Los Angeles has been rocked by a report that Dwight Howard may be contemplating using his imminent free agency to abandon the Lakers for the Houston Rockets. It was less than a year ago that the Laker Dynasty seemed secure, with the Howard era set to begin. After a season of demanding to be traded, Howard had been granted his wish in a blockbuster trade that moved the All-Star Center to Los Angeles. Like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O'Neal before him--this was seen as a marriage made in heaven--joining the preeminent player at his position with the vaunted Laker dynasty. Dwight Howard would own Hollywood and the nation's second largest market. The addition of point guard legend Steve Nash promised a return to the finals for the Lakers.
What happened? Coach Mike Brown was fired and Mike D'Antoni became the Head Coach. He specializes in the run and gun offense, not the inside out system that feeds the ball into the center. Howard felt marginalized and quickly realized that the big man center was not a position that D'Antoni featured. Howard and the Coach do not seem to have any strong bond or special chemistry. Howard's back was not recovered from off-season surgery. In retrospect he should have been allowed several more months to heal. Instead he played with the impediment for almost the entire season, which hindered his effectiveness. A series of injuries to key players deprived him of a young and talented cast around him. He quickly ran afoul of Kobe Bryant's ferocious competitive intensity. The fans saw Howard laughing and missing free throws and never warmed to him. And the Lakers were blown out in the first round of the playoffs.
It gets worse. Coach Chuck Person, a strong supporter and confidant of Dwight, was let go by D'Antoni this off-season. Steve Clifford, another strong supportive Assistant Coach, became Head Coach of the Charlotte Bobcats. This deprives Howard of the safety net that players rely on. California has a "millionaire's premium" which pushes the state tax rate on someone in Howard's bracket to 14%, in addition to property, local and sales tax.
And the 2013-14 forecast for the Lakers is not bright. Gasol, Nash, and World Peace will all be a year older and injury prone. No one knows how effective Kobe Bryant will be following an Achilles injury. The Lakers will have enormous cap room to pursue a rich free agent class the following off-season, with players like LeBron James potentially available. But that will follow another questionable season.
July 1st Howard will be a free agent. Houston beckons. They have talented shooting guard James Harden, an enthusiastic Howard supporter. They have budding superstar Chandler Parsons at small forward, and Jeremy Lin set to anchor the point guard position. Howard would make them an instant contender. Houston is a great basketball city and Howard could have a younger group that would support his position as team leader and offensive focal point. Houston is planning to trade forward Thomas Robinson, the fifth pick in the 2012 NBA Draft to free up cap room to pursue Howard.
Cap rules would allow the Lakers to pay Howard $120 million for a five-year guaranteed contract. Houston could offer four years for just under $90 million. Howard could opt out of a new deal to return to free agency after four years with economics that will be much higher. Texas has no state tax.
Who do the Lakers have at the ownership, management or player level with enough rapport and credibility with Howard to argue that he is better off with the Lakers? We shall see. Players at the superstar level look for championship rings, and respect, and supportive coaches and fans. Houston offers all that. What do the Lakers counter with?