Dwight Howard is heading to Houston after one season with the Los Angeles Lakers, accepting a contract worth $30 million less to join a younger roster and become the latest in a line of Rockets big men that includes Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and Yao Ming.
“I’ve decided to become a member of the Houston Rockets,” Howard said last night on his Twitter.com site after changing his avatar into a Rockets uniform. “I feel it’s the best place for me and I am excited.”
Howard, 27, a seven-time All-Star center and three-time National Basketball Association defensive player of the year, was regarded as the top free agent available this offseason and also had been courted by the Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors in addition to the Lakers. The 6-foot-11 Howard has averaged 18.3 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots a game in his nine-year career.
“Welcome to Houston @DwightHoward!!!” Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey said on Twitter.com. “Years of work by Dwight & Rockets went into this. This team is going to be special.”
Howard will sign a four-year, $88 million contract with the Rockets, who have won one playoff series in 16 seasons. He spurned the Lakers’ league-maximum offer of $118 million over five years.
NBA players can agree on contracts, though they can’t officially sign until July 10, when the league’s moratorium on trades and signings is lifted.
Shortly before Howard’s decision was made public, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said the player had told the team he wouldn’t be returning.
“We have been informed of Dwight’s decision to not return to the Lakers,” Kupchak said in an e-mail. “Naturally we’re disappointed. To Dwight, we thank him for his time and consideration, and for his efforts with us last season. We wish him the best of luck on the remainder of his NBA career.”
Howard’s decision improved the Rockets’ odds to 12-to-1 to win the NBA title from 25-to-1, according to LVH SuperBook in Las Vegas, said R.J. Bell of Pregame.com, a sports-betting news website. The Lakers’ odds fell to 100-to-1 from 25-to-1 when Howard announced his departure.
All-Star point guard Chris Paul said he was re-signing with the Los Angeles Clippers hours after the start of the NBA’s free-agency period on July 1, leaving Howard as the top player on the market. The Lakers erected billboards in Los Angeles and started a Twitter campaign urging Howard to stay, while Lakers players Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were part of the contingent to meet with Howard, along with General Manager Mitch Kupchak, coach Mike D’Antoni and other team executives.
Olajuwon, Mutombo -- who played the final five years of his career in Houston -- and Yao helped the Rockets recruit Howard, who’s often regarded as the NBA’s best big man now. While the Rockets couldn’t offer a contract as lucrative as the Lakers, they had the benefit of no state taxes in Texas, a strong marketing presence in Asia and can pair Howard with 23-year-old James Harden, whose scoring average of 25.9 points a game last season was fifth in the NBA.
Houston also may seek to add a third All-Star caliber player. Howard had asked Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey if the team would be able to offer another player a maximum-contract deal, according to the Houston Chronicle.
If Howard stayed in Los Angeles, it would have been on the assumption that the Lakers would be building for the future. Nash is the only player under contract for the 2014-15 season, when he’ll be 40. Bryant will be 35 next season, his 18th in the NBA, and is coming back from a torn left Achilles tendon that forced him to miss the end of last season.
The oldest player on the Rockets’ roster is 31-year-old Francisco Garcia and Houston’s top four scorers last season were all 26 or younger. Houston had a 45-37 record last season, the same record as the Lakers, and lost in the first round of the playoffs.
After eight years with the Orlando Magic, Howard averaged 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds in his only season with the Lakers. Howard, Bryant and Nash struggled to mesh on the court in D’Antoni’s system, and after Bryant’s injury the Lakers failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Howard and Nash joined the Lakers last offseason in hopes of giving the team a core of three All-Stars similar to the Miami Heat’s trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. While the Heat are celebrating their second straight title, Bryant has spent this offseason rehabilitating his torn Achilles and Nash is recovering from a right hamstring injury.
Howard leaves a franchise that’s won 16 championships --one behind the Boston Celtics’ NBA record -- to join a team that won its only two titles in 1994 and 1995 behind Olajuwon and shooting guard Clyde Drexler. Howard and Harden now may give the Rockets a similar duo.
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