After Dwight, what's next for Lakers?
Nine years ago, the Lakers had no choice but to wait. No hints were forthcoming, no tweets to tip them off. The news came more slowly, not minute-by-minute. But the same sense of dread filled the air.
Every indication then pointed toward 25-year-old Kobe Bryant bolting for the younger, fresher Los Angeles Clippers. But there was time then. Enough time for the Lakers to turn him around. And ultimately that's what the Lakers owner at the time, Dr. Jerry Buss, did in a last-minute, face-to-face meeting with his young star.
This time around, with Dr. Buss gone and his son and GM Mitch Kupchak in his place, the Lakers weren't as persuasive. And instead of one last face-to-face meeting, they merely got the word from Dwight Howard when he reached his decision and Twitter quickened the pace of the news. Or maybe they never had a chance to retain Howard anyway.
Whatever the case, he's gone. The once-a-decade superstar the Lakers found a way to trade for, and had ticketed for face-of-the-franchise status, will be wearing red in Houston now.
What does this mean for the Lakers? Does it set them back? Is the mystique gone? Or does Howard's failure to launch in Los Angeles actually strengthen the brand as fans and Laker greats come together to howl that not everyone is worthy of the purple and gold?
The following look at the state of the Lakers and how we got here is based on conversations with many of the principals involved, both during the season and during the past week.
For many reasons, only some of which involve Howard or his decision, this is a monumental moment in Lakers history. Dr. Buss passed away this spring. His children are running the organization and still finding their own voices. Bryant is in his golden years, hoping for another championship run or two. Phil Jackson is in Montana, but always just a phone call -- or tweet -- away. Mike D'Antoni remains the coach, but with plenty of baggage.
There is some clarity now that Howard has finally made a decision. But there is still so much to be settled.
Many of the stories in the immediate aftermath of Howard's decision Friday focused on what it meant for him and said about his character. If Orlando was too small for him, Los Angeles seemed too big. His season with the Lakers served as a mirror, reflecting his flaws in the most unsightly, uncomfortable way.
But his exit means the Lakers must look in the mirror now. The reasons why Howard left are the issues the Lakers must confront now and in the future.
Howard looked at the Lakers and saw an aging roster, transitioning management, and a tenacious force of personality in Bryant that he would rather run from than try to change.
It wasn't all that different from 2004, when Bryant saw a golden franchise in a low moment and embraced the challenge. This time around though, Howard had seen enough in one season to know he wasn't the man for this job.
Are they simply two different men? Or have the Lakers changed? Is the value of the brand diminished in the eyes of Howard's AAU generation? Or will the franchise rally to land one of the coveted free agents who come on the market in 2014?
Midway through the season, on a snowy night in Denver, I'd asked Bryant a similar set of questions. About why he thought the Lakers had felt comfortable entrusting him with their franchise back in 2004, and whether the same would happen to Howard this offseason. He paused a second to chew on it, carefully considering his words and the implications of his answer.
"I think if you ask management, it was a very easy call," he said. "They'd been around me long enough to know my competitiveness, know my work ethic, and they knew that my drive was going to be enough that they felt safe putting the franchise in my hands."
As for Howard?
"That's a call they have to make," Bryant said. "This franchise has obviously seen some of the greats of all time, so they know what that looks like."
It's time for everyone to move on now, and that process started quickly Friday evening when Howard confirmed what the Lakers had suspected for some time already: This had been a bad marriage from the start, and he was ending it.
The relationship had become so toxic, there were those in Lakerland almost as afraid of what happened if he decided to stay as the fallout if he left.
Keeping Howard had been a priority, simply because of his talent and value. But from the start, there was a real sense that he was miscast as a Laker standard-bearer. And as disappointing as that reality was for both sides, at least Howard had the sense to recognize it and the guts to move on. The Lakers, like the Yankees, aren't for everyone.
In the process of courting Howard and ultimately failing to land him, the Lakers gave us a fascinating glimpse of what the franchise is now, and how it is operating.
