Heading into free agency with a lot less attention compared to last time, Dwight Howard is still a coveted player, with the New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers lining up to try and sign him.
Howard opted out of his final year with the Houston Rockets, which would have paid him $23.2 million. Despite what was statistically his worst season since his rookie year, Howard decided he can go after a new multi-year max deal, probably somewhere else. Or maybe he just couldn’t stand playing in Houston anymore, tired of not getting enough touches, and maybe a little bit tired of playing with James Harden, a partnership that lasted for three years, but resulted in one conference finals and two first-round playoff exits.
Howard averaged 13.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. He was relatively healthy, playing in 71 games, but his ability to influence the game defensively has taken a step or two back, or maybe it was his motivation that was lacking. Either way, it wasn’t the kind of season a player wants when he heads into free agency, even if you’re a center who can still put up double double on almost a nightly basis, protect the rim, and enjoy the salary cap rising.
Howard is probably the second or third best center in the draft: Hassan Whiteside is drawing more interest, and Al Horford, who is more of a ‘4’ in many people’s eyes, is getting more attention and likelier to get the max. But max contract or not, Howard is already going to meet with the Atlanta Hawks (hometown team) and the Boston Celtics. The Hawks went after him in 2013 but Howard chose the Rockets. Maybe this time, they’ll get him back. But for them, as is the case for all the other teams, Howard isn’t the first option on the table.
Everyone on the list is going after Hassan Whiteside, who brings a lot of the same things to the table, but is a lot younger. The Celtics and Heat are also in the chase after Kevin Durant, which complicates things for Howard. The Bucks and Blazers probably have the best shot of landing him. The Hawks would rather hold on to Al Horford, and everyone else, if they had the choice, would start Whiteside, and prefer paying him the max deal he’s also asking for. Whiteside is younger and with a lot less years on the CV, which means a smaller cap hit.
Where are the Rockets in all of this? Some reports suggest they wanted Howard to opt in for the 2016-2017 season, and will be trying to sign him this summer too. However, from everything Howard has said after the season ended, from how things looked on the floor, and from the new head coach they just signed, Mike D’Antoni, who really doesn’t fit in with Howard in terms of playing style, he has played his last game for Houston.