- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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There's a perfect word an NBA source used to describe the way Dwight Howard's free agency is sputtering to a close. Unfortunately, this is a family-friendly website, so it wouldn't be appropriate to use it. Let's just say the word rhymed with "custard truck."
Sometimes the how is just as significant as the what. In Howard's case, it's impossible to separate the two. We can't ignore the way he waffled through his final year in Orlando, how noncommittal he remained throughout his lone year in Los Angeles and how he turned the end of this two-year saga into such a mess that it actually had people longing for LeBron James' "Decision," which seemed dignified in comparison.
Just as "The Decision" was a reflection of LeBron, who came of age in the reality-show era and has lived his life in front of cameras since he was a teen, this entire process was a reflection of Howard, and it is cause for concern that he truly is franchise-player material.
It's actually a justifiable -- perhaps even wise -- long-term move to leave the lore of the Lakers and an additional $30 million guaranteed behind to link with a younger star in James Harden, a better big man tutor in Kevin McHale and the top team for Asian marketing tie-ins.
It's the path he took to get here that's questionable.
He has said all along that his priority is winning championships. If that were his priority, why was he so reluctant to come to the franchise that's won 10 of them in the past 33 years? Why was he so intent on going to Brooklyn initially?
If Dwight was intent on a ring run, he should have forced his way to the Thunder in 2012 to play with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in a lineup that could strike fear in the rest of the NBA for a decade. Wouldn't a deal for Harden and/or Serge Ibaka have been appealing to the Magic, especially with general manager Rob Hennigan freshly arrived from Oklahoma City? Or Howard could have gone to Chicago and joined Derrick Rose. If we learned anything from Carmelo Anthony, it's that superstars can get where they really want, regardless of the obstacles.
One source said Howard wasn't more definitive in his initial desire to leave Orlando because, "He was being pulled in so many different directions," and he wanted to see whether things could work with the Magic. That correlates with what I was hearing at the time. Still, a franchise player should do the tugging, not get pulled.
Once Howard reached free agency, he certainly had the right to make this critical career choice on his timetable and terms. In fact, it would have been understandable if he pushed everything back a little longer after hearing about Golden State's acquisition of Andre Iguodala, because the possibility of dropping Howard between Iguodala and Stephen Curry could have finally given those oh-so-deserving Warriors fans a trio to surpass Run TMC. But while Howard supposedly was intrigued by Golden State's moves, he'd already decided on Houston.
The problem was the media reported that long-awaited news before Howard was ready to announce it, before he'd even notified the Rockets and Lakers of his choice.
Howard should have realized word would get out. He'd already told people which direction he was going. I spoke to one of them. The person said Howard told him he was leaving L.A. because he didn't want to play for Mike D'Antoni and because, well, let's just say Jim Buss was less than impressive during the Lakers' meeting with Howard.
But Howard, for whatever reason, wasn't comfortable enough to go public with his choice as he weighed the prospect of saying goodbye to that extra $30 million guaranteed. Instead of managing the story, Howard and his camp fell behind the story, insisting he had not decided, leaving the door open to speculation that he was having another waffle moment before he finally informed the Lakers. Then the Lakers released a statement, and Howard tweeted his own confirmation. It came too late to keep pace with Twitter, which had already sent him to Houston and then returned him to L.A. and punished Howard for not fulfilling its demands for instant gratification.
Kobe Bryant never won Howard over while they were teammates, but he won a victory over Howard on social media, unfollowing Howard on Twitter and posting a picture of himself with Pau Gasol on Instagram. It was a much more subtle and effective payback than Dan Gilbert's Comic Sans whining after LeBron left Cleveland.
It gets back to the "Gladiator" ethos: Win the crowd, and you'll win your freedom. Howard is still a prisoner of his reputation, shackled to the bad choices of his past by a public that isn't willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's moved on to a new team, perhaps his best opportunity so far. He just hasn't moved past his inability to make and swiftly execute good decisions.
He's heading east on Interstate 10, leaving L.A. for Houston, driving in a custard truck.
8hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann