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Lakers tell Dwight Howard L.A. is the place to increase his brand

Lakers are last of five teams to make pitch to free agent, telling Dwight Howard they will build around him on court in next five years if he stays.

July 02, 2013|By Mike Bresnahan
  • The Lakers made their pitch to free agent Dwight Howard on Tuesday, where the organization told the center of its plans to build around the 6-foot-11 center.
The Lakers made their pitch to free agent Dwight Howard on Tuesday, where… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Seven Lakers employees and officials from two key affiliates rolled into the Beverly Hills office of Dwight Howard's agents Tuesday at 2 p.m. and presented the pitch they hoped would land the prized free agent.

Focusing on ways for Howard to increase his brand in the second-largest U.S. city, the Lakers also let him know they would build around him on the court during the duration of the five-year, $118-million contract he could sign with them.

The Lakers didn't try to sell Howard on their 16-championship past but targeted the future, including enough salary-cap space next summer to sign another high-profile free agent with what Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak recently called “an enormous amount of financial flexibility.”

Kupchak, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Coach Mike D'Antoni, team vice president Jim Buss and Lakers marketing/business executive Tim Harris were on hand for the Lakers. The often-casual Buss even wore a sport coat Tuesday, though he didn't ditch his trademark baseball cap.

The meeting lasted about two hours and was the final one scheduled for Howard, who also sat down with Houston, Dallas, Golden State and Atlanta in a two-day span.

“We told [Howard] how important he is to the Lakers team, franchise, fans and community, and why we feel this is the best place for him to continue his career,” Kupchak said in a statement released by the team. “We are hopeful that Dwight decides to remain a Laker.”

Also at the meeting were executives from Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center, dozens of entertainment venues around the world and a minority share in the Lakers. In his pitch, one executive said Howard could use some of AEG's resources to further his brand.

Executives from Time Warner Cable SportsNet, the Lakers' broadcast partner, were there as well. Their theme: Time Warner wouldn't have struck a 25-year, $5-billion deal with the Lakers last year if the cable company didn't believe in the power and relevancy of the franchise.

“I think the Lakers did a great job and it was a really good meeting,” Nash told The Times. “Dwight did say it's a tough decision and he'll have to think about it.”

Lakers governor Jeanie Buss was not at Tuesday's meeting but appealed to Howard via Twitter, saying the “Lakers offer 1) best opportunities for your playing & post-playing career 2) have BEST fans 3) I'm here for you.”

Howard attended the meeting with his agents, Dan Fegan and Happy Walters.

A main difference between the Lakers' pitches and the other four teams was about one year's wait time.

Houston, Dallas, Golden State and Atlanta all tried to convince Howard he could improve the team right away.

Howard, though, must weigh whether he can wait a year for an increased chance at success with the Lakers, especially if the team trades or waives Pau Gasol this summer in an effort to reduce their soon-to-be-cumbersome luxury-tax bill.

“He definitely wants to win a championship,” said a person familiar with Howard's thinking.

It will also be interesting to see how Howard deals with the Bryant factor.

Bryant, who turns 35 next month, recently told Lakers.com he felt “pretty damn confident” he could play at a high level for “at least another three years.”

Even though Bryant's contract expires after next season, an extra two years would occupy 60% of the duration of Howard's potential five-year contract.

Bryant and Howard don't hate each other. This isn't akin to Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal continually squaring off while the Lakers were winning three consecutive championships last decade.

But Bryant and Howard never found a comfort level with each other last season, with Howard's on-court demeanor sometimes taking a negative turn if Bryant kept shooting without feeding Howard down low.

It's important to note, though, that nobody knows what Bryant will look like when he returns from a torn Achilles' tendon. He probably won't be back for the start of the season, and it remains to be seen how he will play after that.

Will the Lakers push the direction of the franchise firmly in Howard's direction when Bryant's contract expires after next season ($30.5 million)? Or will they extend Bryant another year or two, certainly for less money than that?

Howard can sign with any of the other four teams for four years and $88 million. Each of them holds some intrigue, Dallas and Houston with more than Golden State and Atlanta.

Houston has a strong, young nucleus of James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik, none of them older than 27 years old.

Dallas has an aging roster surrounding Dirk Nowitzki but also an owner, Mark Cuban, unafraid to spend money to improve the team when its salary-cap space opens up dramatically in a year.

Golden State is on the rise with budding backcourt stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but getting there is almost impossible for Howard. The Warriors are too far over the cap to sign him as a free agent and can only acquire him via sign-and-trade with the Lakers, who are reluctant to jam up their future cap space.

Howard is from Atlanta, which adds a homecoming spin to the mix, but the Hawks have no NBA Finals appearances since moving to Atlanta 45 years ago.

The Lakers have tried to appeal to Howard publicly, starting up a billboard campaign and hiring flatbed trucks to tote large signs along freeways and streets in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The motto was the same, in all capitals: “STAY.”

Only Howard knows what is next.

On July 10, he can officially sign with the team of his choosing. He will probably let the winner know before then. Five teams will be waiting.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan

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