Commentary

Howard should go to Houston

Updated: May 1, 2013, 3:39 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

The last time there was a will-he-stay-or-will-go scenario involving Dwight Howard, he failed to assess his options like a mature adult.

Howard seemed paralyzed by fear, afraid to take an unpopular step and live with the consequences of being his own man.

But when Howard becomes a free agent on July 1, he has a chance to rectify the damage he's done to his reputation by making a necessary, bold move this time.

[+] EnlargeDwight Howard
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsIs this Dwight Howard exiting Los Angeles?

He needs to leave the Los Angeles Lakers and sign with the Houston Rockets.

Conventional wisdom says Howard should stay with the Lakers because they can offer him a five-year, $118 million contract, but if Howard leaves, the most another team can give him is four years for $88 million.

It's Los Angeles versus Houston. Hollywood versus H-Town. And Howard has made no secret of the fact that he wants to be an entertainer.

But if there ever was a time for Howard to make a pure basketball decision, it's now.

Assuming, of course, he's still interested in being the best center in the NBA.

It's easy for people who could never dream of being in Howard's tax bracket to tell him to not think about money. But for argument's sake, well, let's forget about the money.

The Lakers and Howard are a bad fit. That can't be denied anymore after a disastrous season and a humiliating exit from the postseason. Howard's health certainly was a factor, but how could the Lakers possibly feel comfortable handing over their franchise to Howard after he was outplayed by 37-year-old Tim Duncan in the San Antonio series?

Howard also had the nerve to get ejected in the elimination game, capping one of the most embarrassing seasons in the Lakers' prestigious history. The Lakers weren't good enough to beat San Antonio anyway, but the way Howard left that game and played in that series was an indictment of his character and ability.

This season overall will be a black mark on Howard's legacy, even though everything that went wrong for the Lakers this season was only partly his fault.

The thinking is that if you're a great big man, you play for the Lakers, a tradition established by former Laker greats George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaq.

But how much does Howard really embrace the Lakers' mystique? He has said he does, but that isn't always so obvious.

What the Lakers' organization and their fans expect from Howard is something he isn't in a position to deliver.

The Lakers want Howard to solve problems he didn't create. Howard can't change this roster into one that isn't slow. He can't magically give the Lakers a real perimeter threat other than Kobe Bryant. He can't change Mike D'Antoni into a flexible coach with a style of play that doesn't render Howard useless.

Kobe is a huge wild card. Bryant tore his Achilles tendon right before the playoffs began, and while his toughness and competitiveness suggest he'll return, who knows what kind of player he'll be? And let's also not forget that Bryant, at times, seemed to embrace Howard as if he were a porcupine who had caught fire.

So the question isn't just whether Howard wants to be back, but whether the Lakers should even want him back.

[+] EnlargeJames Harden
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireDwight Howard could complement James Harden's game.

This situation seems too much like the Lakers wanting Howard because he's the best of what's left, rather than the player they see legitimately as the face of their franchise for years to come.

Besides, Howard has to consider the fact that maybe the rewards associated with being in Los Angeles are better than actually playing for the Lakers.

As much as he'd like to think of himself as a Hollywood guy, maybe he just isn't. He thrived in the smaller big-city environment of Orlando, and Houston offers much of the same.

Houston is a much bigger media market than Orlando, but it's much smaller than Los Angeles. While the Rockets have won two NBA titles and fans who are nearly 20 years removed from that glory want another, there still wouldn't be nearly as much pressure on Howard in Houston as there would be in Los Angeles.

James Harden is a better player than anyone on the Lakers' roster, with the exception of Bryant. Harden needs a legitimate partner to elevate the Rockets in the NBA hierarchy. Chandler Parsons is an emerging young player. Center Omer Asik justified the $25 million contract he received with career highs this season in points and rebounds.

And if you're Howard, would you rather be coached by D'Antoni or Kevin McHale, one of best post players in NBA history? Under McHale, perhaps Howard's offensive game could finally fully blossom.

Howard could win a title in Houston. He could build his own identity without worrying about always being compared to Magic, Kareem or Kobe.

Some certainly would see leaving Los Angeles as another indication that Howard is running away from pressure.

But maybe it would be a matter of walking into a better situation.

Jemele Hill | email

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