It wasn’t long ago that Dwight Howard was one of the undisputed difference makers in the NBA. In 2012, Howard was the subject of a months-long fight to acquire him, one that eventually led to him being sent from Orlando to the Los Angeles Lakers in a four-team trade that summer. In 2013, Howard was the unquestioned top free agent on the market, one that met with several teams before he wound up signing with the Houston Rockets to team up with fellow superstar James Harden.
Now, less than three years later, Howard remains a player capable of putting up massive numbers on any given night, as he did when he had 36 points and 26 rebounds in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers last month. But, mostly due to injuries, Howard is no longer capable of the day-in, day-out excellence throughout the 82-game regular season that defines the players who are at the top of the sport.
That’s what makes everything about the current situation Howard and the Rockets find themselves in so fascinating as the trade deadline is less than two weeks away.
There have been several reports in recent days about Howard either being shopped around by the Rockets, or about teams calling to inquire about his services. It’s easy to see why the calls would be made either way. Houston has been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams this season, following up last year’s run to the Western Conference finals – including a stunning comeback on the road in Los Angeles against the Clippers in Game 6 of the semis – by hovering around .500 and at the bottom of the West playoff picture.
That, coupled with Howard having the ability to opt-out of his contract and go back into free agency this summer, makes it difficult to figure out what the future holds for both sides.
This didn’t seem like it would be the case when Howard came to Houston in free agency. Unlike guards, who usually have shorter shelf lives, a quality big man will tend to last longer into his career because their skills – which include their height – will hold up better over time. The one way that can be derailed, though, is through injury. For big men, that usually comes in one of three forms: foot injuries, like those that derailed the careers of Bill Walton and Yao Ming, back injuries and knee injuries.
It’s the latter two that have felled Howard, who first had back surgery back in 2012, and has never quite reached the same peak level of performance since. Howard’s numbers have steadily declined over the past few seasons, failing to reach 20 points per game ever since leaving Orlando, seeing his points per game drop from 18.3 in 2014 to 15.8 in 2015 to 14.4 this season and missing half of last season because of persistent issues with his right knee.
When you account for the beginning of Howard’s decline, as well as the fact he’s a virtual lock to receive a max contract from either the Rockets or some other team this summer given how much money will be flooding the league because of the massive rise in the salary cap thanks to the new television contract, you can see why Houston might be considering moving on from him.
The complicating factor in trying to trade him, of course, is that the same combination of injury potential and contractual status makes finding a potential trade partner for him difficult. Take a team like the Boston Celtics, for example, that have been linked with a potential Howard trade. Boston has plenty of assets to make a trade for a star, which is why they’ve been linked to every star player – be it Kevin Love, Blake Griffin or DeMarcus Cousins – that’s been bandied about as potentially available over the past couple years.
But for a team like the Celtics, despite the fact Howard would be an excellent fit for them as the kind of rim-protecting center and pick-and-roll partner for freshly-minted all-star point guard Isaiah Thomas, the question becomes: How much are you willing to give up for a player that could potentially leave in six months? And does that mean you can give up enough to make it worth Houston’s while to move on from him?
It’s hard to come up with a balance that makes sense, unless some team panics and pushes their chips into the center of the table for Howard – which is undoubtedly precisely the thing Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey is waiting to see if it will happen.
More likely, though, will be the outcome that is expected now: Howard remains in Houston past the deadline, and the odd mix that is this Houston team will, at least for now, remain intact. Whenever you see the Rockets play, they look like a team that has absolutely no desire to play alongside each other. Much of that comes from the dynamics around the pairing of Harden and Howard, which has always felt a bit off.
Morey has never been one to shy away from making a splash, though, and he will undoubtedly do his best to get Kevin Durant to leave Oklahoma City to come pair with Harden and Howard – or some other piece the Rockets can collect – this summer. If that doesn’t happen, though, perhaps Houston will simply re-sign Howard and bring back this group again with minimal changes. Or maybe Howard will once again move on to some other team, be it Dallas or Miami or elsewhere, that sees the benefits he can provide even as his career transitions from one phase to the next.
Not long ago, Houston felt like it had the bedrock of a contender for years to come with the pairing of Harden and Howard. These days, though, the only certain thing for the Rockets is that the next few weeks – let alone the next few months – will come with plenty of uncertainty, with nothing more unclear than Howard’s future with the franchise.