The horse-race coverage of Dwight Howard's free agency made for an interesting spectacle, but the reported information regarding the All-Star center's future was relatively consistent from the start of the negotiating period on July 1 until the time of his signing: Houston was, at the very least, a major player.
Some reporters went as far as to call the Rockets favorites in the Howard sweepstakes, while others reverse-engineered that outcome by systematically eliminating Atlanta, Dallas, Golden State and the Lakers from the running by way of team and league sources. The world braced for the possibility of Howard's changing his mind, but throughout the most pertinent stages of his decision making, most every tea leaf read suggested that Houston might be his first-choice destination.
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak was apparently working from that same premise, per his comments to The Los Angeles Times:
"It wasn't a surprise [that Howard signed in Houston]. I had a feeling that Houston was a frontrunner, and whenever a player is an unrestricted free agent, anything can happen," Kupchak said. "Clearly, we wanted to keep him here in Los Angeles, and I felt we did everything we could do within reason to show we did want to keep him here.
"Until the end, I kept up hope. I think we were as persistent as we could be within reason. I wasn't shocked but I was disappointed."
Kupchak's comments are consistent with what we know of the Lakers' approach to Howard's free agency. After a long, tumultuous season, Kupchak and his staff knew that they had to sell the 27-year-old Howard on a possible return. His only season with the team was a disappointment, and Howard himself was regarded with intense scrutiny -- as if every unfortunate turn of L.A.'s season (including his own lingering back injury and subsequent should injury) were his fault. The glamour of the purple and gold wouldn't be enough to bring Howard back into the fold.
The Lakers started their courtship quickly and emphatically with a series of billboards imploring Howard to stay in Los Angeles. Beyond that, Kupchak refused to simply wait his turn in the scheduled meetings with Howard; according to ESPN Los Angeles, Kupchak managed to meet with Howard just as free agency began, even as the Rockets were scheduled as Howard's first official meeting. These are not the kinds of decisions made by a team content with its chances, but of a somewhat desperate franchise that well understood Howard's free agency to be an open competition. That it was, though Houston quickly took the lead after selling Howard on joining an up-and-coming contender and didn't seem to relinquish its advantage through the publicly reported turns of Howard's process. Other organizations had their pitches with Howard and some made gains along the way, but Kupchak was right to be both mindful of the Rockets' advantage and unsurprised when Howard ultimately committed to Houston.