The Houston Rockets pulled out all of their tricks during their meeting with Los Angeles Lakers free agent Dwight Howard as free agency began in the wee hours of Monday morning. The Rockets did not get an answer from Dwight Howard and none was expected. They did, however, get just the questions that they hoped to receive.
After more than 2 ½ hours meeting with Howard and his representatives at the Bel-Air Hotel, the Rockets were encouraged by many things, but mostly that Howard’s interest seemed to be about the potential to win championships with the Rockets.
The Rockets have reportedly emerged as the frontrunners to land Howard. In addition to Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, general manager Daryl Morey and coach Kevin McHale, the team also brought along former greats Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler to vouch for the franchise. Yao Ming was even involved in the presentation, as he checked into the meeting from China via Skype. Current Rockets James Harden and Chandler Parsons also delivered their pitch, telling Howard that they would love to have him as a teammate and that they would immediately become championship contenders if he chose Houston.
The youngest team in the NBA last season, the Rockets were prepared to argue that they would keep their young core untouched and would have the salary-cap exceptions and first-round picks in coming seasons. The youth was expected to be a point of emphasis. James Harden will be 24 next season, Chandler Parsons 25.
The belief is that Howard's biggest priority in this free agent process is winning, and the Rockets did all they could to sell him on that. McHale also told Howard that he would build his system around him and that the team is searching for complementary players to properly surround the center.
Howard is set to meet with the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, and of course, the Lakers in the coming days. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak did have a brief face-to-face meeting with Howard before the big man met with the Rockets.
The Lakers can offer a max deal of $118 million for five seasons while other teams will be able to offer a maximum of $88 million over four years. With the lack of a state income tax in Texas, Howard would net more over four years with the Rockets or Mavericks than in the first four years of a contract with the Lakers. The difference, however, might not be an issue . Howard has indicated in the past that he might prefer a four-year contract, or an opt-out after four years with the Lakers, to become a free agent again when the NBA’s new television deals and potentially a new collective bargaining agreement begin.
The Rockets’ free-agent shopping will move from their top target to his childhood friend, Josh Smith, a person with knowledge of their plans confirmed. Dwight Howard and Smith were AAU teammates in Atlanta with the Atlanta Celtics. After meeting with Howard late Sunday in Los Angeles, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was expected to meet with Smith and agent Brian Dyke on Monday.
A person familiar with the Rockets’ plans said they are proceeding in free agency with a goal of filling a roster that would fit with Howard. They would be unable to sign Howard and Smith without a sign-and-trade deal, but with Howard, they could seek a deal with the Hawks involving Omer Asik and the $8.3 million of salary cap room he would occupy next season. They would have to add additional contracts, however, to sign Smith, who had once said he would seek a max contract.
In nine seasons with Atlanta, Smith, 27, has averaged 15.3 points and eight rebounds. He averaged 17.5 points and 8.4 rebounds last season along with a career-best 4.2 assists. Howard averaged 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds in his lone turbulent season with the Lakers after spending the first eight years of his NBA career in Orlando.