Another year, another trade deadline and the never-ending search for stability for Dwight Howard continues. The Rockets did what they could to move Howard out of Houston on Thursday, NBA sources told The Vertical, canvassing the league for offers, plainly instructing teams to submit their best bids. No luck. Howard is still in Houston, still a Rocket, though with just 27 games remaining in a forgettable season, those days may officially be numbered.
The gap between what the Rockets wanted and what teams offered for Howard was considerable, for two reasons: Howard, 30, can be a free agent at the end of the season, and he will likely seek a contract worth north of $20 million per year. Howard has been healthy for most of this season, yet concerns about a once-debilitating back injury linger. And while executives admit Howard is better than the pedestrian scorer (14.6 points per game) he has morphed into alongside James Harden, you are hard-pressed to find many willing to mortgage the future of the franchise to go get him.
Picking on Howard is easy, sporting even. He's the guy who smiles too much, goofs around too often, who appears to play with the same fire as headband-clad hackers do in rec league games. He's the guy who drove Stan Van Gundy out of Orlando, pissed off Kobe Bryant and drew the ire of Kevin Durant. He irritates winners more than he tries to become one.
But really: Is he that terrible? In an off year, one that has seen his shot attempts dip to rookie-year levels, Howard is third in the NBA in rebounding and field-goal percentage. He's not an automatic double-team anymore but he's a difficult cover in the post and a load to keep off the glass. Mock him, belittle him, but good luck finding six or seven true centers better than him.
Houston would like nothing more than to move forward with Howard and Harden as cornerstones, to use the pair to lure a marquee free agent like Durant, to assemble an All-Star team that can compete with the one blitzing the league in Golden State. But the Rockets understand: The relationship between Howard and Harden has become increasingly unsalvageable. Howard has never whispered a word about wanting out of Houston, about any disdain for Harden, but the lack of on-court chemistry between the two is obvious. Howard still craves a bigger role, and it's hard to see that materializing in Houston.
There won't be an elaborate courtship of Howard, but make no mistake: Teams will come calling. Not being interested in forking over young players and picks for Howard is a lot different than throwing some decent money at him. Take Boston. The Celtics were involved in the Howard sweepstakes, league sources told The Vertical, but, like everyone else, were not interested in paying Houston's price. Yet Celtics president Danny Ainge is a fan of Howard. Kevin McHale gave Ainge a strong endorsement of Howard, and there are few people in the NBA Ainge respects more than Mac. Boston has a hole in the middle and money to spend; to the Celtics, Howard is intriguing.
Several teams will undoubtedly feel the same. When the dust settles on the Durant derby, when Al Horford and Mike Conley choose where they want to play, there will be Howard. The days of a five-year max contract are history, and four-year ones might be gone, too. Howard will have to swallow a cheaper deal, a shorter deal, one that reflects the diminished player he, at least statistically, has become. Still, right team, right price, Howard's ability to be an impact player can still be considerable. He can't lead a team to the Finals anymore but in the right role he can still help one get there.
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