Source: Lakers got jump on Rockets

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers were assured they would get the last word when it came to Dwight Howard's free-agency pitch process. Turns out they got the first word as well.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak met briefly with Howard face-to-face shortly after 12:01 a.m. ET Monday when NBA free agency officially opened up, a league source told ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Kupchak's message to Howard? "Quick hello and good luck," said a source with knowledge of the conversation.

Kupchak also met with Howard for a face-to-face meeting Saturday morning.

The Houston Rockets, meanwhile, also met with Howard early Monday in Los Angeles.

The Rockets contingent who met with Howard included players James Harden, Chandler Parsons, coach Kevin McHale, general manager Daryl Morey, owner Les Alexander and Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Yao Ming talked with Howard via Skype from China, and according to the Houston Chronicle, Dikembe Mutombo recorded a video message for Howard.

Yao told KRIV-TV in Houston that when he was contacted by Rockets CEO Tad Brown and Morey to help with the team's pitch to Howard, he told them he "would love to help."

Yao, who spoke to KRIV-TV in a telephone interview from Beijing, said he spoke to Howard via Skype and told him the Rockets "have a young team, a talented team that has ability to reach championship level with you."

Yao said he will be in Houston on July 11 and hopes to meet with Howard.

After a late-night hotel dinner, Morey tweeted that it was "great" meeting with Howard and "obvious" how he and Harden could be "the next great big/wing combo."

"Dwight is focused on winning championships," Morey told KRIV-TV. "So are we."

Howard met with the Atlanta Hawks on Monday and was scheduled to meet with the Golden State Warriors later Monday and the Dallas Mavericks and Lakers on Tuesday.

Hawks general manager Danny Ferry and new coach Mike Budenholzer met with Howard in Los Angeles. A source told ESPN's Shelley Smith the meeting went "well."

The Rockets entered their dinner with Howard with the ability to offer him a four-year, $88 million contract after agreeing in principle to trade forward Thomas Robinson to Portland for two future second-round picks and the rights to two European players, a source confirmed to ESPN. Houston also waived veterans Aaron Brooks and Carlos Delfino earlier on Sunday to clear more salary-cap space.

According to the Chronicle, Houston planned to emphasize the "marketing potential" the Rockets continue to hold in China, being Yao's former team. They also planned to appeal to the 27-year-old Howard by touting the youth and togetherness their current roster has, mixed with the appeal of a coach in McHale, who is considered one of the greatest big men ever to play the game. The Lakers, meanwhile, can outbid the Rockets and any other potential suitor by offering a five-year, $118 million contract.

Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash will be a part of the Lakers' pitch to Howard, league sources told ESPN on Sunday. The delegation will also include executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss and representatives from Time Warner Cable. The Lakers signed a record television contract that could be worth $5 billion over 25 years with the cable giant in 2012.

The NBA does not have a problem with Lakers broadcast partner Time Warner Cable SportsNet being part of the pitch for Howard, according to a league source. If TWC was to offer further compensation, that would be a violation of league rules. However, simply being present for the sitdown is in no way a breach of league etiquette.

"They could simply be presenting ideas about how they plan to cover Howard and the Lakers in the future," said the source. "That is allowed."

Nash tweeted he was flying from New York to Los Angeles on Monday morning.

"@DwightHoward we're coming for you," Nash's tweet said. "You're going to love the statue we build for you outside Staples in 20yrs!"

The Lakers are still finalizing the roster of people who will be a part of their pitch -- several Lakers luminaries have offered -- but the two future Hall of Famers will definitely be a part of the delegation that will have the last word with Howard before he makes his decision.

Part of what the Lakers intend to sell to Howard, according to a source with knowledge of L.A.'s thinking, is that they will be able to make the necessary personnel moves to surround Howard with shooters and allow the center to showcase his game down low with proper floor spacing.

To that point, a large portion of the initial wave of free agents the Lakers made inquiries about fit that description.

The Lakers made contact with the representatives for L.A. native Nick Young, former Laker Jordan Farmar, Houston free agent Francisco Garcia, Cleveland free agent Wayne Ellington and Clippers free agent Matt Barnes, league sources said. L.A. also reportedly expressed interest in Delfino, New York guard Chris Copeland and Minnesota's Chase Budinger.

The Lakers also inquired about Charlotte free agent center Byron Mullens, a league source said.

But Howard is the big fish they're after, with a Lakers source saying the team was feeling "optimistic" about its chances as of Sunday night and promising a few "surprises" for its meeting with Howard.

One person who will not be there is former coach Phil Jackson, who left for his summer home in Montana on Sunday, according to sources.

Jackson, though, delivered a message to Howard via Twitter before he hit the road.

"While i'm there I expect to see you get on board," Jackson tweeted to Howard. "tis ur place."

The awkwardness surrounding Jackson's role in the franchise after the team stunningly chose Mike D'Antoni to coach in November -- instead of waiting for Jackson to decide on the job -- has noticeably improved in the past few months. Jackson spoke at the funeral of former owner Dr. Jerry Buss in February, was on hand to retire Shaquille O'Neal's jersey in April and made a joint public appearance with his fiancee, Lakers executive vice president Jeanie Buss, earlier this month.

"I do see him and when I see him, we've worked together since 1999," Kupchak said of Jackson earlier this week. "We have a friendship and a business relationship and we don't talk too much about Zen, but we talk a lot about basketball.

"So, when I do see him, that's what we talk about. I'll talk about his hip or his knee because we've both had a hip or a knee operation, but other than that it's basketball. He's got a good basketball mind and he's interested, so we talk basketball."

One source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN that Jackson has become somewhat of an unofficial consultant to the Lakers, by virtue of his relationship with Jeanie Buss and loyalty to the franchise where he won five NBA titles.

It's more that Jackson is available to give advice or whatever the franchise needs, one source said. And it's far less awkward than is publicly assumed as the family has been meeting regularly since the death of Jerry Buss in February, another source said.

Understanding the Buss family dynamics and future plans is a key part of Howard's decision-making process, a source with knowledge of Howard's thinking has told ESPN. He needs to know and feel comfortable with how the franchise will be run before deciding whether to commit the next five years of his career to the Lakers.

Information from ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman, ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi and ESPNNewYork.com's Jared Zwerling was used in this report.