In mainstream media, the "Dwightmare" is over. In southern California, it's just beginning.
Howard announced Friday that he'll join the Houston Rockets this summer, leaving the Los Angeles Lakers after just one season and spurring a fervid campaign to keep the seven-time All-Star playing at the Staples Center. Laker fans predictably lost it, and in just a few days Howard has turned from lauded big man to public enemy no. 1 in Los Angeles.
D12's enigmatic public persona largely contributes to the outpouring of negativity. After all, Howard's been indecisive about where he wants to play, to say the least, since his days in Orlando. And Howard certainly put the public in public persona, taking to interviews and social media to comment on every painstaking step of his free agency process. Not entirely like LeBron James, Howard laid out a list of potential suitors, forced each one to compete for his services and dragged their fans through weeks of anticipation, and ultimately left the team he was with. We all know how things worked out for James in Cleveland.
Leaving the incumbent in free agency is rarely without its complications. Leaving the incumbent that was so stacked, after years of complaining that he didn't have any talent around him with the Magic, is even stickier. But does Dwight Howard really deserve all the criticism he's getting in Los Angeles?
The first thing to remember is that Howard can't control what's leaked about him or his decision. Laker fans heard their general manager talking confidently; they heard media reports on his stance in L.A. With ESPN discussing Howard's situation once every five minutes, fans were forced to sift through a lot of conflicting information. Information, of course, that lead to a lot of unwarranted optimism.
Howard didn't schedule The Decision II. He's a complainer, sure, but it's hard to charge Dwight with getting hopes up the way James arguably did three summers ago.
And just how high were those hopes to begin with? There was no relationship between Howard and L.A., at least not one that bore any semblance to James' with Cleveland or even Dwight's previous affair with Orlando. Howard had been in a Lakers uniform for 76 games; he'd been in the city of Los Angeles for less than a calendar year. Dwight didn't break any oath or betray any loyalties, because there simply wasn't any loyalty to betray. Howard's coarse public image makes him seem like he's abandoning L.A., but he wasn't there long enough to warrant any visceral reaction to his departure. Dwight wasn't there for the beginning in Los Angeles, and there's no reason he had to be there for the end.
Then, of course, comes the actual basketball element in all this. PR and media aside, staying a Laker didn't make sense for Howard. He told Mitch Kupchak that there was no guarantee he'd sign an extension or another deal. This was a risk the Lakers were willing to take, and perhaps after living in one of the most fruitful decades in NBA history, they didn't comprehend the possibility of that risk souring. Howard was playing under a coach that made no sense for him in Mike D'Antoni, who was brought in midseason after Howard had already committed to another system. He would have returned to a shell of Steve Nash, a 34-year-old Kobe Bryant returning from a torn Achilles tendon, and plenty of missing pieces on both ends of the floor. The Rockets simply offered a better chance at winning, something that's even more admirable considering L.A. was able to offer him more money.
Ultimately, Howard's not LeBron James. He's far from it. In today's NBA culture, players seem to be definitively good or evil, with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker vs. LeBron and Dwyane Wade representing the public sentiment in last month's Finals. Perhaps Dwight is lumped in with the hated, although he's really just a player looking for opportunities and new starts. Maybe it's not selfish; maybe it's a product of free agency becoming a larger, more expensive monster. Howard's indecision didn't do him any favors, nor did the return of Chris Paul to the L.A. Clippers a few days before, but Laker fans don't need to be up in arms about a failed one-year experiment.