Dwight Howard at a crossroads yet again

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Even with a rising cap, Dwight Howard may no longer be a max player. (Getty Images)
Even with a rising cap, Dwight Howard may no longer be a max player. (Getty Images)

It was only a matter of time, a question of how long before we reached this point with Dwight Howard again. Four years after Howard forced his way out of Orlando, three years following a disastrous one-season stint with the Lakers and less than three seasons into his run with Houston, Howard once again finds himself facing an uncertain future.

The Rockets have engaged teams – including Boston – about a potential Howard deal, league sources told The Vertical, and while it’s unlikely Houston moves Howard before the Feb. 18 trade deadline, his long-term future with the franchise is very much in doubt.

Howard won’t be going to Boston, league sources told The Vertical, and the reason is simple: The asking price is just too steep. The Celtics like Howard, believe he can be a cornerstone player but are unwilling to part with any significant assets – including Brooklyn’s coveted first-round pick – to get him. Boston is aggressively pursuing deals and is motivated to add a frontcourt player to its promising young roster, but Howard won’t be one of them.

Houston reacted the way it had to regarding the Howard trade rumors, denying any interest in dealing him and vowing to build around him. There’s no reason to believe the Rockets don’t like Howard and don’t want him to be part of the future. Phrasing is important in a story like this; Houston has not been so much shopping Howard as taking the temperature of teams about the assets needed to deal for him. Howard is averaging the fewest points (14.4) since his rookie season but remains an effective rebounder (11.9) and shot blocker (1.5). Slam his disposition, fit him for a dunce cap, but there are not five centers in the NBA many general managers would take over him.

But will they pay him? It’s a question teams with cap space – which, given the TV-money infused cap of 2016-17, is pretty much everyone – have already begun to consider. Howard will likely exercise his player option this summer, opting out of the last year of his contract and the $23.2 million due to him. It makes sense: Howard, 30, is healthy, free from lingering back and knee problems, and can enter a free-agent market that could get chaotic once Kevin Durant comes off the board. Howard will want a max deal and there will be many teams with the room to give it to him.

The landscape, though, could be rougher than Howard thinks. Asked by The Vertical if Howard would be a max or near-max player this summer, three league executives had the same response: no. “Three-years, $60 million,” an Eastern Conference general manager said. “I’m not going any higher than that.” Added a team personnel scout: “I don’t know that I’d make a serious offer. That back is always going to scare me.”

That indecisiveness could benefit Houston. Three seasons into the Howard-James Harden pairing and the results are mixed. The Rockets have a conference finals appearance to show for it, but Howard has never been completely comfortable playing alongside the ball-dominating Harden; Howard is down to 8.5 shot attempts per game, the fewest since his first season. If concerns over Howard’s health linger and his numbers continue to regress, Houston could re-sign Howard for less than the $25 million-plus Howard will be seeking and preserve valuable cap space for the future.

The Rockets will make a run at Durant because, well, who was the last high-profile free agent Houston general manager Daryl Morey didn’t try to lure to Texas? The hook will be Harden, who is expected to go all out to recruit his ex-teammate to Houston, but Howard’s presence could help. Howard and Durant have never been close – the two went nose to nose during a game in 2014, with Durant tossing around some colorful language to describe Howard as soft – but Durant understands that in the rugged Western Conference it will take more than just two elite scorers to unseat Golden State. As a first option, as a leader, Howard is lacking. As a third fiddle, as a rebounder, a defender, a reasonably reliable low-post scoring presence, few, if any players would be better.

Will Howard want that kind of role? And will Houston be willing to pay a premium to keep him if it comes to it? Indeed, Howard’s future is murky. But then it wouldn’t be Dwight Howard if it weren’t.

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