Dwight Howard's distaste for the offense and approach of coach Mike D'Antoni is widely cited as the biggest trigger in his decision to leave the Los Angeles Lakers. But another key factor that led the All-Star center to the Houston Rockets was the Lakers' refusal to establish a clear timetable for moving on from the Kobe Bryant era, according to sources with knowledge of Howard's thinking.
Sources told ESPN.com that Howard and his representatives -- in a handful of meetings with Lakers officials before he became a free agent July 1 -- strongly suggested the center would have a difficult time re-signing with the team if Bryant stayed with the franchise beyond the 2013-14 season, the final year of his contract.
The Lakers, almost from the moment Howard arrived in August 2012, had gone to great lengths to assure the 27-year-old that they saw him as the future face of the franchise and that the torch would be passed from Bryant to him in short order.
But with Bryant saying publicly just a week before free agency that he was thinking of playing at least two or three more seasons, it was hard for Howard to envision when he would assume that role, sources said.
"How can it be Kobe's team and Dwight's team?" one source said. "It was about the passing of the torch."
As an offshoot of those discussions, sources said, Howard's camp at one point asked the Lakers whether they were at least considering releasing Bryant through the league's amnesty provision, since Bryant's return date from Achilles tendon surgery remained in question.
ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard reported last month that Howard and All-Star point guard Chris Paul had discussions before free agency about trying to land with the same team. Howard and Paul had interest in playing together in Los Angeles, with either the Lakers or the Clippers, or with the Atlanta Hawks, sources said.
Releasing Bryant via the amnesty provision and shopping Pau Gasol and Steve Nash to teams with salary-cap space would have allowed the Lakers to try to recruit Paul in free agency. But the Lakers, sources said, made it clear the prospect of releasing Bryant or simply trying to lay out a finite timetable on the end of his career with the franchise was not under consideration, believing those decisions should and would be made by Bryant.
Bryant made it clear from the first day of training camp this past season that the Lakers were his team, and he saw it as his responsibility to prepare Howard for that responsibility one day. Howard stated that he was anxious to learn from Bryant, Nash and Gasol. Both Howard and Bryant were amenable to that arrangement early, but as the season wore on, it became clear to Howard that there wouldn't be a clean transfer of power, sources said.
"I just really think the timing in L.A., it wasn't right for me," Howard told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin on Friday. "Maybe two years ago, or 2-3 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 L.A. 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."
The Lakers, as ESPN.com has reported, were similarly unwilling to make a coaching change, even if it would have boosted their chances of retaining Howard, who has since publicly confirmed, in an interview with Hoopsworld.com, that he asked the Lakers to hire Phil Jackson in November.
"I think that we had our moments, but I think that his style was a little bit different than what I was accustomed to," Howard told ESPNLosAngeles.com of D'Antoni. "But I don't want to blame any of that on the coach as the reason why I'm leaving."
Howard also didn't feel especially close with anyone in the Lakers' organization outside of general manager Mitch Kupchak, sources said. One source added that Howard had concerns about how the Lakers planned to market him after being disappointed with the franchise in that aspect last season.
In his first public comments since Howard's departure, Bryant said Wednesday that he wasn't going to "waste my time trying to figure out what happened" and that he was "happy" for Howard, who "made the decision he feels is best for him."
"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 organization and the leaders that we've had -- myself, Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] -- we've done it a different way."
A handful of teams around the league, sources say, now believe Howard's decision to go to Houston had been set for weeks and that his meetings last week with potential suitors had little to no chance to change his mind.
Sources close to Howard counter that the decision was largely clinched by the fact that he felt his best and earliest chance to win his first championship would be realized by teaming up with James Harden, Chandler Parsons and coach Kevin McHale with the Rockets.
Golden State and Dallas made strong impressions on him in their pitch meetings, sources said, but ultimately Howard felt most comfortable, and much more enthusiastic about trying to win in Houston.
Sources close to Howard nonetheless insist the Lakers and the extra $30 million they could offer him were hard to turn down. Howard had developed a close relationship with Kupchak in the center's year with the team and intended to inform the GM in person of his decision after flying back to Los Angeles from Colorado, a source said.
Howard called the Mavericks and Warriors earlier in the day -- while his representative told the Hawks the night before -- so those teams could move on with their business in a timely fashion. By the time Howard landed late Friday evening, though, it had already been widely reported that he had decided on Houston, and Howard simply called Kupchak to deliver the news, a source said.