Dwight Howard isn't the first All-star player to leave his team via free agency. He's not even the first this decade.
LeBron James and Chris Bosh took off on Cleveland and Toronto three years ago. Two years after that, Ray Allen joined them, walking from the Boston Celtics to their chief rivals in the Miami Heat. Steve Nash's situation wasn't much different than Shuttlesworth's when he happily joined up with a Kobe-Pau-Dwight Lakers team just last offseason. Guys like Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony didn't leave their teams via free agency per se, but were dealt to teams when it became apparent that they would depart their teams in a year's time.
And what follows typically isn't pretty. After James spurned the Cavaliers on public television in July 2010, Clevelanders took to the streets and burned his jersey to ash. There was never smoke in Denver like those number 23 effigies, but to this day, Carmelo Anthony gets booed every time he touches the ball in the Mile High City. Allen was considered persona non grata by his former championship teammates when he first returned to Boston, as Beantown repeatedly seems to forget his title contributions in their continual jeering every time he returns.
Fans don't forget. It's not in their fanatical nature. Leaving a team is akin to a lover packing his or her bags for the more inviting arms of someone with better abs and more money. People take it personally--and after all, how could you not? If you're investing as much emotion into the game as most ardent fans are, is there any reason why we should expect anything less than a visceral reaction?
But how much is too much? Was setting a highly flammable polyester jersey afire in the street really appropriate, especially seeing its very obvious dangers to the general public? Is it fair to harp on LeBron for a poor publicity Decision he made three years ago on national TV--a Decision, by the way, that's netted him two titles, three straight Finals appearances and the finest basketball we've seen since Michael stood defiant on that June night in Utah? How long is too long to hate? To complain? To cling onto that one moment that quite frankly, would not impact your life if you didn't have a television or a computer?
Those final three sentences aren't even in the mindset of Southern California at large, let alone the Lakers fan base. Dwight Howard is public enemy number one in the City of Angels, regardless if your replica jersey is purple and gold or red, white and blue. There is no player--not Zach Randolph, not Paul Pierce, not Kevin Garnett--that is as reviled in the Southland as Houston's new center is right now.
It's quite easy to understand why. Amidst nearly two years of flip-flopping and back talking, Howard finally signed a free agent contract in Houston, leaving millions on the table to sign with the Rockets. It seemed that at long last Howard was in a place he actually wanted to be, rather than be trapped in hellish situations like two of the nicest towns in the entire NBA. Joking aside, both organizations clearly weren't a fit for Dwight, mostly in that they weren't tailored to his specific strengths and weren't on track to win right away.
In terms of Los Angeles, Dwight leaving the Lakers wasn't particularly surprising. With an aging, injury-riddled roster including Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, the immediate prospects of the team looked grim. They were capped out for 2013, and even with gobs of space in 2014, there was no guarantee that this new Buss ownership would be able to construct a winning product around Howard. After all, they hadn't done it before.
As Dwight's attention span waned (surprise, surprise!), his eyes wandered over to Houston, as James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and coach Kevin McHale were playing some of the most exciting basketball in the league. They were young, on the upswing, seemed perfectly attuned to Howard's particular strengths and most importantly, on the cusp of contending. In pure basketball terms, this was a slam dunk Decision. The Rockets were poised to win right now. Not maybe this year. Not maybe, "if the right free agents come", the year after. Right. Effing. Now.
But the other facet of Dwight's decision was less clear. Howard had played the entire season--in his words that he never let us forget--hurt and while rehabbing from a very serious back surgery. It was a season of constant adjustments from the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year, as he battled through an obvious loss of athleticism, as well as a shoulder injury that could have knocked him out for the remainder of the campaign. Dwight was under constant scrutiny and speculation, with fans, coaches and even teammates questioning his toughness. To make matters worse, everyone waited and watched, and yet, the player that destroyed the league for years never really appeared. The Lakers fan base and even the national media called into question whether or not the skills that had made him into a perennial MVP candidate were gone for good. Playing in Los Angeles had of course magnified matters, as it does with any player, and Howard was constantly criticized for just about everything he did.
The fan base turned on Dwight to a certain extent, as he simply didn't deliver the results that many expected. Whether that's on them for expecting an irrational result or just an unfortunate consequence of Howard's past success, the fans were extremely disappointed--and there was no doubt that Dwight felt that burning into his cortex. It was a pressure he clearly didn't care for, to be criticized unfairly and incorrectly. Truth be told, no one likes that. Who would? But as a professional athlete who has seemingly maximized his off-court opportunities, it was strange to see Dwight surprised at the price that comes with fame in the Western world.
