Commentary

Who's pitching whom?

Does Howard understand team legacy? Do Lakers know what he needs to hear?

Updated: May 20, 2013, 3:20 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLA.com

The clip runs frequently on Time Warner Cable SportsNet, the Lakers channel in Los Angeles -- the day after the Lakers pulled off the megatrade that brought Dwight Howard to Los Angeles, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak walks Howard through the team's training facility and points at all the retired jerseys on the wall.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Magic Johnson … the list goes on.

In the foreground, you see some of the Lakers' 16 championship trophies. Howard grins from ear to ear. Kupchak senses his excitement and turns to deliver a rather perfect line, ''That could be your jersey up on that wall in about 10 years."

The message is clear: All this can be yours.

So too, was the challenge: How can you walk away from it?

As recruiting pitches go, it is not a unique one. Not for the Lakers anyway. Their brand speaks for them. Like the New York Yankees in baseball, once they choose you, it is hard not to accept.

Or, as Kupchak put it as he addressed the media at the end of the 2012-13 season, "We didn't spend a lot of time talking about what the city or the organization doesn't have to offer … If there's something we're lacking, I don't know what it is."

And yet for the past 10 months, that pitch has hung in the air. Howard has neither swung at it, nor watched it go by.

He has simply asked for time, as people do with a decision this substantial.

Since the Lakers' season ended, he has tried to get far enough away to think. He has spent the past week at a cabin in Lake Tahoe, Calif., hoping the fresh air will bring some clarity.

Howard has weathered a lot these past two seasons in order to become an unrestricted free agent, free to choose his own destiny -- as much as the new collective bargaining agreement will allow, anyway.

[+] EnlargeDwight Howard
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesHoward pushed himself to return early from back surgery.

He hurt his brand, then his back. He thought he knew what he wanted -- a trade to the Brooklyn Nets -- but second-guessed himself when it became too uncomfortable to tell the Orlando Magic he really did want to leave the organization that drafted him as a high school senior. He made mistakes, so did the Magic. They would both do it differently, if they had it to do over again.

I'll spare you the rest of details because anyone who has followed Howard's odyssey already knows them and no doubt has a well-formed opinion about them. The point is, at the end of the first leg of his often trying journey toward free agency, Howard was greeted in L.A. by a warm welcome, but also by a veiled challenge.

The pitches he will get after the second leg of this journey, the ones that will likely come from Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, among others (after July 1), will no doubt be very different. And yes, he intends to listen to those pitches, and no, he won't give the Lakers an answer in advance of the beginning of the free-agency period so they can plan accordingly.

Each organization will have its own selling points -- the chance to grow alongside a budding star such as James Harden and be coached by Kevin McHale in Houston, Dirk Nowitzki's golden years and Mark Cuban's golden pocketbook in Dallas, the chance to go home again in Atlanta -- but the message will essentially be the same: "We can win here. But we need you to make it possible."

Not, "Just imagine what the Lakers can do for you …"

But, "Just picture what you can do for the Rockets …"

There's a difference between hearing you can be the next great player in a long line of them, and hearing that a team has been waiting in line for a great player like you for decades. And it speaks to why Howard has let the Lakers' pitch hang in the air for so long.

From the moment he got to Los Angeles, Howard has been trying to prove himself worthy of the franchise, not the other way around.

What needs to be spelled out is why the Lakers give him the best chance to win, which is the only way Howard can really change his legacy anymore.

At present, there are only whatever positives can be taken from the Lakers' strong second half of the season, and a promise to build around him starting in 2014 (when the contracts of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol come off the books).

Oh, and that faith in the Lakers brand.

A brand, by the way, he already has worked hard to uphold.

It's why he returned from back surgery, against the advice of several of his closest associates, several months before he was 100 percent recovered. He struggled without his athleticism. He wasn't the same player. But with then-coach Mike Brown saying, ''he looks good to me" every day in training camp, Howard figured he could just play his way back into the kind of shape he needed to be in without causing much of a distraction.

Kupchak acknowledged as much after the season: "He could've taken the season off. I didn't think we'd see him until January or February. When we saw him in the first day of training camp, I was shocked."

But by the time Howard admitted just how much his injury was affecting him, right after the All-Star break, some in the fan base were grumbling. Sensing that Howard needed public support, Kupchak stood with him, going on Colin Cowherd's radio program to say that the Lakers still believed in Howard's talents and had no intention of trading him.

The gesture meant a lot to Howard and his mood and attitude brightened noticeably in the second half of the season. So too, did his play on the court.

But at that point it was too late for him to get credit for trying to come back from his back surgery so many months ahead of schedule. Lakers fans warmed to him, but cautiously. And now that he's not falling all over himself to proclaim his love for the franchise and commit his future to the Lakers, they seem to have cooled off again.

Kupchak and the Lakers players and management may be saying all the right things to Howard now, but the message he hears from fans is pretty harsh: Don't leave. If you do, we'll never forgive you.

Again, who is recruiting whom?

You can almost hear Rockets general manager Daryl Morey make his case from here.

Mark Cuban doesn't even need to leave the set of "Shark Tank" to come up with a plan to recruit against that.

It's pretty simple, really.

Dwight Howard has spent the past two years putting himself through hell to be in the position to finally decide what he wants.

Maybe now all he needs to hear is how much he's wanted.

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