Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak used to say the team never lost a player it wanted to keep. Dwight Howard’s exit changed that.
Howard announced last week that he’s joining the Houston Rockets after one season with the Lakers, whose 16 titles are one behind the Boston Celtics for the most in National Basketball Association history. His departure dropped the Lakers’ odds of adding another championship to 40-1 from 25-1, putting them behind 12 teams including the Los Angeles Clippers.
While weakening their on-court chances, the 7-foot void in the Lakers’ roster won’t undermine the appeal of a franchise that has a $3.6 billion television contract and a championship pedigree featuring Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant, according to David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.
“The Laker brand has taken a bit of a hit lately,” Carter said by e-mail. “But it is important to note that the Lakers are never down for long. As a global brand and a consistently competitive team in the hotbed of entertainment, they will not be down for long.”
Howard, 27, a seven-time All-Star center and three-time NBA defensive player of the year, spurned the Lakers’ league-maximum offer of $118 million over five years to accept a four-year, $88 million contract from the Rockets.
“It’s the best place for me,” said Howard, who struggled to mesh with Bryant and point guard Steve Nash last season in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. After Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in April, the Lakers failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in six years, and Howard was ejected from what was ultimately his final game with the team.
The Lakers erected billboards in Los Angeles and started a Twitter campaign urging Howard to stay, while Kupchak met with him minutes after the start of the NBA’s free-agency period, according to the Los Angeles Times and ESPN.
When Bryant was a free agent in 2004, he was persuaded to stay with the Lakers after a face-to-face meeting with owner Jerry Buss, who died in February at the age of 80. Under Buss’s leadership, the team won five NBA titles in nine years in the 1980s, and five more from 2000 to 2010.
Although Buss is gone, the Lakers will remain among the NBA’s elite franchises, according to Richard Peddie, who formerly ran Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, owner of the NHL’s Leafs, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and the Air Canada Centre.
“In their history they have survived the loss of West, Magic and Abdul-Jabbar only to rise again,” Peddie said in an e-mail. “The brand is pretty darn powerful. It has historic success, L.A. sizzle and iconic past stars to keep it strong for many years. Plus a hell of a TV deal.”
The Lakers are entering the second season of a 20-year, $3.6 billion contract with Time Warner Cable and are one of two NBA teams -- along with the New York Knicks -- valued at more than $1 billion by Forbes magazine. The franchise’s financial standing will help restock a roster whose only player under contract for the 2014-15 season is 39-year-old Nash.
“Although the Lakers have never skimped on payroll, their new TV network should keep them in a unique position of being able to spend when they want and on whomever they want,” Carter said.
Howard, who has averaged 18.3 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots a game in his nine-year career, joins a Rockets team whose top four scorers last season were all 26 or younger. Houston went 45-37, the same record as the Lakers, and also lost in the first round of the playoffs.
With Howard’s arrival, the Rockets’ odds of winning the title improved to 15-1, tied for fifth in the 30-team NBA behind the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. Also at 15-1 are the Clippers, who may be better than the Lakers on the court next season, yet will remain the No. 2 NBA brand in Los Angeles behind the Lakers, according to former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson.
“The Clippers must win to maintain their status, unlike the Lakers,” said Pilson, the president of Pilson Communications Inc. “They may win more games than the Lakers next season but the national ratings will still be stronger for the Lakers for some time since the public will be curious to see how they are doing, win or lose.”