It was clear that being squarely at the center of the Los Angeles Lakers universe, for many reasons, was just not for him. He signed a contract for tens of millions less and defied popular convention ("you don't say no to the Lakers") to play in Houston. It's an extremely admirable notion that I doubt most players would make--and very plainly, have never really made before. Financially, this looks like it would be a disaster for Howard. Basketball-wise? He couldn't have been more spot on.
Left in the dust was a legion of Lakers fans who, like the high school football captain, stood mystified in their purple and gold letterman jackets after the hot girl left him in the middle of the cafeteria. They were confused and angry, but mostly the latter. It was a humbling place for Lakers fan to be. A humbling, foreign place.
As they are often wont to do, fans reacted negatively. They threw around names like "Dwight Coward", centering their criticisms around the fact that Howard couldn't handle the white hot spotlight in LA as Magic, Kobe, Kareem, Shaquille and dozens of other athletes had in the decades preceding.They wondered aloud if he was even worth the max contract the Lakers offered him, and predicted that the team couldn't have won a title with him as the primary star even if he had returned. All the frustrations of a season's plan gone wrong (and now future season's plans gone wrong) bubbled to the surface.
It's been four months since "The Indecision", and Lakers fans are still miffed. As we approach tip for Thursday's game in Houston--LA's first meeting with Howard this season--there's been nary a kind word spoken. The heat has died down from its mid-July apex, to be sure, but any word of LA from Dwight's mouth incites an internet riot. Look no further than last week, when Howard himself admitted the continuing criticism he faces from Lakers Nation: "Fans are very passionate about their team and unfortunately the Lakers have the most fans in the world, so I think it’s kind of a tough thing to let go." In just one, long, run-on sentence, Dwight incensed the fan base with a moderately innocuous quote, as Twitter and comment boards all over the web were a wasteland for four-letter words.
Still, whether it be nationwide anti-Lakers sentiment or just a general fatigue of fans criticizing departing free agent, there is the never-ending narrative that it's time for Lakers fans to "just get over it". It's been four months, after all. This is basketball, not life and death, and to continually harp on any player for what was a decision based on winning now seems like more a noble decision than a selfish one.
But to tell Lakers fans to simply let go of something that happened in an adjacent season (I'm talking about summer to fall, kids) is an entirely ridiculous notion. The Lakers--and by extension, their fans--mortgaged part of their future on a gamble to sign Dwight Howard. Regardless of how many games Andrew Bynum played in the 2012-2013 season, he was an enormous basketball asset in August 2012. Paired with the future draft picks given up in the deal, Los Angeles dealt their non-cap space related items for a 45-win season and a first-round sweep. Even before that ignominious departure at the hands of the Spurs, the Lakers saw the trade deadline come and go with nary a thought to dealing Howard, despite the tremendous amount of assets he'd have returned.
And now we're here: a 2-3 mess of a squad with glaring defensive deficiencies and a completely unknown future. The Lakers put their fortunes on the broad shoulders of a 27-year-old center and he decided that he did not want to reciprocate in kind. Some would say that Lakers fans should be angry at management: trust me, they are. But they're also furious at the man who left them in part because of what he perceived to be an overly critical fan base. Right or wrong, this is the same fan base that was similarly critical of Pau Gasol, a much less gregarious and public figure than Howard who faltered on the league's biggest stage against the team's greatest rivals. But unlike the Spaniard, Dwight couldn't have dealt with this maelstrom of words in a worst way.
A large part of the anger towards Howard is that he's asked for fame, fortune and the responsibilities of playmaker on both ends of the floor, and seemingly isn't willing to take any of the criticism that comes along with it. Last year, Dwight seemed all too eager to bask in all the perks that come along with being a superstar in Los Angeles, and yet recoiled when faced with the hardships associated with bearing such a cross. In the same town in which former stars are forever hailed like conquering heroes--from Marcus Allen to Fernando Valenzuela to Derek Fisher--Dwight quickly soured on the extraordinarily high standards set in the Southland. I don't blame Dwight for leaving. I truly don't. He saw a better situation where he didn't have to be the team's best player, took less contract years and nabbed the opportunity to be assured of title contention right away.
But is it time to "get over it"? It is time to let this one go? I don't think it is. Like thousands before him, Howard came to LA and was instantly enchanted by the bright lights and blinding charm of a town in which glory is greatest. When he realized that it wasn't for him, he left a crater in the middle of this franchise, one for which there is no immediate, realistic salve. He asked for the world, and it was laid upon his back in kind. As irony would have it, his body wilted under the pressure when he found that the price far outweighed the struggle. His Decision, reasonable or not, has completely changed the course of this franchise onto a trajectory towards the unknown.
Lakers fans have the right to refuse mercy on Dwight. Telling them--telling US--to "get over it" is an exercise in ignorance to who he has been and what the Lakers mean to this town.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino