can the Lakers offer an extra year of max money on his contract, but they were the team in the best position to win a championship. Howard, who had constantly flip-flopped in Orlando before finally requesting a trade the previous summer, was again indecisive about staying with the Lakers after suffering through a season where he took a back seat to Kobe as the team’s leader and took a lot of the blame when they lost.

As the smoke signals of distress in L.A. popped up in the NBA atmosphere, teams who had abandoned their riotous attempts to snag Howard the year before jumped into action once again. The one team that was already out of the running were the Nets, who had littered their cap room with All-Star veterans and a re-signed Brook Lopez. In their place were the upstart Warriors, who had future stars like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to go with the sermon-like energy of head coach Mark Jackson. But for the Warriors, moving around the pieces for cap room became increasingly complicated and they eventually were forced out of the running for Howard. Did Howard seriously consider the Warriors at the last second out of respect for their improved status or were they just another suitor to listen to? We may never know.

The Atlanta Hawks play in Dwight’s hometown and had tons of cap space to sign him to a max contract, but the team had little to offer outside of the money, specifically any semblance of title hopes. Either way, the Warriors and Hawks had to feel a lot better about themselves than Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks did. He went all in on Dwight two summers in a row only to get spurned both times (maybe we can call it the “Cuban Mishap Crisis”). The Mavericks played out the past two seasons with makeshift rosters out of the hope of landing a big name in 2012 or 2013 and flopped both times, with a now elderly Dirk Nowitzki’s contract soon to expire. Owning an NBA Championship from just two seasons ago, or, in the Lakers’ sense, winning five titles in the new millennium, was not enough to convince Howard to sign up. Even teams that never had Dwight Howard in the first place were worse off by trying to get in his good graces.

That left the last realistic contender to woo Howard away from Hollywood: the Houston Rockets. The Rockets have had an illustrious history with two championships in the 1990s under the watch of Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and head coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who also briefly coached Kobe in Los Angeles. Those days long gone, and the track record of the Rockets in recent years does not spell the cues to winning an NBA title. Their best effort in the last 15 years was a second-round exit against the Lakers in 2009. They missed the playoffs twice after that, and were the eighth seed in the Western Conference this past season before losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder (Ironically, Howard had one of his best games as the lead Laker in the last regular season game against the Rockets in overtime to finish ahead of Houston in the playoff standings).

But Rockets G.M. Daryl Morey, known by many as the Billy Beane of basketball, had been more determined than anyone else to get Howard to wear his team’s uniform. He had already pulled off a magnificently one-sided trade to get Harden, who was blossoming in a superstar with the Thunder. Now with an All-Star at the guard position, head coach Kevin McHale employing a three-point barrage that made the team the second-highest scoring team in the entire league, and cap room and prospects to spare, Morey rolled up his sleeves one last time and got to the negotiation table with Howard even before the Lakers could.

Not too dissimilar from LeBron James’ infamous “decision” in the summer of 2010 when he was a free agent, everything in the NBA for the last few weeks has been coming up Dwight and the ball was in his court to choose his team to end the sweepstakes. At some point before or during his plane ride to Los Angeles on Friday evening, Howard had finally ended the suspense and chose the Rockets. Dwight landed in L.A. and told Kupchak that he was going to create his own niche in Houston rather than be another name in the gaudy list of Laker centers. Morey screamed loudly on the phone when Dwight called to tell him. The player he had coveted for the last three seasons was finally at his services to go with Harden and a multitude of role players. But Morey is certainly not done yet. Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin are highly rumored to be on the move. And, for as much crap as Dwight eats in the public eye, at least he did not televise his exit from the city that was blindly loyal to him like LeBron did three years ago.

