Dwight Howard

Lakers center Dwight Howard, right, dunks on Milwaukee's Mike Dunleavy during a game in January. Howard will not play for the Lakers next season. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / January 15, 2013)

The Lakers had hoped to make it much ado about something, putting up billboards, sending out tweets and assembling a large contingent of players, coaches and team executives to persuade Dwight Howard to stay with the storied NBA franchise.

The league's most coveted free agent rendered it all an exaggerated exercise in futility late Friday when Howard announced that he would instead sign with the Houston Rockets, spurning the Lakers and making some wonder whether the effort had been worth it.

Losing Howard was only part of the anguish. Critics contended the Lakers, a franchise that usually let its championship tradition speak for itself, had resorted to groveling in an attempt to keep the superstar center.

PHOTO GALLERY: Dwight Howard and the Lakers

"When we think of the value of a sport brand," said Thomas Boyd, dean of the school of business and management at Kaplan University and a former sports marketing professor at Cal State Fullerton, "history figures prominently and this is clearly a strategy that is inconsistent with both the history and the brand image they have built over the decades."

Howard picked the Rockets over the Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors. He cannot officially sign a four-year, $88-million contract until Wednesday, when an NBA-imposed moratorium on free-agent business ends.

The departure of Howard sullied what for the Lakers had been a nearly perfect record of retaining key free agents. The team had not lost a prominent player since forward A.C. Green opted to play for Phoenix in the summer of 1993.

"When you're a Laker, you had no intention of going anywhere else," said Mychal Thompson, who spent the final five seasons of his career with the "Showtime" Lakers, winning titles in 1987 and '88. "The way the Buss family treats you, the fan support, the notoriety you get as a Laker — there's no reason to play anywhere else if you don't have to."

Thompson, who is now the team's radio analyst, said the Lakers don't normally recruit players because it's not necessary given their tradition of success. He joked that he begged the team to keep him in 1990 when he became a free agent.

"I recruited them," Thompson said. "My billboard would have said, 'I want to stay.'"

Thompson was alluding to a series of Howard billboards sprinkled across Southern California and a massive banner affixed to one side of Staples Center that materialized last week. Each featured an action shot of Howard's muscular 6-foot-11 frame in a Lakers uniform with an unmistakable message in capital letters: "STAY."

The signs also directed fans to Twitter with the hashtag "StayD12," part of a barrage of social media messages intended to entice Howard, a seven-time All-Star and three-time NBA defensive player of the year who has also been the league's top rebounder six times.

Jeanie Buss, the Lakers' executive vice president who runs the team's business operations, tweeted the "Lakers offer 1) best opportunities for your playing & post-playing career 2) have BEST fans 3) I'm here for you."

Former Lakers Coach Phil Jackson tweeted that "I expect to see you get on board tis ur [sic] place."

Current Lakers also weighed in. Before he boarded a flight from New York to Los Angeles on Monday, point guard Steve Nash tweeted: "Dwight Howard we're coming for you. You're going to love the statue we build for you outside Staples in 20yrs!"

Nash was part of a group of seven Lakers employees who met with Howard and his representatives Tuesday at the Beverly Hills office of Howard's agents. Also present at the meeting were executives from Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center and other sports venues as well as a share of the Lakers, and Time Warner Cable SportsNet, the team's broadcast partner.

Among the messages delivered to Howard were the Lakers' intentions to build around him as long as he remains with the team and the enormous branding potential that he would enjoy from staying in the nation's entertainment capital.

Never one to remain in the background, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant made an impassioned plea that he was uniquely qualified to help Howard win his first championship.

"You need to learn how it's done first, and I can teach you here," Bryant said, according to Yahoo Sports. "I know how to do it and I've learned from the best — players who have won multiple times over and over."

The nearly two-hour meeting represented the second time Howard had come face to face with Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak in a three-day span. Shortly after the free-agency period officially started at 9:01 p.m. PDT on Sunday, Kupchak met briefly with Howard in person to reiterate his importance to the organization.