Sorry Lakers, Dwight Howard Just Wasn't That Into You
Just before the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 NBA season, the Houston Rockets completed a three team trade that would have sent then-New Orleans point guard Chris Paul to the Lakers, Lakers forward Pau Gasol to the Rockets, and an appetizer sampler of Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and other odds and ends to the then-league owned Hornets.
For a general manager in search of a "foundation player" ever since Yao Ming's feet and the entirety of Tracy McGrady's anatomy ceased cooperating, Daryl Morey was thrilled to finally land an All-Star caliber player and one of the best big men in the game. For a team seeking a return to title conversations, this was a big step for the Rockets.
Until, of course, it wasn't.
Commissioner David Stern, wearing his "acting on behalf of the Hornets" luchador mask, stepped in and vetoed the trade on the basis of the now infamous and still infuriatingly esoteric "basketball reasons."
Back to square one the Rockets went.
Well, after another lottery finish in 2011-12, a James Harden-fueled playoff appearance in 2012-13, and a torturous afternoon last Friday for their fans and undoubtedly their management team, the Rockets are now a long way from square one.
Dwight Howard is a Houston Rocket, and ironically, this time it was "basketball reasons" that sealed the deal, not scuttled it.
Throughout the build up to and the duration of the five team courtship process of Dwight Howard, there were only two certainties: that nobody knew what Howard would do, and that whatever he decided, there would be a faction of the NBA constituency (fans, media, other players) who would ridicule him for his decision.
In the end, despite reports from ESPN's Chris Broussard (who probably needs Tommy John surgery considering how much garbage he threw against the wall to see if it would stick) about Dallas being a major factor heading into the presentations, and despite what looked like a late push from Golden State, this race boiled down to a battle between the Rockets and the Lakers.
On the side of logic sat the Rockets and their seemingly endless list of, well, basketball reasons why Dwight Howard should play in Rocket red for the next four years, and hopefully the remainder, of his career.
As he probably could do in his sleep by now, Morey outlined the Rockets' selling points to Howard for Comcast Sports Net just after Howard made his decision (and presumably after Morey dried himself off from the champagne bath in the Rockets war room after receiving Howard's affirmative phone call):
"If you look at 'best player,' James Harden is the best player out there he could join. If you look at 'most successful team he could join,' last year Golden State got us by a couple wins, but if you look at not only the age of our team but also look at point differential (which predicts the future better) we beat all the other contenders in that. We've got more future draft picks, more free agent money, and more great, young players for him to join than any other team."
And if Morey had more time than a mere snippet question on a television studio show, I'm certain he'd also list the presence of a Hall of Fame big man (Kevin McHale) as Dwight's next head coach, and an owner (Leslie Alexander) who will expend all resources necessary to field a championship team.
Now, you could probably give Morey a full week, and he'd never list another huge reason why the Rockets are the logical place for Dwight Howard to finally win an NBA title:
Through three seasons hovering around .500, just outside the NBA playoffs, on the fringe of the NBA lottery, and smack dab in NBA purgatory, through three seasons of talk radio chatter (from callers and, admittedly, hosts) about his ability to get "base hits" but inability to hit the home run, Morey's patience, precision, and preparation allowed for a triple in the gap back in October 2012 when he
stole acquired James Harden from the Thunder, and then a grand slam this weekend with the Howard acquisition.
Morey even followed up the Howard deal with a couple solid line drives up the middle, bringing back Francisco Garcia and signing Omri Casspi to surround his new big man with even more shooters.
(By the way, if we're doing baseball analogies, unloading Royce White on the Sixers was like getting beaned in the rib cage. Yeah, the outcome was generally positive, but, man oh man, the pain you had to endure to get there.)
By the way, before the Garcia signing, Howard was set to be the oldest player on the team. At 27 years old.
Left with the basketball equivalent of a few $5 chips floating around in his pocket after Yao and McGrady collapsed, Morey sat down at the NBA's poker table undaunted and turned his scraps into a pyramid stack of chips.
What I'm trying to say is if anyone can ensure that Howard will have players around him befitting his talent level, it's the guy who constructed this group, and that's Morey.
Now, all of these bullet points make sense to logical thinking people. They made sense to Dwight Howard. Unfortunately, it made no sense to Lakers fans and a small but vocal portion of the NBA-covering media.
While the Rockets walked into their meetings with Dwight a unified group armed with some serious evidential weaponry to close the deal, the Lakers reportedly met with Dwight in three separate factions armed with a half assed sales pitch that boiled down to some combination of an extra guaranteed year on his contract, Kobe Bryant claiming Dwight needed him to teach him how to win or something, and this:
"Um, Dwight, we're the Lakers....nobody says 'No' to us. Because we're the Lakers. Did we mention we're the Lakers, Dwight?"
If you're in sales, it's the worst possible sales pitch that you can go into with an educated buyer -- a flimsy, emotional plea based on accomplishments from yesteryear, as if somehow Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal can help Dwight deal with double and triple teams nightly.
And say what you will about Dwight's clownish behavior and lack of maturity these last few years, but he's now been through this "where do I go?" evaluation process non stop for the last two years in Orlando and Los Angeles, and he's surrounded himself with knowledgable basketball people.
Point being, he's probably cobbled together a pretty good idea of what "good" looks like for him.
