Howard signed with the Rockets after becoming a free agent in 2013, following an ill-fated stint with the Lakers. He joined another superstar in James Harden to form a team that had hopes to contend.
Needless to say, things didn't go as planned. The Rockets were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in Howard's first season with the team. In 2014-15 they made the conference finals and they came into this season as a dark horse contender, but have greatly disappointed. If the season were to end today, Houston would miss the playoffs.
With Howard having an opt-out clause that would allow him to become a free agent next offseason, it's understandable for the Rockets to explore the market for the big man.
Why the Rockets should trade Dwight Howard
The Rockets are not going to contend this season. Even if a trade doesn't net them an upgrade over Howard, they can continue to fight for a low playoff seed without him. After all, he missed half the season last year and Houston still finished tied for the second-best record in the West. Clint Capela is ready for a bigger role this season and Donatas Motiejunas should be ready to go after the All-Star break.
It's highly likely the three-time Defensive Player of the Year will use of his opt-out clause to pursue a maximum salary in the offseason, since the salary cap is exploding. The Rockets are clearly not convinced he's worth it, or they wouldn't be exploring the market. If Houston can get its hands on a promising young player and a lottery pick, why not pull the trigger before Howard potentially leaves?
Howard is still among the best centers in the league, but he's not untouchable anymore. His health issues have robbed him of some of his explosiveness and that has cost him on both ends. He's posting the lowest scoring numbers since his rookie year and is not as dominant as he used to be. The Rockets are a disaster on defense and his presence doesn't change anything. He's simply not the player he once was, so building around him long-term is not a good idea.
Why the Rockets shouldn't trade Howard
The Rockets have the ninth-best record in the West, but they are only two games behind the Mavericks, who have the sixth-best record. If they get on a roll after the All-Star break, they could potentially avoid the Warriors in the playoffs. They won't likely beat the Spurs or the Thunder in a seven-game series, but they do have regular season wins against both teams this year. They could make some noise by at least being competitive in the postseason, which would help their pitch to future free agents.
Houston could maneuver its way into some serious cap space, even after re-signing Howard to a potential max contract. They would have to sacrifice their depth to accommodate another max salary, but it can be done. It's much more likely a premier free agent jumps on board with Howard manning the center spot instead of the inexperienced Capela. Houston can also keep him without making a long-term commitment. Worse-case scenario, Howard walks, which gives the Rockets even more cap space.
As dangerous as giving Howard a max contract next offseason would be, the money is not as big a problem as the years. If Howard agrees to a maximum deal for three seasons, rolling the dice on him might make some sense. He's not the player he once was, but he's still averaging a double-double. His health is a concern, but maybe he can do better if his minutes are monitored. Unless the Rockets get an actually valuable asset in return, exercising a little patience to see what Howard wants to do next season might be the best course of action.
Likelihood of happening: 7/10
There have been rumors about a potential Howard trade for a while, and now it appears his agent is involved trying to find a suitable home, according to Wojnarowski. Things are getting serious. (Dan Fegan denied asking for a deal directly in an interview with ESPN's Marc Stein).
The risks with Howard are obvious, but he could really help a team if used properly. It will only take one front office willing to offer something of value for the Rockets, who are clearly not sold on re-signing the big man.
There's still a chance Howard finishes this season in Houston, but it wouldn't be shocking to see him traded before the deadline.
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