This is going to feel really weird to say and we might never say it again, so listen and listen close.
Good job, Dwight Howard.
Seriously, for all the jabs and digs taken at Howard by his former Lakers compatriots, as well as all the tired jokes made at the expense of an easy target, Howard has handled this summer’s free agency remarkably well. He was a consummate professional, by all indications, from the moment teams could speak with him at 9:01 p.m. Pacific Time last Sunday, right up to Friday’s announcement that he would sign a four-year, $88 million contract with the Houston Rockets.
You don’t have to agree with his decision — or even like Howard himself — to give him at least begrudging credit for making all the right moves in the last week.
A year ago, Howard wrote the book on what not to do as an NBA free agent, switching his stories on why he wanted out of Orlando, disparaging the clubs he didn’t want to join and alienating everyone who wasn’t in his inner circle, including his own teammates. This time around, he did everything right. He gave the incumbent Lakers the first and last word, speaking with general manager Mitch Kupchak by phone Saturday and setting up a face-to-face meeting to impart his decision to Kupchak on Friday. Howard’s inability to make it to L.A. for that meeting before the news broke is not his fault. The fact that he even tried demonstrated that he did learn something from last year’s fiasco, and that maybe he has grown up a little.
In a surprise 180, it’s Howard’s suitors who come off looking foolish. There are reports of unnamed teams warning Howard that James Harden is a ball hog on par with Kobe Bryant, a claim about which Howard was understandably incredulous. Anyone who has watched an NBA game in the last three years knows Harden is probably the best passing two-guard in the league, so that ploy was as useless as it was petty. At the same time, Phil Jackson passive-aggressively referred to the Rockets as “the Astros” on Twitter and Shaquille O’Neal mocked Houston, the fourth-largest city in the U.S., as a “little town.”
What’s more, Howard did not simply spring for the glamour pick, as he did when he OK’d the three-way trade that landed him in L.A. Houston is not a “little town,” but it is far from the splashy locale. Howard clearly weighed his options and went with the no-brainer pick, not the pick that seems like it was made by someone with no brain, as he has in the past.
The Rockets were the best fit for Howard basketball-wise, pairing one of the best pick-and-roll guards with one of the most explosive pick-and-roll big men. They are young, fun to watch and presumably fun to play for, and have a coach in Kevin McHale whom any toolsy big man must instantly respect. Leslie Alexander is one of the best owners in sports, having taken control of the franchise shortly before the Rockets’ first title run in 1994 and since signing off on bold moves like drafting Yao Ming first overall in the 2002 NBA draft, despite uncertainty over whether Yao’s team in China would even release him from his contract. From top to bottom, the Rockets organization is stacked and in position to contend for championships almost immediately.
From a business standpoint, Howard’s decision to sign with the Rockets is just as shrewd. He left $30 million on the table by choosing to sign with a team other than the Lakers, but he’ll make up that difference in no time. The Rockets are a global brand on par with the Lakers and Bulls, serving as China’s de facto “home team” thanks to Yao and Jeremy Lin. The team’s relationship with CSNHouston, while troubled, should be a cash cow in the long term. And the absence of any state income tax in Texas will help soften the blow of that lost $30 million, which would have been taxed at more than 12 percent in California.
So give Howard some credit, but don’t throw him a parade. These are all sound, informed decisions — the type a 27-year-old man with millions of dollars at his disposal should be expected to make. But for most of his career, Howard has failed to show this type of maturity and professionalism. That he has done so now is noteworthy. Perhaps Howard just has better people in his camp controlling his message or perhaps he actually has changed. Either way, he is off to a good start in Houston.