Look at the Lakers:
The son (Jim Buss) of the recently deceased and universally revered owner is an idiot. He's hired a coach (Mike D'Antoni) who nobody really wanted, largely because he's not Phil Jackson. The team's four best players next season average over 34 years of age.
Two of them, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, missed a combined 65 games last season with various injuries. One of them, the best one, Kobe Bryant, shredded his Achilles late in the season, and will likely never be the same player again.
Oh, and the other one is Metta World Peace.
When Metta World Peace is your least "baggage ridden" starter, you aren't in NBA purgatory. You are officially in hell.
So clearly, an ancient, decrepit roster with an injured alpha dog (who can't stand Dwight, by the way), a miscast head coach, and a donkey of an owner don't fit Dwight's image of "good."
And yet here come the critics and Laker honks saying Dwight chose poorly.
Well, they say Dwight took the easy way out, as if, in a league where legacies are measured on titles, Dwight should have to be the one guy who willingly chooses to win his with a degree of difficulty attached.
They also say that he turned his back on a franchise with 16 championships, as if those 16 championships will be suiting up and playing point guard in the 57 games Nash inevitably misses next season.
They say that he was crazy for walking away from $30 million in guaranteed money, however, would surely praise him effusively for not "being all about the money" if he chose to take less money to play for the Lakers.
They say that the Lakers would have oodles of cap space come 2014 to rebuild on the fly, as if it's a foregone conclusion that LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony (or, if you believe CBSSports.com's Ken Berger, both) would join Howard in Laker-land. By the way, none of the "cap space in 2014" enthusiasts bring up the remainder of the free agent class of 2014, either because they're too lazy or they realize it doesn't support their argument.
Staying with Berger for a moment, he even went as far as to criticize Howard's decision to choose Harden as his wingman in pursuit of a title. In a line that perfectly summarizes the "sizzle over substance" mindset of critics of Howard's decision, Berger gets off this wet fart of an argument point:
We could spend hours going over the filthy underside of the NBA business and retrace all of Howard's steps -- how he concluded that teaming up with James Harden, who left a championship situation in Oklahoma City, was a better idea than playing his prime years with the franchise that gave the basketball world some of its greatest champions. (Harden turned down a four-year, $52 million extension from the Thunder, thus forcing a trade to the Rockets.)
So Howard is a moron for rejecting the Lakers 5 year, $118 million offer for the Rockets' 4 year, $88 million offer, AND Harden is somehow a mercenary for rejecting a 4 year, $52 million offer from the Thunder to test the market, and actually get 5 years, $80 million?
(Say it with me, clear thinkers...)
Yeah, Berger, you're right. Howard should have decided to play with the Lakers because they've won a bunch of titles in years gone by, instead of playing with James Harden, a 24 year old All-Star who, unlike the Lakers' trophies, is an actual human being. How could Dwight be such an idiot?
(SIDE BAR: Berger had about as bad a week covering this story as an insider could have, cranking out two columns that felt like he was practically a long, lost Buss sibling, one of which had some glaring errors in salary cap math, and then getting steamrolled into a grease spot under the Woj Express from a scoops and information standpoint. Seriously, it was bad.)
So with every talking point in the Lakers' arsenal lined with a very thick layer of sentimental bullshit, it all reverted back to one thing -- "Hey, we're the Lakers! Nobody leaves the Lakers!"
The time honored tradition of a perennial champion doesn't mean a whole lot when the guys Dwight would be running with can barely, well, run. Tradition isn't going to help Dwight when Gasol and Nash inevitably break down physically, and he's left carrying this generation's version of the Smush Parker/Luke Walton Lakers.
And tradition sure as hell won't heal Kobe Bryant's Achilles tendon nor make him any less a narcissistic asshole when he returns.
As a Notre Dame fan, I experienced this same phenomenon first hand after the Lou Holtz Era was over. When Holtz was there, he fed off the tradition of the school because he was contributing to it. The tradition wasn't some crutch to fall back on nor some "smart bomb" to try and trump other schools in recruiting.
Eventually, Holtz left Notre Dame, the school made some bad hires in his place (Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, Charlie Weis), and yet irrational Notre Dame fans couldn't believe it when post-Holtz Era recruits would go elsewhere.
"But it's Notre Dame," they would say.
The problem was that when Notre Dame was being coached by an overwhelmed first timer like Davie or an empty pseudo-philosopher like Willingham, on the field it was just another football team. The Four Horsemen, the Gipper, Knute Rockne, and Touchdown Jesus don't matter if your coach can't manage the clock or recruit any five star athletes.
The Lakers are heading into their own "Notre Dame post-Holtz Era," with D'Antoni playing the role of Bob Davie.
There's a much better chance Kobe Bryant comes back a souped down version of himself than there is he comes back an All-Star. The Lakers will have plenty of cap money to spend, but would you trust this management team to a) use the money wisely and/or b) close the deal with any of the stars that can restore the Lakers to prominence?
The list of players with that degree of star caliber, franchise changing star caliber, "foundational" (to circle back to Morey's word) star caliber, is a short list.
And Friday, the list of available ones got shorter by one. The Lakers were unable to close the deal with Dwight Howard.
He saw this team for what it is: an aging, dysfunctional, downtrodden shell of what was once a great franchise.
This time, glitz and glamour were brushed aside, and "basketball reasons" won out.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 Yahoo! Sports Radio from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and nationally on the Yahoo! Sports Radio network Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon CST. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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