After a long, hectic day full of reports, counter-reports, denials, twists and turns, center Dwight Howard, the No. 1 player in this year's free-agent class, has decided to leave the Lakers and sign with the Rockets.
Here's a rundown of the winners and losers involved in Howard's indecisive decision.
Winner: Dwight Howard
After living a year-to-year and, at times, month-to-month or even a day-to-day existence for multiple seasons, Howard finally has a place he can call home for the next four years. By picking Houston, he chose wisely. He gets a big market, without the full brunt of expectations he faced in Los Angeles. He gets a franchise with global appeal and a history of winning, without the constant comparisons to former legends. He gets an All-Star shooting guard teammate with elite skills, without the never-ending battle of egos that began brewing almost immediately upon his arrival last summer in L.A.
Perhaps most important, he gets an asset-rich roster in a position to add a third piece, perhaps Josh Smith or Ryan Anderson, while also having a number of worthwhile rotation players on budget deals. There's no Pau Gasol weighing down the Rockets, no $30 million owed to Kobe Bryant that guarantees salary-cap gridlock in the short term. Houston did a fantastic job of setting the table; credit Howard for realizing now was the right time to eat. By joining the Rockets, Howard has the opportunity to play for a team that should be among the top four or five in the Western Conference for the duration of his contract, including 2013-14. That wasn't something the Lakers, with Bryant on the mend, could promise.
Loser: Dwight Howard
The end of the "Dwightmare" offered Howard the chance to do some real reputation repair. After years of coming off flaky and immature as he worked his way out of Orlando and struggled to find his footing in L.A., the whole NBA world was watching and waiting eagerly for his decision. This was a rare opportunity for Howard to own the message.
So much for that. Instead of delivering a clear choice with a thorough explanation of his reasoning, Howard's decision to join the Rockets came out on Twitter, where it was immediately flooded with conflicting information, much of it provided by his agent. In the chaos, which took hours to resolve and could have been put to bed with a single Twitter message from Howard himself, all of those same old negative perceptions of Howard were allowed to flourish. The world groaned together when he reportedly "waffled" on Friday night, before telling Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak that he was leaving.
Of course, it must be mentioned that the confusion kept Howard in the spotlight, and his following on Twitter swelled by tens of thousands on Friday. Perhaps he is operating by the code that all attention is good attention. If so, the last few years appear to have taught him nothing. To be clear, Howard won far more than he lost this week, but this does wind up as a major missed opportunity.
Winner: Rockets GM Daryl Morey
Any executive who beats the Lakers in a head-to-head competition for the premier free agent of a given summer is a winner, let alone one who was at a disadvantage by being unable to offer a five-year deal. Morey's positioning for Howard was methodical and took years to develop, with numerous rejections along the way. He deserves full credit not only for his asset collection but also for his perseverance and attention to details. Does it really matter that the Rockets brought Hakeem Olajuwon to L.A. and included an iPad in their pitch to Howard? Who knows, but nothing was left to chance.
In less than a year, Morey converted Kyle Lowry, Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin into James Harden and Howard. He didn't win 2013 Executive of the Year, but he is well positioned as an early leader for the 2014 award.
Losers: Los Angeles Lakers
As frustrating as Howard can be, and as frustrating as the 2012-13 Lakers season was, life without him and without anything meaningful in return for him is worse than life with him. Howard's departure puts L.A. in a very tough position, at least for next season. Even with Bryant, Gasol and Steve Nash fully healthy, the Lakers simply don't have the depth of talent or salary-cap means to make themselves major players in the ever-competitive Western Conference.
With the threat of a massive luxury bill looming, the Lakers must now consider using their amnesty clause to dump salary and punt the 2013-14 season. L.A. projects to have almost totally clear books next summer and will have substantially more flexibility to construct a roster built around star players in their primes. Although the Lakers have missed the postseason just once since 2005, this is a pretty good year to bite the bullet on a lottery trip, given the talent that should be available.
Winners: Orlando Magic
The Point Forward revisited last year's four-team blockbuster trade that landed Howard in Los Angeles from Orlando during the middle of the season, concluding that the Lakers still came out on top, as long as Howard re-signed. Friday's departure casts the trade in a different light for one team, but it's not the Lakers.
Dumping Andrew Bynum for a year of Howard still looks like a fine move for the Lakers. But Orlando, harshly criticized at the time, can enjoy a minute of puffy-chested vindication. At least two of the pieces the Magic obtained in the Howard deal -- Nikola Vucevic and Arron Afflalo -- are quality assets, now and for the duration of their respective deals. Meanwhile, Philadelphia has reformulated its roster in the wake of Bynum's lost season the Lakers have to regroup after losing Howard and the Nuggets watched their major acqusition, Andre Iguodala, bolt for the Warriors on Friday. By process of elimination, the Magic are the only team left standing on this one.
The cherry on top? The Nuggets owe the Magic a first-round pick in the 2014 draft, too. Losing Howard was hard, and the Magic still have some cap maneuvering to get through, but they are well down the road to daylight.
Losers: Oklahoma City Thunder
The Point Forward liked the Harden trade for Oklahoma City more than many people, and it was most unfortunate that Russell Westbrook suffered a season-ending knee injury just as the Thunder were prepared to put the logic behind the trade to the test in the postseason. With Martin departing Oklahoma City for Minnesota without compensation this summer, the Thunder's haul for Harden is now down to Jeremy Lamb, 2013 lottery pick Steven Adams and picks.
