One of the biggest moves in professional basketball this summer is Dwight Howard’s arrival in Texas.
The National Basketball Association’s preeminent centre took his talents from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Houston Rockets, the third team of his career. It all started for the Georgia native in Florida, playing alongside Jameer Nelson with the Orlando Magic.
Nelson, 31, was in the Cayman Islands last week and said Howard, 27, made the right decision in mid-July to play in Houston.
“Dwight is still a sharp, open guy, he will be good for the Rockets,” Nelson said. “It’s a similar system to Orlando when he was here. There are a lot of shooters around him. The key for him is to stay focused and be who he is.”
Howard, a nine-year veteran, took a pay cut to leave California. He opted for Houston’s four-year, $88 million offer and spurned the Lakers’ bid of five years and $118 million.
With the Rockets, he joins a young, emerging squad steadied by star James Harden, fan favourite Jeremy Lin and Florida legend Chandler Parsons. Interestingly, both LA and Houston made the Western Conference playoffs last season, with the Lakers being swept in the first round by Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs while the Rockets fell to Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
Howard’s decision to leave LA was influenced by the Lakers’ refusal to state when the Kobe Bryant-era would end and the seeming rift both superstars had. Last month, Howard admitted it would be tough to remain a Laker if Bryant stayed on past the upcoming season.
“I just really think the timing in LA, it wasn’t right for me,” Howard said. “Maybe two years ago, or two to three years from now, it would have been the right time. But I just think right now the timing was off for me. That’s not saying that LA is a bad place, but I just think it’s all about timing and fit when you’re talking about basketball.
“You can put anybody together on the court and expect them to win, but the pieces have to really fit in order for a team to be successful and it was very, very tough, man. It’s probably one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life.”
For Nelson, those words might sound painfully familiar as the All-Star insisted it was hard to leave Orlando last year when he was traded to the Lakers in a four-team deal. It was a devastating blow to a franchise that drafted Howard in 2004 and over eight years, was a contender in the Eastern Conference, advancing to the 2009 NBA Finals.
Nelson, a nine-year point guard, insists there is no ill will toward Howard.
“I had a lot of great memories with Dwight. We had a lot of great years and he was the best player I played with. I wish him the best.”
Nelson was in Cayman for the first time as part of Camana Bay’s fifth annual Orlando Magic Basketball Camp. The Pennsylvania native, who was drafted in 2004, was the latest star player to attend the camp with other former greats, including Vince Carter and Nick Anderson. This year’s camp at Camana Bay’s Arts and Recreation Centre attracted dozens of kids ages 7 to 17.
With Howard gone, the Lakers are left with a team hinging on Bryant, who is recovering from surgery to his Achilles tendon that he underwent in April. While other stars like Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are in the mix, the focus will rest on Kobe, who has previously said he wants to play at least two or three more seasons. In regards to Howard, Bryant said he did not fit a certain mould.
“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 organisation and the leaders that we’ve had – myself, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – we’ve done it a different way.”
In Orlando, the rebuilding process continues for a team that won just 20 games last year. Nelson, the 6-foot, 190-pound team captain, will oversee a young squad that hopes to build on talents like top draft pick Victor Oladipo from the University of Indiana. Nelson has faith that the coming season will exceed expectations.
“Last year, there were a lot more positives than all the losses. We developed some guys that we needed to and this year we should be real good. We got some young guys like Oladipo and those guys understand what they need to do and what is expected of them.
“Hopefully, we get better as a team and compete for a championship because I want to win everyday. I’m a competitive guy and we’re all striving together for the same goal.”