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Dwight Howard leaves Lakers for Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard has agreed to terms with the Houston Rockets, joining an up-and-coming team with one of the NBA’s most dynamic young players while becoming the biggest free-agent name to ever turn his back on the Lakers.

He ditched the Lakers despite their very public campaign to retain him, including numerous billboards around Los Angeles with his image and the simple slogan “STAY.”

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But Howard left, eschewing pitches from Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and a team of Lakers executives in a lengthy meeting Tuesday in Beverly Hills.

PHOTO GALLERY: Dwight Howard and the Lakers

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At that meeting, Bryant reportedly told Howard he should listen to him more often to learn how to become a champion, something Howard downplayed in an interview Friday with The Times.

“People twisted a lot of things he said,” Howard said. “I haven’t won a championship but I’m in the NBA. That’s winning. I’m blessed to be able to play this game, blessed to come out of back surgery. Winning isn’t all about just having a championship, but winning in life.

“Kobe never challenged that and nothing he said had anything to do with my decision. I respect Kobe, know who he is, but this is about me and going in a different direction.”

Bryant, who turns 35 next month, recently said he wanted to play three more years before retiring, but Howard said Bryant’s comment did not affect his decision-making process.

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Howard, 27, picked the Rockets in part to play for Coach Kevin McHale and team consultant Hakeem Olajuwon, two Hall of Fame players known for their moves down low.

“[Houston] was the best fit for me basketball-wise,” Howard said. “And no offense to [Lakers Coach] Mike D’Antoni, but we’re talking about Kevin McHale, who had a million moves in the post.”

Howard declined a five-year, $118-million contract offer from the Lakers to accept a four-year, $88-million deal with the Rockets, his third team in an 11-month period.

“Walt Disney said, ‘Big risks, big rewards,’” Howard said. “He put everything he had into ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ and the sky was the limit. Now there’s Disneyland and Disney World.

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“It’s a big sacrifice leaving $30 million. Really, really a big sacrifice. But I want to win a championship and I want to get back to being the person who I am and have some fun and enjoy playing basketball. And I think that’s what I’ll find in Houston.”

Texas has more favorable taxes on income than California, bridging the gap somewhat between the contracts offered by the Lakers and Rockets.

Howard declined to discuss whether he was dismayed by the Lakers’ aging roster or by any lingering uncertainty in their front office after the death of longtime owner Jerry Buss in February.

“I’m not going to sit here and throw rocks and jabs at the Lakers,” he said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted but I was able to develop a much thicker skin. I’m looking forward now to being the veteran in Houston.”

Howard’s Twitter feed had a new avatar of himself in a Rockets jersey, giving a thumbs-up with his right hand.

Bryant responded by “unfollowing” Howard on Twitter and posting an Instagram photo of himself embracing Pau Gasol.

Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak provided the Lakers’ lone comment on Howard’s decision.

“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,” he said in a statement. “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.”

Howard’s departure actually means good news for Gasol, who has survived the last two seasons without being traded by the Lakers and will almost surely return for the final year of his contract.

Gasol had problems in D’Antoni’s offense last season, averaging career lows in points (13.7) and shooting percentage (46.6%), but the Lakers could definitely use him now. Gasol, who turns 33 today, will make $19.3 million next season.

Metta World Peace becomes the man on the clock because the Lakers can use their one-time amnesty provision to waive him next week.

He was hot and cold with the Lakers last season and would no longer be considered a top-notch defender. He flourished at first in D’Antoni’s system but then dipped and did not look strong when he returned from a late-season knee injury.

World Peace, 33, would still receive $7.7 million in the final year of his contract but the Lakers could immediately save about $11 million in luxury taxes by cutting him during the one-week window to amnesty a player (July 10-16).

If World Peace is waived, the Lakers’ opening-night lineup might be Gasol, Nash, Jordan Hill, Steve Blake and a small forward to be determined before late October. It is unlikely Bryant will return in time from a torn Achilles’ tendon.

Even if the Lakers part with World Peace, they are so far over the salary cap that they have only one free-agent tool at their disposal — the “mini” mid-level exception, which tops out at three years for a total of $10.1 million.

In a league where the average salary is $5.3 million, the Lakers shouldn’t expect to sign an impact player with their mini mid-level, if they even use it.

The Lakers are seriously considering a clampdown on spending so as to avoid paying luxury taxes next season, and to dodge the dreaded “repeater tax,” which heavily penalizes teams that exceed the tax threshold three times in a five-year span, starting next season.

There was some confusion about Howard’s decision after USA Today Sports broke the story Friday afternoon. It was difficult to confirm because Howard was in the air on the way back to Los Angeles after pondering his future for three days in Aspen, Colo.

“He texted Mitch at about 3 p.m. [Friday], told him he would call him when he landed and set up a meeting to see him personally,” said Dan Fegan, Howard’s agent. “Dwight wanted to give him a face-to-face meeting because he really liked Mitch and respects him.”

Instead, Howard ended up calling Kupchak because “all hell broke loose” with the story while Howard was on the plane, Fegan said.

Howard joins a Rockets team that finished eighth in the Western Conference last season, one spot below the Lakers, but has rising star James Harden among a nucleus of Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, none of them older than 24.

Rockets executives piled into a Mercedes-Benz van Sunday for a late dinner with Howard at the Hotel Bel-Air, where they sold him on their young roster and sponsorship opportunities in China, a trail initially blazed by former Rockets center Yao Ming and continued more recently by Lin.

The Lakers will try to move on without Howard, who averaged 17.1 points and a league-high 12.4 rebounds last season despite a slow return from off-season back surgery and a torn labrum in his right shoulder that affected him the second half of the season.

With Howard’s departure, the Lakers currently have only Nash under contract after next season, putting them an almost astonishing $50 million under the salary cap a year from now and setting up a potential summer of spending.

LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay and Luol Deng could all be free agents next July.

The Lakers rarely, if ever, lose free agents they want to retain, perhaps the only instance coming 20 years ago when A.C. Green left them for Phoenix, prompting Buss to address the team a few months later at training camp by crying out, “Beat the Suns!”

Now the refrain is different for a franchise that no longer has Buss as its steadying helmsman and has serious challenges to even make the playoffs next season.

Beat the Rockets?

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan

t.j.simers@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesTJSimers


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