Of course Dwight Howard couldn’t make a decision without some last-minute drama, but it now appears he’ll be joining the Houston Rockets. Throughout the day, Howard’s camp notified the losers one by one of their misfortune. Mavs owner Mark Cuban didn’t waste any time confirming the bad news.
“Got word we are out of the DH sweepstakes,” Cuban said in an e-mail to local writers. “We gave it a shot and it didn’t work out. It was truly an experience. At some point I will post our video and presentation we made.”
But Mavs fans weren’t in the mood Friday to hear about exciting presentations to Howard. It was another stinging loss in the so-called “big fish” plan. From a financial standpoint, the Lakers always made the most sense for Howard. But it was obvious he didn’t have any interest in being Kobe Bryant’s wingman for the next few years. It also hurt the Lakers that Howard didn’t exactly flourish in Mike D’Antoni’s system. The Lakers would’ve had a much better shot at re-signing Howard if they’d given the Mike Brown experience a full season — or even a full two weeks.
What we’ve known for a long time is that Houston made the most basketball sense for Howard. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey spent the past few years preparing for this day. You wondered about some of his moves, but now players such as center Omer Asik and point guard Jeremy Lin are tradable assets that will help the Rockets build around James Harden and Howard. Asik’s contract is tricky because he’s guaranteed $15 million in 2013-14, but some team will surely pay that price for a talented young big man.
Harden isn’t technically a point guard, but the ball is constantly in his hands. The toughest thing for any NBA team is to fill the point guard and center positions. The Rockets now have top-20 players at each position. The Lakers thought they had that situation with Steve Nash and Howard, but an early coaching change and injuries to both players undermined the process. The Rockets have wandered in the playoffs wilderness for the better part of the past 16 seasons, but I think they’ve automatically become one of the top four best teams in the Western Conference. There’s not a definitive order when you look at the Thunder, Grizzlies, Rockets and Clippers. And it’s probably a mistake to cast aside the Spurs.
The Mavs had hoped Howard would be swayed by playing next to an unselfish, if aging, superstar in Dirk Nowitzki and consensus top-five NBA head coach, Rick Carlisle. Howard could’ve owned Dallas, but he obviously decided that he’d have a better shot at winning a title in Houston. And for once, it seems like he used some pretty good logic.
The Rockets might make some minor changes to their style, but they will still be among the leaders in three-pointers attempted. That’s a philosophy that Morey’s comfortable with, but it doesn’t mean that Howard won’t play a large role in the offense. I kept hearing folks knock Kevin McHale’s coaching credentials throughout this process. He had a profound impact on Kevin Garnett’s career in Minnesota. In fact, watching Garnett embrace McHale not long after the coach lost his daughter to an illness was one of the most poignant moments of the season. If anyone in the league has a chance to make Howard more effective on the offensive end, it’s McHale. No one has ever had better footwork than McHale, who starred on those Larry Bird-led Celtics teams.
There are indications Atlanta would be open to a sign-and-trade that would send Josh Smith to the Rockets. Smith and Howard grew up playing together and have talked about ending up on the same team. The combination of Howard-Harden-Smith could immediately challenge for supremacy in the West.
After the Lakers fiasco last season, it’s probably premature to suggest the Rockets are some sort of juggernaut. But Howard won’t have to pay homage to Harden like he had to do with Bryant. Harden will still take plenty of shots, but I don’t think he’s an overly selfish player. He created a very meaningful role with the Thunder while playing in the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The no-show he had in the 2012 NBA Finals may be a cloud over his head, but he has plenty of time to erase that memory.
You’d be crazy to predict that Howard will live happily ever after with the Rockets. But he certainly made a logical decision. He desperately needs to remake his image and make good on his rare talent.
The Rockets offer him the best chance. And now they rank among the big dogs in the West.