General manager Mitch Kupchak led the campaign to keep Howard and remains the most public voice of the front office. Executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss holds considerable power, but prefers -- at least for now -- to stay in the background. Executive vice president of business operations Jeanie Buss and her fiancée, former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, also hold considerable power, but are trying to stay in their lanes and keep their relationships with current players low-key. Bryant is Bryant: determined, ruthlessly competitive, the face of the franchise and often its most vocal member.
That's a tremendous amount of political clout inside one organization, but that's how it's always been for the Lakers. The challenge now, in this transition period, is to figure out a new equilibrium -- or if things are destined to remain eternally combustible here, at least a winning one.
That challenge starts at the top, where the six Buss children who inherited the franchise are still finding their footing after the death of their father.
Since Dr. Buss' death in February, the children have met regularly. Jeanie Buss has taken a lead role in business matters, after having been her father's top lieutenant on such things. It's her siblings who are accustomed to relying on their father for the final word, who have had to familiarize themselves with how things have been run. Their decisions now affect not only the family but everyone else in the Lakers organization.
After those first few months, things have "smoothed out" considerably, as one person close to the family put it. The relationship between Jeanie Buss and Jim Buss has improved somewhat. The two siblings and Kupchak meet almost weekly to keep abreast of each other's business. Jim and Jeanie Buss also socialize away from the Lakers offices from time to time. And both are determined to maintain the legacy their father left to them, no matter the challenges ahead.
Yes, the relationship will forever be strained by the way Jim Buss and Kupchak courted Jackson last November, leaving the legendary coach with the impression that the Lakers' job was his to turn down before abruptly hiring D'Antoni.
Jackson was interested in the job and had intended to accept it. But he also thought he was responding to a call for help from the family of his then-longtime girlfriend, as her father lay dying at a nearby hospital, and a record amount of money had been allocated for one last title chase while the old man was alive.
Later on, the elder Buss explained to his daughter that the final decision on the hire had been his, and it was not personal towards Jackson. He simply saw the NBA heading in a direction that seemed to fit D'Antoni's uptempo style.
It turned out to be a fateful decision as Howard, who had grown close to Jeanie Buss in his first few months in Los Angeles, asked -- via his agents -- if Jackson could coach the team on more than one occasion. He was told then and several other times that Jackson wasn't interested in coaching.
While Jackson would later say publically that he has no intention of coaching again, he would've coached the Lakers this season had it come to pass. But his hesitation at accepting (between a Saturday afternoon and Monday morning) caused Kupchak, Jim Buss and Jerry Buss to believe he wasn't gung ho about the job. In fact, Jackson mostly just needed to think about whether he was ready to come out of retirement for the coaching life again, and to ask his doctors if he could postpone a couple medical procedures.
Whatever the case or cause of all the confusion, the situation became a divisive issue for Howard, who felt like his "voice wasn't being heard" or "respected," according to a source close to him.
Jeanie, Jim and Jackson worked to repair ownership's relationship with Howard throughout the year. Jackson texted him a few times to offer encouragement. Jeanie Buss would offer kind words when she'd see Howard in the hallways of the team's training facility or at games. They both tweeted at him publically in the final week before he made his decision. Jim Buss reached out a few times over the phone, reminding Howard of how much his late father believed in him.
But Howard is the needy sort. Occasional gestures only go so far with him. To feel secure, he needs constant reinforcement. Which is why the Lakers greenlighted the controversial "STAY D12" billboards around Los Angeles.
Kupchak came the closest, calling, texting and reaching out to Howard several times a week to encourage him. He also was among the first to call attention to how Howard's recovery from back surgery was affecting his play on the court, albeit not loudly or early enough in the year for Howard or his camp's liking.
He even made a grand -- and well-publicized -- gesture on the opening night of the free agency period when he dropped by for a quick face-to-face meeting with Howard.
Ultimately though, Howard just needed more.
More attention, more support, more power.
