It almost happened, and general manager Daryl Morey should be thanking his lucky stars that it didn't. As reported by CBS Sports' Ken Berger, the Rockets and Orlando Magic nearly agreed to a deal during the Dwightmare of 2012:
League sources confirmed that the Magic and Rockets did, in fact, tentatively agree to a trade in March 2012 that both sides were prepared to follow through on had Howard forced the Magic's hand and kept his right to opt out after the season and become a free agent. It would've involved at least some of the young assets that were so attractive to Howard this summer when he chose the Rockets as a free agent. (Magic officials, according to sources, later told Rockets officials that they preferred Houston's deal to Brooklyn's.) Thus, while Howard gave up some money in the short term to leave LA, he wound up on a roster that didn't have to be decimated to acquire him.
That would've been a landscape-altering move (obviously, since a premiere star is involved), but a handful of teams would be affected most heavily.
The Los Angeles Lakers wouldn't have been faced with ridiculously high expectations, instead sticking with Andrew Bynum for another year while Kobe Bryant fought for an addition to his ring collection. The Orlando Magic would have received an entirely different haul of young players.
So many other teams would have felt the direct ramifications (the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers, for example), but the Rockets would be affected more than any other team.
And it wouldn't have been positive now that Howard is still pushing them near the top of the brutally difficult Western Conference.
What the Deal Presumably Would've Looked Like
It's hard to believe, given the amount of turnover that the Houston depth chart has experienced over the last calendar year, but the Rockets closed the 2011-12 season with a roster that looked like this:
- Point guard: Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Earl Boykins, Courtney Fortson
- Shooting guard: Kevin Martin, Courtney Lee
- Small forward: Chandler Parsons, Chase Budinger, Diamon Simpson
- Power forward: Luis Scola, Pattrick Patterson, Marcus Morris
- Center: Marcus Camby, Samuel Dalembert, Greg Smith
Parsons and Smith are literally the only players still on the roster who have stayed there throughout. Camby decided to go elsewhere, but he'll be making his return this season, so it doesn't really count.
You can also add Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lamb and Royce White to the list of tradable assets.
Now it's also important that you remember just how much was given up to land Dwight Howard before the start of the 2012-13 campaign. The Magic received Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts, Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic and roughly 634.5 draft picks. The Lakers had to part ways with Andrew Bynum, who at the time looked like the second-best center in basketball, and multiple other stars were on the move.
When figuring out this deal between Houston and Orlando, one that obviously didn't come to fruition, it's important not to undervalue the big man based on his lackluster season wearing purple and gold.
Houston would've been giving up plenty of young players, as well as the closest thing to a star that they possessed.
We're talking about Lowry (who was later traded for a first-round pick), Parsons (who wasn't thought nearly as highly of a year ago), Martin (immediate production and an expiring contract) and at least two of the three rookies that they selected in the 2012 NBA draft.
At the time, those were the most attractive assets that the team had control over.
No More James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik
The main problem is that Howard would have ended up more lonely in Houston. Sure, the team might have been able to land a marquee free agent or two, but only through free agency.
That means that there's no more James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik on the Houston roster. Notice I said "and," not "or" in that sentence. Harden is unquestionably out of the picture, and there would have been no reason for the team to splurge on Asik after trading for Howard.
However, Lin still could have received his big contract and joined the Rockets without too much trouble. But that would have left the team without much remaining money to complete an ultimately depleted roster.
The bearded shooting guard was acquired by trading Lamb, Martin and three future draft picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Problem is, none of those are possible anymore. Lamb and Martin are both gone in this scenario, and one of the crucial first-round picks (the one that turned into Steven Adams) was only acquired by trading away Lowry, who has already gone to the Magic here.
That's obviously out of the picture, and Harden would've either been traded to a different team or eventually re-signed with the Thunder, however begrudging the process might have become.
So, which starting five sounds more appealing?
The first candidate is the current roster, one that features Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Greg Smith and Dwight Howard.
The second is more hypothetical, involving Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee, Chase Budinger, Luis Scola and Dwight Howard. We can safely assume that some of the departed players—like the three listed above in the hypothetical starting five—would have returned given the Rockets' newfound ability and necessity to offer them contracts and take advantage of Bird rights.
I don't think there's much of a question there.
Given the latter starting five, it's also possible that Howard would have refused to re-sign with the team, instead going elsewhere once more.
In addition to the luxury of getting to build a potent roster before Howard signed in free agency, Houston also reaps the benefit of a humbling year for D12.
The big man's time in Los Angeles was filled with struggle.
He dealt with injuries that nagged at him throughout the year, taking heat for his effort level despite the fact that he was playing when he easily could have taken time off for some rest and recovery. He had to find a way to coexist with Kobe Bryant, and while the shooting guard is an absolute legend, he's still not the easiest player to get along with.
More than anything else, he had to deal with vitriol.
Before last season (and the end of his Magic tenure), Howard had never been anything but liked.
That huge smile and goofy personality won over plenty of fans during his time in Orlando. His Superman persona was a huge hit at dunk contests and even spawned one of the better commercials in the history of SportsCenter.
No one hated Dwight for anything other than basketball reasons. He was just...Dwight.
Even though he destroyed the Atlanta Hawks year after year, which I don't take too kindly to, he still earned my grudging respect. While I could root for my team to beat him, I couldn't root against him. There's a big difference.
This past season was a reality check for the big man.
He finally realized what it was like to deal with high expectations and fail to meet them. He realized just how massive the fallout can be when things go wrong. More than anything else, he learned that while basketball is just a game, it isn't just a game.
Is it better that the Rockets missed out on Dwight in 2012?
Now Howard is coming to Houston with a new mentality.
No longer should he act like everything comes easily in the NBA. Instead, he'll end up working harder, as he did by spending precious time during the summer training with Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale.
Houston didn't get Entitled Dwight, but rather Humbled Dwight.
Paired with Harden and Parsons instead of imaginary versions of the two, he should now be capable of leading this team deep into the Western Conference playoffs.
That sounds a little better than a first-round exit and a subsequent departure in free agency, doesn't it? Morey loves stars, but not the shooting-star variety that quickly departs as soon as you find it.