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LOS ANGELES -- Dwight Howard spent Saturday hanging out at the Major League Gaming Spring Championship -- a video game convention in Anaheim, Calif. -- on the day before kicking off what promises to be one of the most important stretches of his professional life.
As Howard embarks on a whirlwind free agency process that will feature sit-down sessions with at least five teams, his main priority, according to a source close to the nine-year veteran, is finding a destination that will help him win a championship of a different sort.
After feeling the shine of the Finals stage four years ago, Howard desperately wants to get back to the pinnacle with a team that will not only deliver him his first title, but put him in a situation to lift the Larry O'Brien trophy at the end of the season on multiple occasions.
The Houston Rockets will be first up Sunday night, followed by the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks in some order, and ending with the Los Angeles Lakers, at the Lakers' request.
"The meetings are not scheduled by preference," said the source. "And Howard respected the Lakers' wish to go last."
The Lakers have unofficially already begun their pitch to Howard, erecting billboards around L.A., urging the seven-time All-Star to "stay" with the franchise that has won 16 world championships.
Howard has noticed.
"He's flattered," said the source close to Howard. "Anytime an organization with that much winning history goes out of its way to show you appreciation, it is a special feeling. ... But billboards don't win championships."
The one leg up the Lakers have on the competition is the financial incentive of being able to offer a max five-year, $118 million contract as opposed to a four-year, $88 million deal. But Howard's championship-or-bust priority all but levels the playing field. The real compensation he's after is rings.
Whether Howard feels like the Lakers will give him the best chance at that remains to be seen. But the center will not play the trump card of suggesting a coaching change that some believe would make a stay in L.A. more amenable to him.
"Howard has not asked for Mike D'Antoni to be fired and Howard will not ask for that," said the source.
For their part, the Lakers have remained resolute in their promise to give D'Antoni a chance to coach next season with a healthy roster and a full training camp, according to sources. They have assured him both publicly and privately that he will remain as the Lakers coach, regardless of what happens with Howard, sources said.
|This image can be seen on a billboard on Hollywood Boulevard and is part of the Lakers' campaign to lure Dwight Howard back to the team in free agency.|
The Lakers believe that although Howard never warmed to D'Antoni's system this past season, if he ultimately decides to leave, it will be for other factors, sources said.
While general manager Mitch Kupchak expressed optimism the team would ultimately re-sign Howard, there are some within the organization who are genuinely worried that he will choose to go elsewhere. Should that happen, the Lakers are more likely to simply let him walk rather than take back contracts in a sign-and-trade, sources said. The plan then would be to regroup for the summer of 2014 free agent class.
Still, the Lakers' top priority is to re-sign Howard.
D'Antoni has yet to hire any assistant coaches for next season. Alvin Gentry had a standing offer to coach on D'Antoni's staff if he didn't get a head coaching job. But he has accepted an associate head coaching job on Doc Rivers' staff with the Los Angeles Clippers.
D'Antoni is considering several coaches, sources said, but everything is in something of a holding pattern until Howard makes his decision.
Former assistant Kurt Rambis is under consideration, sources confirmed. Rambis, once Phil Jackson's lead assistant coach, is seen as a great player development coach and someone who could act as a stabilizing force on the staff because of his deep ties within the franchise and throughout the roster.
Johnny Davis, who was Howard's first coach in the NBA with the Orlando Magic, is also under consideration, a source said.
Finding out what the Lakers have in store for their coaching staff and future personnel plans in order to get back to the championship level they were at when they beat Howard's Magic in 2009 and repeated against Boston in 2010 is what Howard is most interested in, the source close to Howard said.
Even though Howard is "intrigued" by what he already knows about Houston, according to the source, he is going into every meeting with the same "data gathering" approach.
"This can't be an emotional decision," the source said.
Between now and when the clock officially starts ticking on his decision come 12:01 a.m. ET on Monday morning, Howard plans to stick to his normal, everyday routine.
"He's going to try to relax, but it's not like he's going to suddenly take up yoga or change his diet dramatically," said the source. "He knows it's going to be a stressful time."
The 27-year-old Howard has not flown in any family members to surround him, either.
"He knows that now, more than any other time, the decision has to be wholeheartedly his decision and his alone," said the source.