LOS ANGELES -- Dwight Howard had one goal in mind as he sifted through the pitches this week from five teams that wanted nothing more than to heap boatloads of cash in front of him and hand over the keys to the franchise: winning a championship.
"That's the priority," Howard told ESPNLosAngeles.com in a phone interview Friday night. "That's the priority. S---, I'm betting $30 million on it. That's the priority. That's what I want.
"My résumé, I've accomplished almost everything that you can accomplish in the NBA but winning a championship and getting MVP, and I've come close to both of them. So, you know, that's my goal right there. That's the reason why I play. I have fun, but that's my goal. ... I might have fun, I might joke a lot, but I'm serious about winning a championship."
Translation: Not only does Howard believe the Houston Rockets give him a better chance to win a ring in the foreseeable future than the Los Angeles Lakers do, he believes it so much he is willing to put his money where his mouth is 30 million times over.
The question is, is Dwight right? Is it possible that the team with 16 titles to its credit and that famous Larry O'Brien trophy-lined window overlooking its practice court is not as equipped to get it done as little ol' Houston, which won only two championships 20 years ago, in large part because Michael Jordan was playing baseball?
"I just looked at both teams and I felt like Houston was going in one direction -- they got a lot of young players, they got a good coach in Kevin McHale, and I just felt like having him as a coach, he could really help me in the post and help me develop like I want to," Howard said. "That was mainly the big reason right there, and having the opportunity to grow with a team, a young team, like the Rockets. That's the reason why."
Maybe he's being shortsighted. Yes, James Harden turns only 24 in August, and is coming off a season in which he averaged 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. And yes, Kobe Bryant turns 35 that same month and is coming off a season that ended prematurely when he tore his Achilles. But while Harden is a one-time All-Star, Bryant is a five-time champion.
Howard invested in potential over experience.
You could say his belief in the Rockets' franchise -- with outside-the-box, stat-analyzing general manager Daryl Morey leading the way -- fits the same mold.
Yes, the Lakers were the class of the NBA for decades, but times have changed. The new collective bargaining agreement that went into effect after the lockout has changed the way teams do business. The Lakers can no longer field a contender simply by outspending everybody every year. What used to be a stern, but digestible, $20 million-a-season luxury-tax bill range for overspending on the roster has grown to an $80 million to $100 million stop sign to curtail L.A. from operating that way any longer.
Morey has spearheaded the movement of NBA executives throughout the league in finding value in players not by just looking at their averages or their body size or their vertical leap, but by breaking down their shooting percentages from different spots on the court, their effectiveness when playing with certain lineups, their ability to play multiple positions.
Morey is so out in front of the movement, he hosts an analytics conference every year to foster and grow this way of thinking. All but one of the NBA's 30 teams attended last season's conference. The absentee team? The Lakers.
Not only did Morey piece together a young, exciting nucleus, but he did it while saving enough cap room to go after his Big Kahuna in Howard.
"I just think it's all about timing and fit when you're talking about basketball," Howard said. "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."
Maybe while L.A. was busy loading up on stars last summer, not enough consideration was made as to what the final constellation would look like.
While it's true the Lakers were savvy enough to line up their pieces with contracts that expired around the same time so they could sell Howard on the team making a big free-agency splash in the summer of 2014, they couldn't give him as definitive a plan as the Rockets did.
While L.A. could only say, "We want LeBron James, we want Carmelo Anthony, we want Paul George," Houston could counter with, "We have Harden, we have Chandler Parsons, we have Omer Asik, whom we could keep or flip for another young talent."
While L.A. tried to play the big-man card, by evoking names such as George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal, Houston could counter with Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo, plus a coach in McHale, who, while he never played for the Rockets, might have been the most skilled pivot man in league history.
"They also have a great lineage of centers on their team," Howard said.
And while Houston can still offer a bastion of support from its team history, it doesn't come with the same pressure. You're supposed to win rings in L.A. You're celebrated for winning in Houston.
"Financially, [I am] leaving that much money on the table, leaving a storied franchise, but this is an opportunity for me to write my own story," Howard said.
It's a story that begins with Howard choosing somebody else over the Lakers for his best chance to win a championship.
"It does," Howard said when asked whether the decision felt right. "I feel really good about the decision I made. I think it's the best decision."