Firing D'Antoni and replacing him with Jackson or his protégé Brian Shaw might have done that. But that would've been a major step, and Howard had done little in his year in Los Angeles to warrant such treatment, in the eyes of the front office.
That's especially true after the team had shown encouraging signs by going 28-12 in the second half of the season, when Howard acquiesced to running D'Antoni's offense with more gusto, and D'Antoni bent some of his philosophies to better fit the roster.
Hard as it was to swallow, management determined that if Howard left it would be for more reasons than just the decision to hire D'Antoni.
Ultimately, the Lakers decided that the franchise was bigger than one player. Or at least this particular player.
During his brief meeting with Howard last Tuesday, D'Antoni said very little. When Howard told him he just didn't think he'd ever be comfortable playing in his system, the coach showed him how his statistics last season had been some of the best in his career, he actually touched the ball in the post far more than he realized, and reminded him that he'd led the league in rebounding.
Howard listened and tried to absorb the information. But it didn't jibe with his experiences. And besides, he'd already grown enamored with the idea of being coached by Houston's Kevin McHale, one of the best post players of all time.
McHale and the Rockets had explained how they'd tailor their offense to highlight Howard, and D'Antoni was trying to convince him he hadn't given this other way a real chance.
He hadn't, of course. The Lakers had studied his production in pick-and-roll sets in Orlando carefully -- before hiring D'Antoni -- and concluded that he had been an excellent player out of those sets with the Magic. But almost from the start, he seemed uninterested in and uninspired by the offense.
It was a constant source of tension within the team during the season. His Lakers teammates complained both publicly and privately, frustrated to no end. Eventually after the All-Star break, Howard made a better effort to get on board, but he never truly embraced it.
That tension came back to the surface when Bryant and Nash met with Howard last Tuesday. Howard came at them hard, telling them how upset he was that they never publicly went to bat to for him while he was injured.
He felt like they'd disrespected the effort he'd given by coming back from back surgery so quickly. He felt like they had done little to mitigate the criticism he was hearing for his play.
Bryant and Nash were stunned. He'd never told them any of this before, or asked them to defend him publicly. They'd known he was injured and appreciated he came back to play many months before the initial time frame given following his back surgery, but the code among players is that if you don't say anything to your teammates about an injury, it's something you can handle on your own. If you need help, you tell your teammates and they close ranks around you, defending your honor to the public and on the court.
Howard never asked that of his teammates. He'd tried to play his way back into shape after back surgery, and soldiered on after he tore the labrum in his shoulder, even with a long-term contract on the line. But instead of getting credit for such acts, he'd heard constant criticism. And over the course of a long, trying season, that wore on him.
Why weren't people rushing to his defense? Why wasn't he getting credit for playing with so much pain? Was he supposed to ask for help? But if he did, wouldn't that be making excuses?
Looking back on it now, it's easy to see why it became such a toxic situation. But it's also easy to see, once again, how it could've been avoided, with better communication.
Bryant and Nash digested what he had to what he had to say, and told him they understood him better now. If they tried it all again next season, things would be different. He should come to them with these kind of issues, instead of letting them fester. They all would learn and grow from this.
But mostly Bryant told him that no matter where he went or what team he chose to play for, there would be issues to deal with. All he could do was "plant his roots and grow" someplace. All this change -- all this drama that had sunk his personal brand and his mood these past three years -- would be over once he made this decision and committed to a team and a city.
It was a very Zen-like message, one that Jackson would've been proud of if he'd heard it. But it's different when it's a contemporary delivering that kind of advice, and when it's a coach.
Howard listened. It was good advice. And in the end he actually followed it by heading to the place he believes he can grow best.
To Houston, that is.
The fact that Howard had such a hard time saying "no" to the Lakers at the end of it all, after everything that had happened, speaks once again to the crux of the issue:
This seemed like a good marriage, and yet it was never even a good match.
Howard wasn't who the Lakers thought he was. And the Lakers weren't what Howard wanted them to be.
Who is Howard exactly, though? And what are the Lakers now?
For once there's an easy answer:
They all are what happens next.