The Lakers didn’t lose a center, they dodged a bullet.
Take a hike, Dwight, and don’t let your cape hit you on the way out.
Dwight Howard has been formally chased out the door of basketball’s greatest franchise by its legacy, its pressure, and, apparently, a rousing recruiting challenge from Kobe Bryant.
Does a city of starry expectations want its favorite basketball team built around somebody who doesn’t have the shoulders for it?
It’s a good day for the Houston Rockets, but a great day for the Lakers, who will watch Howard walk to the Rockets for less money, lower expectations, and probably four more years of mediocrity.
All together now: Whew!
Gone is perhaps the biggest one-year disappointment in Lakers history, an All-Star center who arrived here last summer bearing a championship promise he quickly broke with a lack of consistent intensity, a shortage of competitive focus and an absence of any sort of measurable refusal to lose.
His first play as a Laker perfectly summed up the dream that was D12. It was a thunderous dunk. His last play as a Laker perfectly summed up the reality that was Dwight Howard. He was ejected from the final loss in a four-game sweep by the San Antonio Spurs, abandoning his short-handed teammates and disappearing through the tunnel as an injured Kobe Bryant was hobbling out.
He spent much of the season recovering from back surgery, but even when he was close to 100%, his intensity was still 50-50. He played through pain, except when he didn’t. He wanted the Lakers to be his team, except when it was his team. When Bryant suffered an Achilles’ tendon tear, Howard also disappeared.
For two years, this column space pushed and prodded and finally begged the Lakers to acquire Howard, then celebrated when it did. The line for suckers starts here.
“The Lakers figured it out, they always do,” I wrote after Howard’s acquisition last August.
It turns out, I could write the same thing again with Howard’s departure. Eleven months after the Lakers figured out how to trade for him, here’s guessing they also figured out that he wasn’t really worth risking a five-year title abyss to keep him.
Yes, they offered him the maximum contract of $118 million over five seasons, nearly $30 million more guaranteed than the Rockets’ four-year offer. Yes, they put up these silly signs all over town and General Manager Mitch Kupchak said all these silly things about Howard being the franchise’s future.
But in the end, it all seemed like an expensive game of chicken. For the sake of appearances, the Lakers had to make a very public pursuit of a player they really didn’t want to catch.
There will be talk nationwide that the Lakers’ failure to keep a star in the prime of his career for the first time in franchise history is indicative of the organization’s dysfunction and eventual downfall in the wake of the death of Jerry Buss. And, certainly, there are huge front-office problems that sponsors and season-ticket holders will need addressed, such as, who is actually running this thing, anyway?
But don’t kid yourself. If the Lakers really wanted to keep Dwight Howard, they would have kept him.
If they really wanted Howard, they would have fired Coach Mike D’Antoni instead of allowing him to sit in the room for their final pitch. That’s right, the biggest barrier to Howard’s re-signing with the Lakers was actually brought in to sell him on the Lakers.
If they really wanted Howard, Phil Jackson would have been the coach in that room, instead of escaping to Montana while communicating to Howard through Twitter.
If they really wanted Howard, they wouldn’t have attempted to dissuade Kobe Bryant from telling him the truth. While the Rockets were undoubtedly convincing Howard of his greatness, Bryant was making a final pitch in which he challenged Howard to follow his lead and strive for that greatness. If Howard was truly fit to be a Laker, he would have grabbed at the shine of those five rings instead of cowering from it.
Finally, if the Lakers really wanted the glitter-obsessed Howard, they would have sold him with Hollywood, bringing in some of their courtside heavy hitters to close the deal. The problem was, the surprisingly Hollywood fans didn’t want Howard either, and that reportedly includes Jack Nicholson.
The Lakers have won 16 championships on backs much broader than the one adorned with No. 12, with a winning ethic much more serious than the one showed by a guy who laughed and joked even after losses, with leaders who acted like leaders.
Howard was not that guy. He knows it, the Lakers know it, and it was confirmed to the world during an exit news conference in which he whined about the tough Los Angeles fans and heavy Lakers pressure.
So what happens now? Patience happens now. To frame this as a big loss for the Lakers is hugely wrong. To think of this as an ending ignores the possibilities that are just beginning.
The Lakers will enter next season led by a limping Bryant and a nine-lives Pau Gasol, which means they will not contend for a championship. But guess what? Even with Howard, they were not contending for a championship next season.
This is all about 2014, and the team now having enough cap space to build a team around a potentially star-studded free agency class led by LeBron James. This is all about the Lakers now having the potential to tap into a 2014 draft class with at least five guys who would have been No. 1 picks this season.
The wait between championships in the Shaq-Kobe era and Kobe-Pau era was seven years. This next pause won’t be nearly as long, and a lot shorter than if Howard had remained.
Sometimes you have to lose a bit of yourself to find yourself. The Lakers are about 7 feet shorter today, and their ceiling is again limitless.