The Houston Rockets wined and dined Dwight Howard on Sunday night at a Beverly Hills restaurant where the cheapest salad on the menu is $18.
Here's guessing Howard had more than salad.
The wooing of the most prized big man in this year's free agent class will be pricey — and we're not just talking about the meals. Howard is sure to snag one of the richest contracts in the NBA when all is said and done.
Chances are good, it will be one of the Thunder's Western Conference foes that ultimately doles out the dollars for Howard. The Rockets, Mavericks and Lakers are reportedly at the top of the heap of about half a dozen teams that believe he is worth $20 million-plus a year.
Frankly, I don't get it.
Yes, Howard is arguably the most talented center in the league. He's averaged 18.3 points and 12.9 rebounds over the course of his nine-year NBA career.
But why are teams willing to pay a face-of-the-franchise salary for a guy who is clearly incapable of being the face of a franchise?
These past couple seasons have proved that he just can't be that guy.
Howard got crossways with then-coach Stan Van Gundy two seasons ago in Orlando. Howard asked higher-ups to fire Van Gundy. Van Gundy told the media that he knew about Howard's wishes, then Howard acted like he had no idea what anyone was talking about and denied those claims.
After the season, though, Van Gundy was fired.
General manager Otis Smith along with players J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson were also swept out of town by what one Orlando scribe called “Howard's egotistical tsunami.”
But in the end, it wasn't enough to keep Howard in Orlando. He still wanted out, a wish that was ultimately granted by Los Angeles.
Everything was going to be great for him in LaLa Land, too. Remember that Sports Illustrated cover with Howard and Steve Nash in their new Lakers uniforms?
“NOW THIS IS GOING TO BE FUN”, it screamed.
How'd that work out?
Howard feuded with Kobe. Disliked his role on the team. Played somewhat dispassionately after returning from back surgery.
Laker fans wondered if he even cared.
That concern was embodied in what might end up being his final game as a Laker. With a little less than 10 minutes remaining in a 103-82 loss to San Antonio that would complete the Spurs' sweep and end the Lakers' season, Howard picked up a second technical foul and an ejection from the game. He mouthed off. He got tossed.
It happens, right?
But with the Lakers struggling and Kobe Bryant injured, it simply couldn't happen with Howard. He needed to stay on the court. Stay with his team, too.
Instead, he walked out.
Not something the face of a franchise should do.
Granted, Howard wasn't the face of the Lakers. That would still be Bryant. Moments after Howard was ejected in that game against the Spurs, by the way, Bryant made his first public appearance since tearing his Achilles. He hobbled into the arena and took a seat behind the bench, coaching and cheering the rest of the game.
It was a not-so-subtle message: Howard might walk out on the team, but Kobe wouldn't.
And yet, the Lakers are hot to trot to bring back Howard. Maybe the smog in L.A. affects memory. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak actually met with Howard before the Rockets did Sunday night in Beverly Hills. He only shook his hand and wished him luck, but it was a symbolic gesture. The Lakers wanted to be the first ones that Howard saw in the moments after free agency officially opened.
They are apparently willing to offer him a whopping five-year, $118 million contract.
No other team in the running can offer that much, but don't worry, Howard will still be able to live on what they ante. Houston, for example, has been shipping out players left and right to clear enough space on its roster to offer a four-year, $88 million deal, and with taxes being what they are in Texas, that money will go a long ways.
What's more, in a meeting with the Rockets that included Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler as well as Yao Ming via Skype from China, Rockets coach Kevin McHale reportedly told Howard that he would build his system around him.
Face of the franchise stuff.
The Rockets and the Lakers and every other team in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes want him to be that guy, but all the evidence is clear — he isn't.