Howard part of new priority

At some point we're all going to get it. Enough young NBA stars will choose to play with other young NBA stars, no matter what jersey they have to wear, and we'll stop being surprised.

It's happened enough in the past five years that everybody really should understand by now that this generation of NBA stars realizes that they are the brand, not the franchises they play for.

But for those who are still just catching on, it's going to be a little strange Monday night when Dwight Howard and his Houston Rockets play Chris Paul and his Los Angeles Clippers in the big man's first game back in town since spurning the Lakers as a free agent this summer.

Wait, let's rephrase that. Because Howard didn't choose to play for the Houston Rockets. He chose to play alongside a 24-year-old rising superstar in James Harden and a nice, young complementary player in Chandler Parsons. Just like Paul didn't exactly choose to play for the Los Angeles Clippers. He chose to play alongside a dynamic 24-year-old, three-time All-Star in Blake Griffin, and for a charismatic, championship-caliber coach in Doc Rivers.

The Rockets and Clippers jerseys are just their accessories.

Does it help that the Clippers built a gleaming, new $50 million practice facility a few years ago? Sure. The same way actors appreciate great craft services.

Did the Rockets' history with great big men like Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson factor into Howard's decision? Sure. The same way a musician appreciates playing an historic venue like the Hollywood Bowl.

But if those things really mattered to this generation of NBA stars, Howard and Paul would've insisted on being traded to one of the NBA's glamour franchises (oh wait, that actually happened -- sorry, Lakers fans) so they could burnish their legacies where the lights have always been the brightest.

As it stands now, only Carmelo Anthony has made that choice, and look how far that's gotten him. King of New York, and one second-round playoff exit.

Since LeBron James' infamous 2010 decision, the rest of the NBA's best young stars have chosen to play with the rest of the NBA's best young stars. Franchise history and Q-rating have mattered little.

It's at this point that the old guard starts railing about a generation of highlight-seeking, fundamental-lacking, self-absorbed superstars who have no concept of team basketball.

But while the old guard rails, the young men running today's NBA have been cozying up to Wall Street CEOs and sitting in marketing meetings with the shoe companies and Madison Avenue executives who have been doing a better job at building their brands than individual NBA teams for the past couple of decades.

The message those CEOs and "mad men" deliver is simple: The sooner you win, the better your brand becomes. The more you win, the bigger your brand grows.

James was the test case, and is now the example they all follow.

Would his star have been bigger or brighter if he'd won NBA titles with the New York Knicks? Yes. He'd have legendary status in New York.

But here's the point James and his 20-something cohorts grasp that everyone else is still catching on to: New York is just New York. The NBA is just the NBA. It's the world they all want to conquer. Asia, Europe, Africa, South America. And you can't even begin to do that without winning a championship.

You think it matters to Chinese basketball fans whether James took his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to a title?

You think a kid in London cares whether Dwight Howard wins a championship for the Lakers or the Rockets?

Last summer, in a blog post on his website, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said that Howard gave "the best response to an opening question that I have ever heard from a player, or anyone for that matter."

When Cuban asked him what his goal was, Howard said, "I want to be Epic."

Cuban took it as the perfect lead into the video the Mavericks had commissioned for him. He was right. The Mavericks nailed the superhuman, cartoonish vision Howard has of himself and his place in the world.

But Cuban missed on the type of partnership Howard was looking for. He sold the Mavericks' brand. He sold his own brand as a maverick owner and self-made billionaire. Problem was, none of those things would immediately help Howard do the only thing that will repair his brand -- win a championship on the basketball court.

The Rockets had him at James Harden.

Cuban had a great point this week when he argued that, "the right organization will put the right pieces around you and get you there."

The Mavs' history of spending what it takes and making bold moves in pursuit of a championship is better than the Rockets'. So is the Lakers', who tried to sell Howard on their history of success and two more years of chasing Kobe Bryant's sixth ring, and then on being the lure for another superstar in the summer of 2014.

Howard listened closely to both pitches and decided he didn't have time to wait. After two years of seeing his brand destroyed by his dithering, he needed to win immediately and clearly felt the Rockets gave him a faster path than either Dallas or L.A.

You can argue that the Golden State Warriors were closer to a title -- especially if they'd landed Howard -- than the Rockets.

But the point is pretty clear. Just a summer before, Howard had ruled out both the Rockets and Warriors because neither had a bona fide superstar he could team up with. Once the Rockets landed Harden in a trade with Oklahoma City, and Steph Curry blossomed in Oakland, his feelings about both organizations changed dramatically.

You see, it's not the organization that matters. The jerseys the players wear are just accessories.

It's the brand that matters. And for this generation of NBA stars, the brand that matters most is their own.