Sometime soon the Wizards will wisely sign John Wall, their floor leader, to a five-year deal worth about $80 million, officially making him . . . “The Man,” or whatever status that now connotes in the NBA.
“John is our guy,” team president Ernie Grunfeld has said often, and the franchise has gone to great lengths to assure Wall it is building around him and not drafting anyone to take his job. This is crucial, because whether teams tell the best players they are their favorite children or not can apparently now alter the axis of power in the NBA.
The Lakers offered Dwight Howard $30 million more than the Houston Rockets last week, but Howard spurned them because he couldn’t be The Man soon enough in Los Angeles.
In meetings with the team before free agency began July 1, ESPN reported Wednesday, Howard and his representatives wanted clear assurances when the Lakers would be moving on from the Kobe Bryant era, “strongly suggesting” that he wouldn’t re-sign if Kobe stayed beyond the last year of his deal next season.
When the Lakers made it clear Kobe would have a say in his own future and they couldn’t guarantee that, Howard didn’t feel confident the torch would be passed.
Still not The Man, The Petulant Child decided to bolt.
I’m sorry, but if true this makes LeBron James’ ill-planned escape from Cleveland almost look noble. Memo to Flight Howard and his agent, Dan Fegan, who also happens to be Wall’s agent and who also used to represent Gilbert Arenas: If you have to negotiate to be the Alpha Male on your team, you’re probably never going to be the Alpha Male on any team.
Howard did what so many young players do who refuse to take personal responsibility for their circumstances: He moved on. As in Orlando, where his whims got Stan Van Gundy and front-office personnel fired, he believed whatever the next place he was going would be the right place, where a franchise would finally respect, love and truly value him for all his intrinsic worth.
In sports, they call this being validated. In life, it is called being needy and extremely insecure about your own talents.
The truth is, someone like Howard, on his third team in three years now, doesn’t value himself enough to be honest about why the most physically awesome big man in the game is unable to live up to his potential.
When Howard understands his own role in what happened with the Lakers – and stops blaming Kobe’s arrogance or the Lakers’ inability to get the right coach to bring out his talents – he may one day mature into a player and a teammate who has the mental toughness to be a champion. Until then, he’s just another young buck, post-Michael Jordan, that surrounded himself with people who told him what he wanted to hear instead of what he needed to hear.
It’s a flat-out crime against the game that Howard left the Lakers. From the 1950s to this millennium, men with real skill and heart imported by the Minneapolis or Los Angeles Lakers approaching 7-feet or over have won a combined 14 NBA titles. George Mikan. Wilt. Kareem. Shaq.
If being an all-time great in the pivot was your career destination, playing center for the Lakers was the place. The baseball equivalent is batting cleanup for the Yankees. You don’t just give up on that job after one year because you know the people in charge are eventually going to spend like crazy and put the right people around you for you to succeed.
But maybe Howard wanted to be The Man so bad, he had to go join some free spirits in Houston that don’t have the nasty disposition of a guy who has won five NBA titles, including two without Shaquille O’Neal.
“I think everybody is cut differently,” Kobe said when hearing Howard left for Houston. “He 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 and Kareem -- we’ve done it a different way.”
Nothing is as damning as that quote. Between the lines Kobe is essentially saying, “You didn’t want championships and your jersey in the rafters of the most star-studded franchise in NBA history like we did. See ya.”
Maybe Howard doesn’t have the heart and skill. As stupendous as he is defensively – at times the best since Hakeem Olajuwon or Bill Russell at the position – he still has no real low-post arsenal to break out in crunch time. No drop-step of real quality, no up-and-under move, hardly a decent jump hook. He’s also as painful as they come from the free-throw line.
All that said, he still has the talent to one day grow into being an NBA champion. But he has to learn one essential quality first, something apparently John Wall and many other young players already understand: You become the leader of your team on the court, not in a conference room or a box score.
Bottom line, before Dwight Howard ever becomes the “The Man” he has has to first act like a man.
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