If last season wasn't enough, NBA fans will once again be relegated to the exhausting storylines of Dwight Howard's impending availability in free agency. While the majority seem to be assured he will re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, given their legacy and commitment to centering their future around him, there remains the possibility he will walk.
It wouldn't be a surprise given Howard's indecisiveness around the time of his departure with the Orlando Magic, so it's certainly viable the same will arise in July. The Brooklyn Nets are sure to be on Howard's radar, yet so should the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets surprised everybody this season, not only swooping in and acquiring James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder amidst their contractual conflicts, but surging into the playoff race—now just a game back from the sixth seed Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference.
Head coach Kevin McHale has an efficient, fast-paced offense in place, which is perfectly suited for the roster. As seen with the Lakers this season, coaching plays a major role and McHale has done a superb job that should have him as a favorite for Coach of the Year.
Harden has come into his own this season, scoring a mighty 26 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting. His 37.4 and 85.8 clip from three and from the free-throw line respectively confirms Harden's place as one of the league's top shooters and offensive players.
He gets to the line 10.1 times per game, which leads the league and serves as evidence of his skilled ball-handling and ability to get to the rim. Harden also averages 4.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists.
Many perceived a ball-dominant backcourt of Harden and Jeremy Lin to be mostly inefficient. However, they've been everything but. The duo is a little accustomed to turning the ball over, but still keep the Houston offense running well.
The Rockets have a great frontcourt of Omer Asik and Thomas Robinson, with the latter sure to be a star in the future. Many forget he was taken fifth overall in this season's draft, and is putting up 4.6 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 13.4 minutes with Houston thus far.
Asik's dominance on the boards—second in rebounds per 48 minutes—with 11.6 per game has him in the middle for the Rockets, and a physical force on defense. He is somewhat foul-prone, but still manages to be effective.
Finally there is Chandler Parsons, who may very well be one of the biggest draft-day steals in recent memory. His 15.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists this season would lead you to believe him to be at least a lottery pick, but taken 38th overall in 2011 displays a misconception about Parsons' ability.
He's arguably the Rockets' second-best player after Harden, and his all-around improvement from last season should have him as a realistic candidate for Most Improved Player.
While the aforementioned few paragraphs appear as a mere summary of the Houston Rockets' notable prospects, they also serve as elements of conviction for Howard.
If he truly wishes to contend for a championship, re-signing with the Lakers may not be his best choice. An aging Kobe Bryant, who clearly still has much left in the tank, is a great teammate right now, however his future is ultimately unclear if he'll retire or continue playing.
Pau Gasol will turn 33 in July, and Steve Nash is already 39 years old, yet both will be under contract next season—with Nash reaching the final year of his contract in the 2014-15 season. The future of the Lakers is very murky, and it will need much clarification before Howard will decide to jump back onboard.
L.A. has mentioned being committed to Howard on multiple occasions, and they view him as the future of the franchise. There's no denying such a statement, although it is more a question of when that time comes. Turning to Houston would give Howard that opportunity right away.
Harden turn 24 in August and would make for a dynamic long-term guard for Howard to play alongside. Signing a maximum-level deal with Los Angeles would eventually see the 6'11" center as the sole star for the Lakers. The pressure and expectations of donning a Lakers uniform are monumental, and seemed to affect Howard early on.
Howard's ability to lead has always been questioned, however, he displayed such an ability as the Magic stormed through the Eastern Conference to meet the Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals. He put up dominant numbers against Cleveland and Philadelphia—both teams without big men to counter Howard—yet struggled when facing Boston and Los Angeles.
His desire to be "the man" of his own team is unclear, as Howard's demands to be traded to Brooklyn last season would present a situation of Howard and Deron Williams sharing the spotlight. If he holds the same attitude in terms of understanding he needs more to win, Howard should consider Houston.
A Harden-Howard one-two punch in a pick-and-roll would be absolutely devastating, inclusive of the fact that Lin and Parsons could spot-up on the wing. A frontcourt of Howard and Asik would be interesting, despite being offensively limited but very potent on the boards and on defense.
Having Robinson come off the bench as he currently does poses no issues thus far, so keeping him the same role would be beneficial to both parties. Robinson might become frustrated at being taken so high, only to receive a limited role, thus he could be included in a sign-and-trade deal with the Lakers to acquire Howard.
To top it all off, Houston currently employs one of the greatest low-post scorers in NBA history in McHale. Under his tutelage, Howard may very well make that leap and become a dominant offensive force that would make him a more complete player.
He's still just 27 years old, and will soon be entering his prime. Doing so in a Rockets uniform would pay major dividends for all parties involved.
According to Hoops Hype, the Rockets will have approximately $33.2 million on the payroll next season. Howard is on the last year of his deal, which pays him $19.2 million this season. If Houston can present a similar offer, that would push their total salary cap to a little over $52.5 million.
Considering the salary-cap limit is around $58 million this season, it's likely the same amount will be set for next year. With a $52.5 million payroll, the Rockets would still have around $5 million to add complementary role players, in addition to their mid-level exception that allows the cap limit to be exceeded.
The luxury tax limit (set at $70.3 million this season) will likely remain as it has in recent years. However, the Rockets' payroll would not come close. They would have two All-Star players, who would play off each other very well and an abundance of role players to contribute.
A mass of Houston fans will ultimately groan at the possibility of Howard joining their squad, especially considering how poorly he is regarded in the public eye. His contributions on the court—16.6 points, 12.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks this season—are clear however, and should outweigh any personal gripes of his personality or behaviour.
Howard would make any team instantly better, even more so when he is 100 percent healthy. His back and shoulders are clearly still hindering his play, but an offseason of rest and rehabilitation will do wonders for the big man.
It will ultimately be the biggest storyline of the offseason, as teams across the league will throw their hat in the ring and bid for Howard's services. Being an unrestricted free agent, it will be up to Howard to decide where he will continue his career. Joining the Houston Rockets would create a powerhouse in the Southwest Division, let alone in the Western Conference.
Fans will roll their eyes at the numerous speculated reports come July, but Houston fans should remain hopeful, as the future of their franchise would be all that much brighter with Howard in the middle.