Kobe to help woo Dwight Howard
The Lakers are still finalizing the roster of people who will be a part of their pitch -- several Lakers luminaries have offered -- but the two future Hall of Famers will definitely be a part of the delegation that will have the last word with Howard before he makes his decision.
One person who will not be there is former coach Phil Jackson, who left for his summer home in Montana on Sunday, according to sources.
Jackson, though, delivered a message to Howard via Twitter before he hit the road.
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"I'm going up to the country going to paint my mailbox blue," Jackson tweeted to Howard, referencing the lyrics from an old Taj Mahal song. "While i'm there I expect to see you get on board tis ur place."
The awkwardness surrounding Jackson's role in the franchise after the team stunningly chose Mike D'Antoni to coach the team in November -- instead of waiting for Jackson to decide on the job -- has noticeably improved in the last few months. Jackson spoke at the funeral for Dr. Jerry Buss in February, was on hand to retire Shaquille O'Neal's jersey in April, and made a joint public appearance with his fiancee, Lakers executive vice president Jeanie Buss, earlier this month.
"I do see him and when I see him, we've worked together since 1999," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said of Jackson, earlier this week. "We have a friendship and a business relationship and we don't talk too much about Zen, but we talk a lot about basketball.
"So, when I do see him, that's what we talk about. I'll talk about his hip or his knee because we've both had a hip or a knee operation, but other than that it's basketball. He's got a good basketball mind and he's interested, so we talk basketball."
One source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN that Jackson has become somewhat of an unofficial consultant to the Lakers, by virtue of his relationship with Jeanie Buss and loyalty to the franchise where he won five NBA titles.
It's more that Jackson is available to give advice or whatever the franchise needs, one source said. And it's far less awkward than is publicly assumed as the family has been meeting regularly since the death of former owner Dr. Jerry Buss in February, another source said.
"He's been helpful to this franchise since 1999 and even in the last year or two," Kupchak said. "When I see him, it's nice to sit down and talk basketball. Renew our friendship and talk. So, I think that is helpful."
Understanding the Buss family dynamics and future plans is a key part of Howard's decision-making process, a source with knowledge of Howard's thinking has told ESPN. He needs to know and feel comfortable with how the franchise will be run before deciding whether to commit the next five years of his career to the Lakers.
Though the Rockets were first on Howard's list of meetings, Kupchak met briefly with the coveted free agent in person shortly after free agency opened, according to a league source.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey took to Twitter to court Howard at precisely 12:01 a.m. Monday morning.
"Free agency kicking off! Hoping to meet with @DwightHoward tonight," wrote Morey. "Rockets fans send a message to him with #dwight2houston"
The Rockets enter their dinner with Howard with the ability to offer him a four-year, $88 million contract after agreeing in principle to trade forward Thomas Robinson to Portland for two future second-round picks and the rights to two European players, a source confirmed to ESPN. Houston also waived veterans Aaron Brooks and Carlos Delfino earlier on Sunday to clear more salary-cap space.
Bryant went through a very similar process as Howard in 2004, when he entertained the idea of leaving the Lakers as a free agent. In the words of one source, he came "very" close to leaving for the rival Clippers until a face-to-face meeting with Jerry Buss convinced him to stay.
The pitch Buss gave to Bryant then is similar to what the franchise will tell Howard now, sources said. Simply, that the Lakers remain committed to winning championships, and will do what's necessary to give the team a chance to contend every season.
"Kobe visited with teams and more than one team," Kupchak said Thursday, after the NBA draft. "We were on pins and needles. The city, we had just gotten beaten [in the Finals], Phil [Jackson] left for the first time and we traded Shaquille.
"There was a lot of uncertainty on what Kobe would do, a lot of rumor very similar to what's going on right now. When the phone call came in, we didn't know which way it would go. I would say it's very similar."
Kupchak said he felt that if Howard did decide to stay with the Lakers, fans would quickly embrace him and the resolution of all the uncertainty that's been hanging around for three years would help give him peace.
"There was a period where Kobe was earning his stripes in Los Angeles," Kupchak said. "Here it is, seven, eight or nine years later and I think that's what would happen with Dwight once he puts his roots down and says 'This is the place I want to be.'
"I think that's part of the problem. I think the city feels they were renting him for a year. But the reality is he couldn't sign an extension. Financially, the rules provide that he wait until July 1 to get the best deal he could possibly get. It was one of those situations where please tell us you want to be here and please show us you want to be here. But he can't do it until July 1. I think that's part of it. Of course the way the season went didn't help things either."
Information from ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman and Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com was used in this report.