The development of Lamb and Adams will eventually determine how bad that exchange winds up looking, but there's no debating that Harden's arrival in Houston was a game-changer for Howard. One might say Thunder GM Sam Presti is now largely responsible for building two contenders in the West. This still is far from a complete loss: The Rockets and Thunder are in different divisions, which softens the blow, and if you had to choose between the two rosters you would still take Oklahoma City's by a country mile.
Winner: James Harden
Many argued last year that Harden was faced with a choice: He could get max money from a rebuilding team or he could make a financial sacrifice and remain with the championship-contending Thunder. Voila, Harden now has the best of both worlds. Set to enter the first year of a five-year maximum contract, Harden has a trip to the postseason with the Rockets under his belt and, now, an All-Star center in the fold. I guess this is what they mean by false dichotomy.
Mark Cuban and the Mavs struck out in free agency -- again. (Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Loser: Mavericks owner Mark Cuban
The hangover continues. More than two years removed from their 2011 title, Cuban's Mavericks are forced to regroup after being passed over by yet another high-profile free agent. After swinging and missing on Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Howard, Cuban must decide whether to remain patient through another season so he can try again with maximum flexibility in 2014 or whether it's time to start constructing the roster of the future. That's no easy call.
ESPN.com reported Cuban wasted no time in finding his starting point guard, agreeing to a four-year, $28 million deal with Jose Calderon after Darren Collison failed to make the job his last season. There are still many more holes to fill, or not fill, depending on Cuban's approach.
Winner: Royce White
White's conflict with the Rockets over the treatment of his mental health has been well documented for months. The two sides never seemed to be on the same page, and the 2012 first-round pick, who suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic attacks and a fear of flying, never played a single game for Houston. On Friday, he was reportedly traded to Philadelphia, where former Rockets assistant GM Sam Hinkie is now in charge. The Sixers' future plans for him aren't clear, but a clean slate was badly needed for both White and the Rockets, as the animosity was palpable.
White's Twitter feed has produced a number of questionable moments over the last year, but he offered a classy message to Morey on Friday: "Me & Dary Morey haven't always seen eye to eye, but you have to respect his ability to make moves like Harden & Howard, that's cool."
Loser: Omer Asik
Things will work out just fine for Asik, one of the league's better defensive centers and a productive rebounder. Still, no one likes to feel tossed aside, especially when things are going in a positive direction. ESPN.com reported Friday that Asik, who started all 82 games for Houston in 2012-13 after signing a three-year contract last summer, now wants out. His frustration is understandable, given Houston's upward trajectory and the fun-loving team camaraderie that was so evident during the playoffs.
Winner: Slim Thug
By far the funniest moment of Howard's recruitment, which has dragged on for years in various forms, came when Houston rapper Slim Thug began listing Houston's benefits in a Twitter pitch to Howard. Those benefits included: Houston's Galleria mall, the lower price of high-end liquor in clubs, the lower cost of real estate, lower child support obligations, the quality of Houston's strippers and the fact Texas has no laws against texting while driving. Comprehensive, informative, timely, perfect.
Thug spent Friday retweeting messages thanking him for sealing the deal for the Rockets.
Try looking at this picture without cringing.
The Lakers put up a billboard on the Staples Center urging Dwight Howard to re-sign. (@Lakers)
Chandler Parsons (left) played a key role in recruiting Dwight Howard to Houston. (Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
Winner: Rockets forward Chandler Parsons
The Rockets' forward was a member of the delegation that met with Howard earlier this week and he made it clear in multiple interviews that he was personally recruiting Howard.
The Houston Chronicle reported that Parsons's recruiting began as soon as the Heat won the title last month.
“After watching that last night,” Parsons told the paper, “I hit him with, ‘Come to Houston. That could be us.’ ”
“I talk to Dwight every day,” Parsons said. “I’ve created a relationship with him, where I feel like we’re very close. He hits me up about everything. I’ve covered pretty much every question he’s had. I basically tell him, ‘We have a chance to be really good without you next year. We’re going to have a good season. Why not come and join us, join our core guys who are for sure to be here and make us great, make us contend for a championship?’
Congratulations, Mr. Parsons. You now hold the title of being the recruiting heir apparent to Dwyane Wade.
Loser: That one Hawks ticket sales representative
Remember the Hawks' ticket sales representative who wrote the following in a letter to potential buyers and was later fined for tampering?
“The buzz around our offseason is more than heating up. With massive cap space, 4 draft picks, and free agency rapidly approaching, we sit in the best position in the NBA. Player interest is skyrocketing as the possibilities of landing Chris Paul & Dwight Howard become more and more of a reality.”
Time for another email blast? "Dear sir or madam: A lot has changed since our last correspondence."
Oof. Well, at least the Hawks did agree to a two-year, $19 million deal with Paul Millsap on Friday, according to multiple reports.
Winner: Sam Amick, USA Today Sports
Amick produced a clean scoop on the biggest story of the 2013 offseason, one that stood up through the hours of conflicting reports that followed. It doesn't get much bigger or better than that.
Winner: Arye Abraham