Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard rocked the Los Angeles Lakers' world when he decided against re-signing with the franchise as a free agent, and apparently, Howard spurned the Lakers in part because the team would not commit to pushing Kobe Bryant out of the picture when his contract expired, according to a report by Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein of ESPN.
Howard wanted to become the face of the franchise, and he was looking for assurances that "the torch would be passed from Bryant to him in short order" in L.A.:
Sources told ESPN.com that Howard and his representatives -- in a handful of meetings with Lakers officials before he became a free agent July 1 -- strongly suggested the center would have a difficult time re-signing with the team if Bryant stayed with the franchise beyond the 2013-14 season, the final year of his contract.
The Lakers, almost from the moment Howard arrived in August 2012, had gone to great lengths to assure the 27-year-old that they saw him as the future face of the franchise and that the torch would be passed from Bryant to him in short order.
But with Bryant saying publicly just a week before free agency that he was thinking of playing at least two or three more seasons, it was hard for Howard to envision when he would assume that role, sources said.
"How can it be Kobe's team and Dwight's team?" one source said. "It was about the passing of the torch."
Although Bryant's contract was set to expire after the 2013-14 season and he will need to rehab from an Achilles tendon next season, the transfer of power was never going to be easy. That's not how the Kobe System works, after all. There is no additional step after "Success at Success."
In any case, Howard's camp also apparently pitched the idea of using the amnesty provision to accelerate Bryant's departure:
As an offshoot of those discussions, sources said, Howard's camp at one point asked the Lakers whether they were at least considering releasing Bryant through the league's amnesty provision, since Bryant's return date from Achilles tendon surgery remained in question.
Releasing Bryant via the amnesty provision and shopping Pau Gasol and Steve Nash to teams with salary-cap space would have allowed the Lakers to try to recruit Paul in free agency. But the Lakers, sources said, made it clear the prospect of releasing Bryant or simply trying to lay out a finite timetable on the end of his career with the franchise was not under consideration, believing those decisions should and would be made by Bryant.
Speaking of Bryant's primacy within the organization, he participated in the Lakers' unsuccessful free agent pitch to Howard and reportedly told the big man "you have to learn how it's done." Days later he bolted for Houston to join James Harden and Daryl Morey. Kobe had more thoughts to offer on Howard after that:
"I think everybody is cut differently," Bryant said. "[Howard] has his way of leading that he feels like would be most effective and would work for him, and obviously the way we've gone about it with this organization and the leaders that we've had -- myself, Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] -- we've done it a different way."
The rumors and leaks that have emerged in the aftermath of Howard's huge free agent decision amount to little more than attempts to scrub the record clean and rationalize why rival teams lost out on the top player available, but at least we've got some five-star rumors to digest.