Sometimes the most obvious move is a bit too obvious, and that bit comes to bite you in the butt.
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Prior to 2012’s rookie contract extension deadline, James Harden was the most obvious candidate to deal for, and even if the infamous transaction was a shocker, it still was a case of Rocket general manager Daryl Morey going for the market’s most available star. It’s doubtful that Harden was Morey’s favorite NBA player at the time, he was just The Big Guy That We Have the Stuff To Get.
During the summer of 2013, Dwight Howard was That Guy; a player that (unlike other maxed-out free agents from that offseason) would be willing to take less money if it meant fleeing Los Angeles and Kobe Bryant’s icy glares. Again, it was as if Morey saw something in Howard that no other observer picked up on, he was just that summer’s available prize.
In November, with the team having already lost seven of its first 11 games, dumping Kevin McHale seemed like the most obvious solution. McHale is affable and respected but he wasn’t without his critics, and assistant coach (and eventual interim head coach) J.B. Bickerstaff was one of the NBA’s great young coaching prospects at the time. With trade options limited, this is what one does.
Bickerstaff was 8-7 as Rockets coach as the team lined up to play a miserable Los Angeles Lakers team on Thursday night. A win wouldn't be a surprise and would give Houston a very respectable yet deceptive 13-14 record overall, but the team has enjoyed the easiest scheduling in the league so far. It really isn’t even close.
Worse, a win would come in spite of a report from former Associated Press scribe Chris Sheridan on Tuesday, claiming that Howard was unhappy in his team’s offense and would like to be traded. Sheridan mentioned Miami as a possible landing spot with Hassan Whiteside coming in return, but didn’t offer any suggestions as to how the teams would combat the trade-blocking difference between Howard’s $22 million salary, and Whiteside’s sub-$900,000 contract for this season.
Believe what you want to believe, as Howard emphatically denied (“lies,” he says!) telling anyone he wants out in talking with Jonathan Feigan at the Houston Chronicle …
I haven't said anything to anybody about anything. People make up lies and rumors. That's never been my focus. I'm trying to get these guys to play better and myself to play better.
"People are going to say what they got to say to get a story out. People are always going to come up with some rumor and lies. That's what is. I can't focus on that, and I don't want my teammates to focus on that."
"I chose to go to Houston (via free agency in the summer of 2013), so why would I just say, 'I'm not happy' and leave?" Howard, who is widely expected to become a free agent again this summer, told USA TODAY Sports. "I chose this place, you know what I'm saying? And I want to make this thing work here. Obviously we haven't been playing great basketball, and personally for myself my numbers don't seem like I've been playing great, but the only thing on my mind is trying to grow as a man and grow as a teammate and a leader. All the BS that's around, sometimes it is frustrating to hear it, because I know who I am as a man and I know what I'm trying to do for this city."
We’ve heard this all before, literally:
Dwight Howard in 2011 when asked if he was pushing for SVG to get fired: "I haven’t said anything to anybody about anything." Dwight Howard today when asked if he's unhappy with his role: "I haven’t said anything to anybody about anything."
When Howard was moping through his way through his final season in Orlando in 2011-12. The center clearly wanted out, but didn’t have the temerity to request a trade or come off as the bad guy. He instead came off as the Guy Who Lies A Lot after waiving the early termination option on his contract when he obviously wanted nothing to do with playing with the Magic in 2012-13, and after then-coach Stan Van Gundy stopped the BS that Howard referenced in talking to USA Today, and told the press that Howard asked ownership to fire him.
The issue, as it was four years ago, is just about the same. Howard does have a right to be unhappy full stop – as any employee does – and he has a right to be unhappy about how things are going in Houston. Dude, it’s OK.
Though Daryl Morey has spent a career working in ways that struck some of his colleagues as unorthodox, a presumptive trade of Howard would possibly act as an actual plus. It would almost feel like a move straight out of Major League Baseball, where the disgruntled star gets dealt prior to his free agent turn.
