Dwight Flight: Kobe’s Gain, Houston’s Loss

Nothing in sports has been more laughable this summer than the breathless attention devoted to Dwight Howard. OK, it was funny watching Carly Rae Jepsen throw out a first pitch at a Tampa Bay Rays’ game that still is dribbling toward the Gulf of Mexico, but at least she has enjoyed a recent No. 1 hit. The Dwightmare only leads the charts in whiny underachievement.

Ever hear so much discussion about a player whose star status is in such deep, irreversible regression? No longer are we talking about the force of years back in Orlando, the 21st-century big man who deserved to call himself Superman. Rather, Howard has been exposed as a competitive dishrag, a man-child whose lack of heart and discernible cutthroat instinct don’t connect with an impossibly sculpted, 6-11, 265-pound chassis. In sports, we admire little guys with passion and resent physical specimens who don’t know how to maximize gifts. In that sense, Howard is free-falling into chronic disappointment, first running away from Orlando because he didn’t like his situation with the Magic, then running away from Los Angeles because he didn’t like his situation with the Lakers. Now he has run to Houston, where he insists he likes his situation.

Three teams, three time zones, 11 annoying months. That’s why some Lakers fans, obviously with disposable income, are wearing purple-and-gold jerseys with COWARD replacing HOWARD. Even Jon Hamm took a shot at Howard while hosting the ESPYs, saying, “He’s leaving L.A., so I guess he’s finally found a way to help the Lakers win.” In Orlando, they’ve long moved on, happy that he’s another city’s headache.

“It means a lot to me just to have a fresh start and have an opportunity to write my own story,” Howard told reporters.

That is, until he doesn’t live up to expectations there, starts finding problems with yet another coach, realizes James Harden likes to have the basketball almost as much as You Know Who and, one day, starts looking for another situation. The Rockets think they have the formula to make Dwight smile — a dynamic star in Harden who will alleviate pressure on and off the court for him; a coach in Kevin McHale who once ruled the low post and can teach him all the moves and tricks; a media market far less demanding and scalding than the one he just fled. “If you can be a great player and can’t be happy, what difference does it make? He’ll be very happy here,” Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said at the introductory news conference. “Dwight recognizes that his boyhood dreams will come true as a Rocket.”

Dreams-come-true are nice. But in my book, Howard doesn’t have the mental makeup of a NBA champion and, thus, never will be an NBA champion. Even if he is fully recovered in the future from shoulder and back issues, the head always will be a concern. Which means, Houston’s loss is Kobe Bryant’s gain.

I knew months ago that Bryant, who brings a hand-grenade mentality to his every game and practice, had little respect for Howard, who too often comes to work with a squirt gun. I knew it when I sat down with Bryant for an ESPN.com story and asked what he’d do with Howard if he ran the Lakers. Would he definitely want him back, or would the organization be better off without him? Purposely, Kobe left a pregnant pause in the post-practice air in El Segundo — four silent seconds … five … six … seven — wanting me to realize that, in his mind, reinvesting in Howard for five years at $118 million was an iffy proposition. When free agency arrived and Lakers management insisted Bryant be part of its recruiting team to woo Howard, Kobe challenged him to locate the fire necessary to mesh with Bryant and seriously compete for championships. He also started dropping strong hints publicly that his Achilles’ tendon injury and all the accompanying noise — in rapid decline at 35 … can’t come back and be the same player … no one resumes greatness after an Achilles’ blowout at that age — might motivate him to play three more years and shut everyone up. Typically, rather than accept the dare from an all-time great who owns five rings, Howard backed down. He couldn’t bear the awful thought of continuing long-term with someone so demanding, so horrible.

So Dwight Flight No. 12 moved again. He took $30 million less in a town off the big-time radar and became a rod for more criticism. Shaquille O’Neal chided him for not dealing better with the “bright lights” of L.A., saying, “I think it was a safe move for him to go to a little town like Houston.” Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took a swipe at Howard, posting on his Facebook page that “potential has a shelf life.” The NBA community, tired of his act, will perceive Howard as a crybaby until further notice.

