It has been a steady fall from grace for Dwight Howard. When he first hit free agency in 2013, the entire league waited on him. He was the Kevin Durant and LeBron James of that class, a top-five player whose decision would irrevocably shift the NBA’s balance of power. Three years later, he isn’t even the top center on the market; Hassan Whiteside will likely command a bigger contract from teams in need. The days of Dwight as a franchise savior have come and gone, and he is known more for off-the-court antics than anything he has done on it. So why sign him now that he is clearly no longer in his prime?
Howard is coming off a season in which he posted his worst numbers since his rookie year, averaging 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks a game. His advanced numbers weren’t any more encouraging. Houston’s offensive and defensive efficiency did not swing one way or the other when Dwight was on or off the court; net rating suggests he was a ghost. The Rockets might actually see some addition by subtraction, since his departure creates room for the younger and more agile Clint Capela, who doesn’t demand the ball in the post and does a better job of guarding on the perimeter.
The Rockets had been managing Howard’s minutes so that he would be their version of Tim Duncan, saving him for the playoffs and extending his career deep into his 30s. But the team collapsed around him, and Dwight was either unable or unwilling to make a difference as a leader. James Harden hasn’t even bothered to reach out to him, a clear sign of the tensions that had boiled over by the end of the season. Howard’s next team will be his fourth in six years.
Dwight doesn’t have many fans in his former cities, and it might have something to do with the trail of decay that is left after his departure. The Magic traded him four years ago, and they haven’t sniffed the playoffs since. The Lakers watched him walk three years ago, and they’ve gone through their most miserable stretch in franchise history rebuilding without him. The Rockets have more talent on hand than either of his former teams, but matching their success with Dwight will be a difficult, if not impossible, task.
For as much as his time in Houston will be viewed as a failure, he lived up to his end of the bargain in the playoffs. He averaged 26 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks on 54.7 percent shooting against the Blazers in 2014, carrying the team while James Harden shot 37.6 percent from the field. What he did in 2015 was even more remarkable, bringing the Rockets back from a 3–1 deficit against the Clippers, including erasing a 19-point second-half deficit in Game 6 in L.A. while Harden watched from the bench. Reputation is more perception than reality. Just imagine how Chris Paul and Howard would be perceived if their teams had switched places. Maybe Paul, whose teams routinely underperform in the playoffs, is the locker room cancer everyone thinks Howard is. Or maybe postseason success doesn’t hinge on peripheral aspects. You can’t have it both ways.
While Howard deserves his fair share of the blame for what happened this season, he wasn’t being used in a way that would get the most out of his skill set. He had the eighth highest usage rate on the team among Rockets players who played at least 20 games, and he was used as a roll man in the two-man game only 91 times all season, fewer than his teammate Capela, or, more surprisingly, fewer than a nearly incapacitated Roy Hibbert. It’s a staggeringly low number for a player who seems tailor-made for the role, which speaks to both Howard’s insistence on being fed in the post and to the coaching staff’s failure to find a way to optimize his abilities. The Rockets didn’t seem to run any offense beyond letting Harden dribble the ball into the ground, which resulted in huge stats for Harden and not much else. Playing Capela and Howard together was one of Houston’s most productive two-man units, and the Rockets abandoned it because the floor wasn’t spread enough for Harden.
Howard may no longer be capable of transcending his environment, but he could still be a high-level starter on a good team. His residence in the post is a problem; there were 64 players in the league who used at least 100 possessions in the post last season, and at 0.82 points per possession, Howard landed outside of the top 50 in terms of efficiency. However, Dwight is still an elite rebounder and finisher, with a robust 1.1 points per possession as a roll man. And while he’s not the defensive presence he was in Orlando, he’s a more well-rounded defender than younger big men like Whiteside and DeAndre Jordan, both of whom are known to chase blocks and miss assignments in the process. Dwight outplayed DeAndre in the 2015 playoffs, which included a 20-point, 21-rebound performance in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals. He can still swing a playoff series in the right situation.
The right situation probably isn’t the one he’s been in his entire adult life thus far. As Howard enters the second half of his career, will he buy into a smaller role? One thing worth keeping in mind is that this will be the first time he has ever had to do that. When he was a free agent three years ago, were teams telling him that he would be great as a defensive-minded role player? Or were they telling him he was a superstar who needed 20 shots a game? The Rockets’ pitch was based on their history of great big men and how Kevin McHale could help him in the post. It’s no wonder he felt betrayed when he became a marginal part of Harden’s supporting cast under J.B. Bickerstaff. It’s not what he signed up for.
Things will be different this time around. Howard may ask for a four-year max, but there’s no indication any team will offer him one. While he will still be highly compensated, it will likely be a short-term contract where he can re-establish his value or a long-term deal closer to $15 million to $20 million a year. At that price, he would help any of the teams he has been linked to, and he’s been linked to many: the Mavericks, the Celtics, the Hornets, the Hawks, the Knicks, the Blazers, and even the Magic. No matter who he signs with, he won’t be their best player or the focus of their long-term plans. That will be hard for him to adjust to, but he will be going in with eyes wide open and with something to prove.
Health will always be a concern with Howard, particularly the state of his aching back and knees, but that’s an issue with any player his age — and several who are considered more desirable free agents in this class. Mike Conley Jr. is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury, and he’s an undersized guard who relies on speed to be successful. Chandler Parsons missed almost all of the past two postseasons with knee injuries. Who knows how many ailments Joakim Noah even has anymore? Howard played in 71 games last season and he has been very durable over the course of his career. In free agency, gambling on health is a risk inherent to the game.
Dwight is an eight-time All-Star and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who has played an integral role on six different 50-plus win teams. He has done enough to be a Hall of Famer already, so maybe all the candy he eats, all the jokes he cracks, and all the time he forces media members to spend after games waiting for quotes isn’t that big a deal. He has been to three conference finals and one NBA Finals, yet is treated as though his personality quirks are an impediment to winning basketball games. Those best positioned to play well into their 30s are elite players who adjust their game to excel as lesser versions of themselves. Dwight will be given his first opportunity to make that switch in the coming days. There’s no reason to think he can’t be that kind of player.