For the week leading up to the NBA’s trade deadline, Dwight Howard’s name dominated the discussions and grabbed all the headlines as the Houston Rockets openly shopped him around the league.
It was a familiar situation for Howard, as his future has been debated endlessly for most of the past five years. It’s been a popular topping dating back to his awkward final few months in Orlando over the course of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Only this time, things were different: no one wanted him.
For the first time in the eight-time All-Star’s NBA career, suitors weren’t lined up to try and secure his services. Four years ago, the Brooklyn Nets spent months chasing Howard — and nearly had him. That was before Howard made a bizarre decision — one he almost instantly regretted — opting into the final year of his contract with Orlando and bypassing free agency. A few months later, he found himself shipped off to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he and Kobe Bryant spent a dysfunctional season together before he finally did hit the open market in July 2013.
Once Howard reached free agency teams were lined up to court him. He took meetings with the Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks before eventually deciding to sign with the Rockets, and in doing so formed a formidable one-two punch with guard James Harden.
Over the span of the past three years, though, a funny thing has happened: Howard’s stock has fallen precipitously around the league, despite the fact he just turned 30 in December. Part of that is due to injury. Howard had surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back, always a scary injury for a big man, and played in just half of Houston’s games last season because of persistent issues with his right knee. Part of it is due to his contractual situation, as well. Howard was set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the combination of his service time in the NBA and the exploding salary cap means his salary for next season on a max contract — undoubtedly his asking price — will cost somewhere around $30 million, possibly more.
That’s a big price tag for a player with big question marks. Including one concerning his drive. For years, people around the league have openly questioned Howard’s commitment to being a championship-level player. He’s an unquestionable talent, and was the dominant big man in the league for much of the past decade. But Howard’s laissez-faire attitude about wins and losses is something that’s always turned off some teams. It was something his former coach, Kevin McHale, touched on during an interview on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike” Thursday morning.
“My only … it’s not really a criticism, [but] the only reality of Dwight is after he loses, five minutes later he’s over that loss,” McHale said. “Whereas, I know when I played and coached, when I lost I was miserable, and I wanted to be miserable.
“I think there was something about that misery that made me a better coach, made me a better player, because I just kind of wallowed in that misery, and I was always amazed when guys could kind of turn the page really quickly like that.”
McHale isn’t the first person to say that about Howard and he won’t be the last. Teams that are going to sacrifice assets and be prepared to pay someone upwards of $30 million over the next three or four years to acquire Howard are going to want to have a star that not only is ready to show up every night, but also is going to have the kind of attitude they seek from a face of a franchise.
In many ways, Howard gets some unfair criticism in this regard. He’s still hammered for wanting out of Orlando four years ago, when he was far from the first player to want to go somewhere else. He’s also criticized for how things fell apart with the Lakers, when it’s hard to look at what has happened in Los Angeles and pin him as the lone culprit on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since his departure.
But, quite often, perception is reality, and it certainly is with Howard these days.
So what’s next? That very much remains to be seen. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said all the right things Thursday afternoon and evening after holding onto Howard, but it’s hard to see him staying in Houston. Perhaps he goes to Boston, which has desperately been seeking both a star and the kind of interior defensive presence Howard can still provide when healthy. Maybe he goes home to Atlanta, though he wouldn’t seem to be a great fit in coach Mike Budenholzer’s system. The Charlotte Hornets, coached by Steve Clifford, a former assistant coach for Howard in both Orlando and Los Angeles, are the kind of team that needs to take a chance on a player like Howard if he’s willing to come, and reportedly had interest at the deadline.
The amazing thing, however, is that there is no clear destination for Howard, no obvious home, despite the fact he’s still averaging 14.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and shooting over 61 percent from the field. Here’s the kind of player teams should be interested in acquiring — yet, by all accounts, no one came even remotely close to doing so before the 3 p.m. Thursday trade deadline, despite the “For Sale” sign hanging around his neck.
That’s the new reality for Dwight Howard, one that his future one of the many fascinating elements of what could be one of the most significant offseasons in recent NBA history.