Dwight Howard to join Rockets

Dwight Howard is Houston-bound, after all.

The All-Star center told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith on Friday night that he will leave the Los Angeles Lakers and sign a free-agent contract with the Rockets after the league lifts its annual moratorium on player business Wednesday.

Howard confirmed his decision on Twitter.

Howard said he feels the Rockets give him the best chance at winning his first NBA title.

"[A championship is] the priority. That's the priority. [Shoot], I'm betting $30 million on it," Howard told ESPNLosAngeles.com in a phone interview Friday night, referencing the amount of money he likely will leave on the table by bolting Los Angeles for Houston.

"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. 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 [I decided to leave]."

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Howard informed the organization that he would not return to Los Angeles.

"Naturally we're disappointed," Kupchak said in a statement on the team's website. "However, we will now move forward in a different direction with the future of the franchise and, as always, will do our best to build the best team possible, one our great Lakers fans will be proud to support. To Dwight, we thank him for his time and consideration, and for his efforts with us last season. We wish him the best of luck on the remainder of his NBA career."

Earlier, a source told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard that Howard had contacted the Lakers, telling them he was 50-50 on his decision to sign with either them or the Rockets. That call came hours after a person from his camp informed the team that he would not re-sign with Los Angeles, according to the source.

"He changed his mind," the source said. "Hey, he's Dwight. What can you say."

Sources said Howard had a possible change of heart because of the extra $30 million he would be leaving on the table if he signed with Houston. The Lakers could have given Howard a five-year deal worth $118 million while Houston can offer $88 million over four years. The deal will reportedly include an early termination option in the fourth year, giving Howard the chance to become a free agent again after the 2015-16 season.

After thinking about it on the flight, a source told ESPNLosAngeles.com, Howard felt solid about leaving Los Angeles for Houston and called Kupchak to inform him of his decision.

Howard said he's happy the process is finished.

"I'm relieved," Howard said. "Now I can just really concentrate on what I've been trying to concentrate on all summer, just getting better."

Howard ended up spending just one season with the Lakers, averaging 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds in 76 games.

"It was tough," Howard said of leaving Los Angeles. "I enjoyed, for the most part, living here in L.A. I just really think the timing in L.A., it wasn't right for me. 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."

A Lakers source in the team's pitch meeting for Howard last Tuesday said they felt Howard essentially had "made up his mind" before even meeting with them and described him as "emotionless."

"He would barely look us in the eye," the source said.

Another Lakers source said "we felt like we were wasting our time" in the meeting.

Howard told an additional source that the main reason he was leaving the Lakers was because he wasn't comfortable playing for coach Mike D'Antoni. Sources told ESPN that D'Antoni said few words to Howard when he met the Lakers earlier this week, which affected the center's decision to leave.

"I think that we had our moments, but I think that his style was a little bit different than what I was accustomed to, but I don't want to blame any of that on the coach as the reason why I'm leaving," Howard told ESPNLosAngeles.com on Friday night.

A source also said Howard did not want to play 3-4 more years as a sidekick on Kobe Bryant's team, especially in a D'Antoni system that would rely heavily on 39-year-old point guard Steve Nash.

Howard, though, refuted talk that he was unwilling to coexist with Bryant.

"That was not a factor," he said. "I just felt like everything in Houston was right for me. It's a great opportunity. Me and James Harden together I think can be really, really unbelievable. We get the opportunity to really grow together. I've been a superstar in this league and I feel like me and him together can just really grow and be a dominant force together in the NBA as long as we're healthy. That was really the key to me. It had nothing to do with what Kobe did."

Bryant stopped following Howard on Twitter after he announced his decision. Bryant also posted a photo on Instagram of him and Lakers teammate Pau Gasol with hashtags that included "lakercorazon," which means Laker Heart.

Howard now joins a Rockets team that could become an immediate contender in the Western Conference. He will look to find a chemistry there that seemed to elude him in Los Angeles.

"We have good teammates. They're young. They're guys who are great not only on the floor but off. He's going to get along great with our team," Rockets GM Daryl Morey said in an interview with Comcast SportsNet Houston.

Howard said he looks forward to a new beginning in Houston.

"... This is an opportunity for me to write my own story," he said. "It's an opportunity for me to move forward, to change the perception of what other people have tried to make of me. It starts on the court with winning and that's what I'm doing. This is a fresh start for me. It's a clean slate. I get the opportunity to start from scratch and I'm going to make the most of it. I've been working all summer already to get my body, to get myself back right and getting ready for the next couple of years. I'm just looking forward to it."

Earlier Friday, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban confirmed the Mavs were fully out of contention for Howard. Howard also told the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks he would not be joining them. All three teams, as well as the Lakers and Rockets, had met with Howard earlier this week.

By going to Houston, Howard will leave $9.3 million on the table in net guaranteed dollars, because he could have received a five-year deal and more money from the Lakers, rather than the four-year maximum deal he will get by signing with another team. This assumes that Howard will be a resident of Texas instead of California, since Texas has no state income taxes, while California has the highest state income taxes in the country.

Comparing just the first four years of what the Lakers could pay Howard with what the Rockets likely will pay him, Howard will net $2.6 million more after taxes in Houston if he becomes a Texas resident.

Magic Johnson, out of pocket in Europe, wished Howard luck via Bill Simmons' Twitter account.

Information from ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, ESPN's Marc Stein, J.A. Adande, Stephen A. Smith and Darren Rovell, ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne and Dave McMenamin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.