Where the Rockets go from here will mimic the path of an actual rocket: Up quickly and with no regard for whatever lies below. They are certain to finish better than they have for the last four seasons, where they have hovered around a .500 winning percentage. We see plenty of teams jump up and down the NBA standings from year to year, but only teams with elite players in their wheelhouse, like the Miami Heat after LeBron arrived, are the ones who shoot up into the sky, break gravity, and float at the top for years to come. The Rockets are in the same position that the Heat were in three years ago after catching the biggest fish in the pond. But there comes some caution with that vaunted launch.

The irony of Howard scoffing at being labeled the Next One in Los Angeles is the fact he will not only be labeled the Next One in Houston behind Olajuwon and Moses Malone, but he might not even be the first option on the team with Harden handling the ball. Howard was bitter about the three-pointer-reliant offense that Stan Van Gundy drew up when he was with the Magic. McHale’s offense is basically the Magic offense on steroids, with even more three-point bombers and an attacking two-guard that keeps those spread out defenders off balance. The Rockets championed small ball to become relevant again, but they might have to abandon their small ball style to become champions themselves. Will Howard be comfortable operating in a similar offense that he voiced displeasure with two seasons ago? Dwight has led the league in rebounding five times and is a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, but he may have to single-handedly turn a team that was 28th in scoring defense into one of the best.

Howard will be given an obligatory opt out clause come 2016, by which point Houston will probably need to either have won a title away from the defending champion Heat or at least have reached the Finals in order to keep the mercurial Howard in town. Getting to the mountaintop is a great moment, but the climbing matters, too. Is Howard capable of helping Harden and McHale climb to the mountaintop and overcome the obstacles that have been in Houston’s way for the last two decades? So far, every time Howard has met adversity that severe, he has relented and run away. By the time he is 32 years old, will Howard make his four years in Houston the glorious kind that LeBron has created in Miami or will it be of the presidential kind where he will quickly polarize fans and wear out his welcome with empty-handed results?

As many questions as there are lingering in Houston over what the future holds for that team, the questions are even more serious for the Lakers. For the first time ever, the team at Staples Center with the best hopes of winning a championship will not be the Lakers but the Clippers, who just re-signed superstar Chris Paul and hired a championship coach in Doc Rivers (It was only after Paul took himself off the market in the winter of 2011 and the summer of 2013 that Howard became the most desired acquisition in the league). This is the first time I can ever remember the Lakers offering the world to a star player and the player replying with the figurative middle finger. Never does a player walk the Lakers’ hallways of trophies and exit through the back door out of hopes of winning his own the way Dwight just did. You can call it stubbornness, pride, selfishness, bravery, or maybe just a good basketball decision (The last one is used often to defend LeBron leaving Cleveland for Miami). Whatever you want to call it, it takes some big balls to tell the Lakers, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Is it a sign of the new guard in the league with traditional powers like the Celtics and Lakers falling into a nearly permanent state of mediocrity? Or is Dwight so deep in the forest looking for a ring that he cannot see the trees?

For the first time since O’Neal was traded to Miami in 2004, the Lakers have to wear the hat of the underdog, the team that will not be expected to do much compared to the now-title-hungry Clippers. When the Lakers went through that phase in ‘04, Kobe was still in his prime and that led to him asking the team to trade him in the summer of 2007, right before the team practically stole Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies to keep the championship waters flowing. This time, Kobe is on the last year of a very rich contract and in his late 30s. No one knows what Bryant will do next summer, whether it will be to take less money to finish his career as a Laker, be a willing participant for a different team, or simply retire. Although Kobe will have plenty of options next year, his leverage will not be near what it was a decade ago when Kupchak convinced him to stay.

