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Despite Decline, Free-Agency Market Will Treat Dwight Howard Like a Superstar

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterMarch 31, 2016

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 29:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 29, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Dwight Howard doesn't dominate the NBA like he once did with the Orlando Magic. At 30, nearly four years after having a herniated disc removed from his back, he may never be a singular force again—certainly not with the James Harden-led Houston Rockets.

Despite all that, Howard is going to get paid this summer.

By almost every measure, Howard's role, particularly on the offensive end, has shrunk since he landed in Texas in 2013...

Even though his interior touches are among the most efficient of any Rockets player.

Again, despite all that, Howard is going to get paid this summer.

According to ESPN's Zach Lowe, Howard could sign a four-year deal worth around $129 million ($32M/year) if he declines his $23.3 million option with the Rockets for 2016-17. If he stays in Houston, he could cash in on an even more lucrative five-year pact.

Those numbers, while seemingly ludicrous for a guy whose scoring (14 points per game) is at the lowest level since his rookie season, could be closer to the NBA's new normal.

As many as 24 teams could have upward of $20 million to spend this summer, thanks to an infusion of revenue from the league's new TV deal with ESPN and Turner Sports (which owns Bleacher Report) that is expected to send the salary cap soaring north of $90 million. With some creative accounting, every team other than the Cleveland Cavaliers can find a way to join the free-agent frenzy.

That leaves a lot of money for a fortunate few players who are capable of commanding sky-high salaries.

Kevin Durant and LeBron James will get the first bites off the apple in free agency. Andre Drummond and Bradley Beal, the two top restricted free agents, will have lucrative deals on their doorstep come July 1.

Beyond those four, the list of players requiring max or near-max money consists of DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside...and Howard.

For all his foibles, Howard is still one the league's most productive bigs. He ranks third in rebounds per game and field-goal percentage (a career-high 61.6 percent) and seventh in point-rebound double-doubles (36), including 14 20-10 games. Defensively, he's held the opposition to 49 percent shooting at the rim on 7.3 attempts per game, per NBA.com, well ahead of the league average of 58.5 percent.

Those in his stratosphere at center (a) just signed huge deals (DeAndre Jordan, Brook Lopez), (b) will soon make max or near-max money (Drummond, Whiteside, Horford), (c) are going to be underpaid for a while longer (DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert) or (d) are further over the hill than Howard is (Marcin Gortat, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol).

In reality, Howard is only worth as much as teams are willing to pay him. General managers may avoid salaries starting in the $30M range that could balloon closer to $40M by his mid-30s. But with enough interest around the league, Howard's agent, Perry Rogers, could stir up a bidding war.

The Dallas Mavericks, who courted Howard in 2013, may need a new center once Zaza Pachulia hits free agency. According to USA Today's Sam Amick, the Mavs claim they "have no interest in giving Howard a max-salary deal," but if Pachulia, Chandler Parsons and Deron Williams all skip town, they'll have to dip into their nearly $60 million in cap space to keep Dirk Nowitzki happy.

If Horford leaves the Hawks in the dust, Howard could feasibly land with his hometown team in Atlanta. The Charlotte Hornets, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks could all use upgrades up front and, according to Basketball Insiders, will each have north of $25 million to spend. The same goes for the Portland Trail Blazers out west.

Would the San Antonio Spurs inquire if Tim Duncan retires and LaMarcus Aldridge still doesn't want to play center? If the Heat can't commit to Whiteside and feel unsure about Chris Bosh's future, would they consider Howard?

What if he returns to the Magic to soak up some of their $40 million or so in cap space?

Don't count out the Rockets, either. They can outbid everyone and, as Amick reported back in February, could dangle the Howard-Harden combo to lure Durant to Space City.

Should Howard's market fail to materialize, he could sign a shorter deal with an opt-out clause and get back in the free-agent game in 2017, when the cap is projected to shoot toward $108 million.

Either way, there will be enough money floating around, enough teams with needs at center and not enough high-priced free agents to ensure that Howard, warts and all, will eventually get his money.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless noted otherwise and accurate as of games played on March 30, 2016.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@JoshMartinNBA), Instagram and Facebook.

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