Once the sport’s dominant defensive player and an emerging offensive monster, he has shrunk on both ends. He always brought up his injuries last season, but when someone like Bryant always plays through excruciating pain, what did a few lingering aches have to do with Howard’s lazy moments defensively, his peculiar unwillingness to play pick-and-roll with Steve Nash, his flaws as a passer, his annoying passivity? Worse, Howard keeps telling us how successful he is in life, as if he has things in perspective and the rest of us don’t. “I’m a winner. Having a ring doesn’t classify you as a winner,” he told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith after landing in Houston. “I’m a winner because I’m successful in my life. I’m a winner because I’ve been in the NBA for 10 years when the average career of an NBA player is three years. To me, that’s winning and being successful.”

No, that’s an ass-backwards rationalization.

“Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller. They don’t have championships,” Howard told Smith. “But they’re winners because they’re successful at playing basketball in their life.”

Actually, they’re winners because they were competitive killers who just happened to fall short of titles. In the moments that have defined him, Dwight Howard too often has cowered.

Despite silly billboards throughout L.A. urging him to “STAY” — the work of team governor and mother hen Jeanie Buss, no doubt — the Lakers are much better off without him. Now, they have the financial flexibility to think bold thoughts (as the team always did under the late patriarch Jerry Buss) and construct a new powerhouse via the expected talent extravaganza of next summer. Let the soaring Clippers rule the town for one season; the Lakers have been imbued in L.A. for so long as as a money-and-Hollywood institution, it would take decades to flip the mindset that they are elite and Donald Sterling’s Clippers are second-rate. Other than Nash’s $9.7 million tag (which can be reduced in the books to $3.2 million if they cut him after next season), the payroll basically is clean for 2014-15. If they’d like to create a superteam in quick order, the beautiful weather, Laker Girls and 16 NBA trophies are still very much around as unmatchable recruiting tools. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony likely will opt out of current contracts and be on the free-agent market, and while neither is saying much about it — Anthony says he doubts he’ll end up in L.A. — it will be a major story line next summer. Point guard Marcus Smart will be in the draft, likely joined by phenom Andrew Wiggins. The following summer, they could taken a run at homeboy Kevin Love. Or LaMarcus Aldridge. Or Rajon Rondo.

If Bryant wants to finish his career as part of a possible talent convergence, the Lakers will ask him to take a sizable pay cut from $32 million. O’Neal once accepted a $7-million pay cut in Miami to create financial relief. Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett have done the same. At first, Bryant said no to the pay-cut concept, but then told ESPN.com,

“As a businessman the goal is always to not take a pay cut. But …”

Wouldn’t $15 million be enough, if it meant playing with LeBron or Carmelo? It should be, especially as Bryant eyes the only three names ahead of him on the league’s all-time scoring list — at 31,617 points, he isn’t far from Michael Jordan’s 32,292 but a distance from Karl Malone’s 36,928 and Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387. Think he doesn’t know that surpassing Jordan in career scoring and at least matching his six titles would considerably narrow the who’s-better argument?

The question is whether the Lakers’ front office as constituted can pull it all off. Imagine one of the world’s most accomplished and famous sports franchises, still infected by a slapstick management debacle. The BlunderBusses, some call them. The respected Jeanie, who runs the business side, is trying her best to get along with her goofish brother, Jim, who must run the basketball operation because their father devised it that way. Problem is, Jim upset Jeanie last November when he didn’t rehire her now-fiancee, legendary Phil Jackson, when he was being considered for a third Lakers coaching whirl after the firing of Mike Brown. The sibs are said to at least be communicating these days, with the stoic general manager, Mitch Kupchak, playing middleman/spokesman. But this arrangement is the laughingstock of the league and could keep the Lakers from prosperity. While Mike D’Antoni, an Olympic team assistant, is a common denominator between Kobe, LeBron and Carmelo, he isn’t right for the Lakers job and will be gone next summer. The wise move would be for Jeanie to hire Jackson as president of basketball operations, reduce Jim to Staples Center bartender and let the two lovebirds spread positive vibes and Zen.

I can tell you this: The Lakers will win another championship before Dwight Howard wins one. Let him keep talking about his “wonderful life.” I prefer the competitive thirst of Bryant, who immediately unfollowed Howard on his Twitter account when he signed with the Rockets. Childish?

“Listen man, it’s just me. That’s just how I am,” Kobe told reporters.

Which is why he has five more rings than the man who couldn’t wait to get away from him.

“I think everybody is cut differently,” Bryant told reporters at his basketball camp. “(Howard) has his way of leading that he feels like would be most effective and would work for him, and obviously the way we’ve gone about it with this organization and the leaders that we’ve had — myself, Magic (Johnson) and Kareem — we’ve done it a different way.”

The right way. The championship way.

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