It wasn't so long ago (the summer of 2013, to be exact) that signing Dwight Howard was the goal of half the NBA teams. Now, as trade season kicks off less than three years later, the Houston Rockets may not be able to give him away.
They're trying, though, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical.
Houston has cratered after somewhat improbably reaching the conference finals last season. And while Howard's on-court slippage probably ranks somewhere among the top 10 reasons the Rockets have declined, it's certainly not the biggest.
The point, though, is that Houston finds itself in a reflective position. This season's failure forces the Rockets to ask where they are in their trajectory and, more importantly, who on this current roster figures into that flight path.
Suddenly, Predictably Unwanted
The Rockets must know they're not a title threat, but they must also understand they're not anywhere close to the point where tanking makes sense.
With Howard likely to opt out of the final year of his deal this summer, according to a report from Sam Amick of USA Today in December, Houston knows it will either lose him for nothing or be forced to shell out a max deal to retain him. Neither option has much appeal, so getting something for Howard now makes sense.
But if you're a potential trade destination for Howard, you're aware of all that information, too. You know the Rockets aren't dealing from a position of strength.
Not only that, but you've seen Howard cement his reputation as a mostly unserious type who has clashed with players and/or management at every stop. You've heard him pledge to improve, and at the risk of unfair cynicism, none of those promises ring true to you anymore.
So when Howard addressed that potential rift between himself and James Harden back in December by telling Amick: "We've got to make it work, you know what I'm saying? And it takes time, but I'm going to do whatever I can to help it grow and just be whatever he needs me to be," you weren't sold.
This is a different conversation if we're talking about the 2009 version of Howard—the one who could easily have won an MVP award, dominated the league as its best defender and led Stan Van Gundy's perfectly constructed Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals. That guy's not on the market in the first place, but if we pretend he was, maybe you grit your teeth and take on the locker-room issues attached to him.
The Dwight who exists today comes toting a different game but the same personality.
He's on the wrong side of 30 and has undergone knee and back operations, plus he experienced a torn labrum he rehabilitated without surgery. If it's going to take a max contract, one starting around $31 million with annual raises for the next four or five years, well...that's just not a risk that makes much sense. Not for a player currently averaging 14.6 points (the second-lowest total of his career) and holding down the middle of the league's No. 26 defense, per NBA.com.
And remember, you kind of have to view what Howard's doing this season as a ceiling. Big men in their 30s don't tend to improve.
Despite all that, trading Howard is still possible. It'll just take a team ready to assume the risk of a rental, and there aren't many for whom that makes sense.
The Toronto Raptors are currently the second-best team in the East, and you could make the case that connecting on a home run swing might (might) be enough to push them past the Cleveland Cavaliers and into the NBA Finals. For them, maybe the gamble of giving up whatever it would take to get Howard is worth it.
But the Raps aren't interested, per Zach Lowe of ESPN.com:
There aren't many teams in Toronto's position. Maybe the Oklahoma City Thunder qualify as a club that could justify a short-term risk of this magnitude. A notch behind the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs and facing the prospect of watching Kevin Durant walk after this year, perhaps OKC would take a nothing-to-lose approach and fire off some assets to add Howard.
It's hard to see the Thunder, who could easily win a ring this season if one of the West's superpowers stumbles, shaking things up that boldly.
Adding to the difficulty, the Rockets have to find something they're willing to take back. Even if Howard doesn't have a future with the team, and even if his theoretical salary demands mean Houston may lose him for nothing, he's still an asset. But is he one worth giving up for, say, Hassan Whiteside, as Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reports may be the case?
Whiteside will be a free agent, too. And he's built a reputation for immaturity that isn't so different from Howard's. What if he replaces Howard in all the worst ways for two months and then walks? That's not a great return for the Rockets.
This is tough.
Howard has value—even with a personality that hasn't endeared him to teammates or fans at any stop...and even if he's in moderate decline. There just aren't many mobile centers who can anchor a defense and play effective pick-and-roll offense, which is what Howard can still do...in theory.
But as we're learning lately, the idea of having Howard on your team—the theoretical concept of what he is and what he can do—is a lot more appealing than having him in practice. It seems most of the league and, now, even the Rockets, are coming to understand that.
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