It may seem like Howard is just getting started in Houston, but he does have an opt-out option this summer on the deal he signed back in 2013. Even if things were going great guns with the Rockets and Dwight was averaging twice the 8.3 shot attempts (lowest since his rookie year, as a teenager) he’s tossing up per game, Howard would still decline the option on his $23.2 million deal for 2016-17. With the cap rising and Dwight staring down his early-to-mid 30s, it makes sense to both cash in and seek out a lengthier deal.
Howard has dealt with knee and back issues since his Magic days, but heaps of teams would have had max-level cap space this summer even if the salary cap weren’t expected to rise to over $90 million. In what could be a rather weak market, plenty of teams will be left wanting, and as we saw in 2013 it’s not hard to talk yourself into wanting Dwight Howard.
Even at four years, and $128 million, until he turns 34 midway through what could be his sixth consecutive season without an All-Star berth. July is crazy.
Morey knows this. He’s kept his asset list tidy and his options open should Kevin Durant decide that he wants to pair up with Harden again. Durant’s a quick decision-maker, however, whereas Dwight (understandably) takes a while to chew on things. Having Howard’s massive cap hold lingering while Howard makes up his mind on a new team this summer could limit Houston’s flexibility, yet another reason why the Rockets might want to deal the big man.
(Another reason? Reserve big man Clint Capela has outplayed Howard in a lot of ways this season. They’re a terrifying duo when on the court together, it should be noted, but the 21-year old matches Howard when it comes to rebounds and blocks, he turns the ball over far fewer times and scores more per-minute.)
Of course, as noted above, Howard says he doesn’t want to go. In pure financial terms, he can’t be looking forward to giving up money for the second time in his career to jump to another team. That’s fine and dandy, but this is a short summation of we had to watch in Sacramento on Tuesday night …
… and it’s hard to imagine the Rockets feel enthused about paying a contract starting at $30 million a year through age 34 when he’s already doing this at age 30.
And yet, for all the turmoil, Houston’s struggles run deep than the latest Dwight Howard Sitch.
The squad, frankly, should be embarrassed with itself. It remains the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA despite starting defense-first types like Howard, Trevor Ariza, and Patrick Beverley. Guard James Harden has proven that he can not only play adequate defense, but be the biggest destructive force on a knockout offense, and he’s let his team down on both ends this season. He, genuinely, has no excuse as the Rockets rank just 13th on offense.
New addition Ty Lawson has been spectacularly bad on both ends, shooting 33 percent and turning the ball over more often than Howard in terms of percentage – and Howard turns the ball over a lot. Capela has shined and at times Marcus Thornton has looked like the squad’s second-best player, which is never good.
And the upcoming schedule? This is also not good, folks.
The Rockets could near .500 with a win over the 4-21 Lakers on Thursday, but the team can really only point to four wins this season as actual quality victories. That’s one-third of the total, and hardly ideal for a team that had hoped to flirt with 60 wins this season. Between now and the team’s next meeting with the Lakers on Jan. 17, the squad has to play the Spurs twice, the Clippers, Hornets, Hawks, Warriors, Pacers, Grizzlies and Cavaliers in games 28 through 41.
This, for a team that barely beat the 76ers while allowing Philadelphia to put up what will surely be a season-high 114 points, is devastating. Houston could hit the halfway point of the season with 16 wins. And though the Dwight Howard trade options are intriguing and plentiful, if Morey seriously considered dealing his center he will be facing down the obstacle of doing such while under a hard cap. He’ll have to track every penny.
A win on Thursday will move the Rockets just a game behind a fading and flustered Memphis Grizzlies for the sixth spot in the West, but the team has hardly taken advantage of its cupcake schedule over the first month and a half. This has cost Kevin McHale his job and Dwight Howard his temper, with James Harden back to his old bad habits defensively while failing to find proper offensive outlets for Howard offensively as James’ 20 shots per game go up.
Daryl Morey has always prided himself on having myriad options to work with as he attempts to improve his Rockets, but at this point it’s unclear as to what the obvious one is. Until his players start giving a damn again, Houston will be in trouble.
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