Gasol was the apple of the Lakers’ eye for his first three years there when the team went to three Finals and won two titles in a row. Then came the blowback when Gasol’s numbers went south, the team was getting eliminated in the early rounds of the playoffs, and the Spaniard’s facial grunts that were once seen as fierce determination were now considered timid bitchiness. Not a day went by that Gasol was not in the trade rumor mill. Now that Hurricane Howard has passed through Los Angeles and shown fans the true face of a disgruntled, pampered superstar, Laker fans have now run back to their first love with the same passion that Randy Savage did with Miss Elizabeth at Wrestlemania VII. I did not find it surprising that the first response by Kobe to Dwight’s departure was posting an Instagram of himself and Pau consoling each other on the court. What was once their team together in the glory days is theirs once again, with tons of cap room to go with it in 2014. Will Kupchak settle for a so-so season next year out of the hope of getting a new big name next summer or will they pull off another trade this offseason filled with All-Stars and title hopes? One way or another, the only other unacceptable word to Laker fans other than “losing” is “rebuilding,” so Kupchak cannot keep the underdog hat on for too long before the city turns on him, too.

While the media types dig into the Houston Rockets winning the Dwight Howard Sweepstakes and the Los Angeles Lakers being on the losing end for once, I harken back to a summer when both the Lakers and Rockets loaded up in the Western Conference back in 1996. While Will Smith was fighting aliens and Hulk Hogan was revealed as the evil mastermind behind the nWo in WCW, the Lakers had drafted Bryant out of high school and signed O’Neal away from the Magic, a good 15 years before Howard left Orlando out in the sun to bake alone. Although the marriage ended messily, the rings on Shaq and Kobe’s fingers do not have much to complain about. The youth of the dynamic duo to go with the talent won out in the end.

At the same time, the Rockets also tried a superstar-laden formula of their own with Olajuwon, Drexler, and the newly acquired Charles Barkley. Although Houston putting together three Hall of Famers at one time was a well laid plan, it was also a plan that was soon to be laid to rest, as the elder statesmen on the team had only a couple of good years left in the tank. After losing to the Utah Jazz in the 1997 Western Conference Finals, the Rockets were just about done. Daryl Morey might be praised as a master statistician, but he knows his history, too. Instead of trying his hand at putting together familiar, older faces in Houston to get back into the title hunt like that failed attempt 17 years ago, he is pairing an All-Star guard at age 24 with an All-Star center at age 27 for a lethal combination of great talent and fresh legs.

It seems to be the trend in the league for players to abandon the conference in which the dominant reigning champion dwells and assemble their squads in the opposing conference to ensure a better chance at reaching the Finals. What I find interesting is that those projected match ups rarely seem to come to fruition. The Rockets and Lakers both beefed up their rosters in the Western Conference when Michael Jordan’s Bulls regained the throne. The Rockets never reached the Finals and ran out of gas by the time Jordan won his final ring; the Lakers got a three-peat of their own, but it was after the Bulls had already vanquished.

LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh all remained in the Eastern Conference and joined the same team while the Lakers were two-time defending champions coming out of the West. The much-ballyhooed Lakers/Heat battle never occurred in the NBA Finals. This time, Dwight Howard, after a one-year project in Los Angeles, stays in the Western Conference while joining the Rockets, handing the West a multitude of potentially great teams (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, L.A. Clippers, Golden State, and Memphis) that will be contending for a championship. Many fans will likely be crossing their fingers that unlike previous attempts, we actually get the reigning dynasty of the league out East in Miami to face off against the new blood out West in Houston.

If there is one constant misstep in the world of sports, it is confusing the term “destination” with “destiny.” Just because an elite player chooses where he will take his talents does not necessarily mean that is where his legacy will also be cemented. If you want to cement anything, for that matter, you’d better have some nifty tools and a tireless work ethic to get the job done, even if all that hard work might not wind up being as glorious as you would expect.

It is a common error because LeBron, after choosing his destination in Miami, quickly handed the city the golden goose. But we need to come to terms with the fact that there is only one LeBron James, and the perceived ease with which LeBron won his two rings hides his struggles with continuously improving on his already amazing game, falling short in the NBA Finals twice before, and a lot of soul searching. That is the situation Dwight Howard sits in right now as he flees from the bright lights of Los Angeles down to the Lone Star State. Houston might be Dwight’s destination on the flight chart, but is it going to be the championship destiny that he clearly covets above anything else?