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Dwight Howard, meet your crossroads
Now we finally get to find out whether Dwight Howard was worth all the fuss.
On Friday, after a whirlwind recruitment by five teams that featured banners, videos, pleas, Hall of Fame and future Hall of Fame players and enough last-minute melodrama to do this two-year Dwightmare justice, the most coveted NBA free agent of 2013 finally made his decision.
Dwight Howard is going to Houston. Well, unless he changes his mind between now and when he can make it official next week.
The news, which was first reported by USA Today before a last-minute flight to LA put everything on hold for a few hours, upends and rewrites the pecking order in the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers are now in full-on rebuilding mode, a team with an aging and proud star in Kobe Bryant but not the requisite parts around him to have any real championship hopes.
The Golden State Warriors, who landed free agent Andre Iguodala on Friday with a reported four-year, $48 million deal, vault to the top of the conference along with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies.
But it’s Houston — with Howard — that is the real enigma. An up-tempo team that bet on young players with upside such as Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons last season, the Rockets will be something vastly different when the dust settles on this deal.
Howard made it known in his one troubled season as a Laker that he wants to be the focal point — of the offense, of the locker room, of the world around him. That’ll happen, for better or worse, in Houston.
The turmoil that seems to follow him was on full-display Friday. As the reports leaked on Twitter and online the Dwight saga become more and more of a Dwightmare. First he was going to decide Friday. Until he decided to wait until the weekend to announce his decision. Until maybe he’d know Friday after all.
Then he was going to the Rockets. Until his agent said he wasn’t. Until, well, yeah, maybe he was again. Or maybe he’d had second thoughts about giving up that fifth year and $30 million that would come with signing with the Lakers. Whatever, he was in Aspen thinking it out. Strike that. He was on a plane coming to Los Angeles.
Once there, finally, mercifully, the Lakers released a statement from General Manager Mitch Kupchak. It was done. Howard was gone.
“We have been informed of Dwight's decision to not return to the Lakers,” the statement read. “Naturally we're disappointed. 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.”
Several NBA officials Friday described Dwight to me as a nice guy, a talented guy, but someone missing that desire to be great and to win that has translated into a two-year mess for him, his brand, his image, and every team he’s touched.
“The guys around him, the guys giving him advice, must be the dumbest m******f***** on earth,” one league source told me. “This kid has ruined his reputation in the league in just two years.”
He has, and now he’s with Houston, a team that will change what it does to make Howard happy.
Howard made it known during his courtship that he wanted to play with his back to the basket in a slower-moving offense. He eschewed Lakers coach Mike D’Antonio’s up-tempo system, so the Rockets will certainly adjust their team and approach and slow things down.
Still, Howard has thrown up enough warning signs to signal that whether his massive talent is worth all the crap that comes with him remains an open question. Stan Van Gundy, Kobe Bryant, Mike Brown, D’Antoni, Steve Nash — it is a long and diverse list of players and coaches who have not exactly found Howard and his approach to basketball particularly easy to deal with. Or, lately, win with.
Howard, going back several years, has been a full-fledged prima donna. He’s killed off coaches and he’s forced his way off of both the team that drafted him and the team that took a chance on him despite knowing he could opt and leave. He’s been immature, unreliable and, for my money, wholly unlikable.
He’s also wildly talented.
That’s why, in surveying a range of NBA front-office officials, two conflicting themes emerged: that Dwight is so talented you absolutely sign him if you can; and that, once you get him, you better hope he grows up and does a better job managing his talent and avoiding the kind of selfish, worrisome moments that have brought friction to every place he’s played.
This is a legacy moment for Dwight, as much as it was for LeBron when he went to Miami, and much hangs in the balance. Dwight has had two unpleasant years that reflect on him as a player, and it’s with Houston that he has bet that he has the best chance to course correct. He was on his way in Orlando to becoming an all-time great. Instead, having caused that franchise and now the Lakers more drama than arguably LeBron James ever inflicted on Cleveland, he’s a mess.
That regression has found its way onto the court. He’s gone from a 59-percent to a 49-percent free-throw shooter the past two seasons, most of his stats and his defensive prowess dipped in Los Angeles, and he’s played on two straight underachieving teams that never threatened to do any postseason damage. He’s gone from a lovable Superman to a spoiled, overgrown child in the eyes of many fans.
Was it his personality conflict with Bryant? Was he just a terrible fit in D’Antoni’s system? Or were lingering injury issues and the looming cloud of free agency the cause?
Or is Dwight Howard what LeBron James was two years ago, that mix of talent and petulance and delusion and underachievement — minus being the best player on earth, minus the wisdom to grow, minus the maturity to see he was wrong and minus the ability to get his game and brand back on track?
The Houston Rockets are about to spend $88 million that will help us find out.
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