Much has been made about the attractiveness of the Houston Rockets as a potential destination for Dwight Howard in recent weeks. His income taxes would be lower, he could pair up with 23 year old budding superstar James Harden, and, perhaps most importantly of all, he wouldn't have to play with Kobe Bryant ever again.
The Rockets have a lot to offer Howard, but perhaps the Lakers' bargaining power has been underrated a bit by the media in their search for a story. Let's look at the advantages Los Angeles has over the Rockets as Dwight Howard hits free agency.
Money, Money, Money
It's in vogue these days to talk about how Howard can reduce his tax burden and actually make more money over a four year deal in Houston than he could in LA. In fact, if the Rockets give him a four year deal with an opt out after the third year, that deal and the preceding deal could net him a small fortune.
All of that assumes that Howard is going to continue to be a max player now and into the future. Rahat Huq makes the point on Red94 that even if Howard is likely not going to be worth a max deal in three or four years, his overconfidence in himself will make him believe that he will be. That overconfidence could allow him to overlook the extra guaranteed money that would come in a five year deal in Los Angeles.
To play devil's advocate, we saw a Howard at the beginning of last season that we had never seen before. For months, Howard looked tentative, stiff, and struggling to get his feet under him after a major back injury. What we were seeing was a player beginning to recognize his own mortality.
In net salary (after state income taxes), Howard would have the choice of $103 million (over 5 years) in Los Angeles or $87 million (over 4 years) in Houston. Over the first four years, Howard would make more in Houston, but for a guy that's going to be 31 or 32 at the expiration of his contract, that fifth year is important.
Add in the fact that Howard's powerful agent, Dan Fegan, will try to get Howard as much upfront money as possible, and you have a pretty good case for money being a factor in Howard's decision to stay in Los Angeles.
As a resident of Houston up until I graduated from high school, I love the city. I love that we don't winters, I love that every building is air-conditioned to be 55 degrees in the summer, I love the mexican food, and, perhaps most of all, I love that people are not assholes everywhere you go. But that's just me. For an NBA player, walking down Sunset Boulevard and seeing and being seen by important people is very appealing. As is the nightlife and the beautiful weather. About the only thing that draws professional athletes to Houston these days is the strip clubs.
There's a reason why Dwight Howard had the Lakers on his wish list after asking to be traded last spring. Yes, playing on a team with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol was a draw, but the city of Los Angeles was as well. If you win in Los Angeles, you are immortalized forever. In Houston, you're just another blip on the radar screen of the national consciousness.
Dwight Howard is a pleaser
Remember when Dwight Howard asked for his coach to be fired, then tried to pretend to be besties (2:45 in the video) with him the next day? Or when he got too sick of the tweets telling him to commit to the Magic and decided to opt in to his deal for another season?
Dwight is a pleaser, and he cares far too much about what people think about him. If he leaves Los Angeles to go to Houston, he will be labeled a quitter two years in a row, and won't be able to live that down for some time even if he succeeds with the Rockets. It's not fair, but it's just reality, and Dwight knows it.
As I mentioned previously, he'll be immortalized if he wins in LA. But if he goes to Houston, many will consider his successes cheapened by fact that he left the Lakers to come to an "easier" situation, just as LeBron James has caught flack for leaving the Cavaliers to join the Heat.
In the end, none of these issues are deal breakers for Howard, and the Rockets still have a very real shot at landing Howard. However, it is worth tapping the brakes a little bit on the Rockets speculation. Yes, Daryl Morey has a compelling pitch to give to Howard, but the Lakers (at least in my mind) have to be considered the favorites to retain him until we hear otherwise.