As predicted by practically no one in the preseason, the Houston Rockets are 12-14 midway into the second month of their 2015-16 campaign. While Houston is currently in possession of the seventh seed in the West and there’s still plenty of time left to get on track, the team desperately needs to shake things up and arguably the best trade chip on the roster is star center Dwight Howard.
Howard was the subject of trade rumors before Houston’s showdown in Sacramento when Chris Sheridan of SheridanHoops.com reported the 30-year-old was “extremely unhappy” playing second fiddle to James Harden and that a move to the Miami Heat could be on the way.
“Dwight Howard is extremely unhappy in Houston playing second fiddle to alpha dog James Harden, multiple league sources tell SheridanHoops.com. And with the Rockets underachieving more than any NBA team, look for them to try to move Howard later this season. And the destination that makes the most sense is Miami in a trade centered around Hassan Whiteside. It makes so much sense, in fact, that I will go so far as to predict that Howard will be wearing a Miami Heat uniform by the end of February.”
Calvin Watkins, who covers the Rockets for ESPN, doubled down on Sheridan’s report by tweeting that displeasure in Houston is across the board.
A source on Dwight Howard being unhappy: "Everybody is unhappy."
— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) December 15, 2015
However, if there’s a rift brewing between Howard and his current employer, that’s apparently news to the three-time Defensive Player of the Year (per The Houston Chronicle).
“I haven’t said anything to anybody about anything. People make up lies and rumors. That’s never been my focus. I’m trying to get these guys to play better and get myself to play better. People are going to say what they got to say to get a story out. People are always going to come up with some rumor and lies. That’s what it is. I can’t focus on that. And I don’t want my teammates to focus on that. I want us to win. We had two upsetting losses. We’re all frustrated because we know we can play better. I haven’t said anything to any reporter or to anybody about being unhappy. That’s only noise. All the other stuff is lies.”
While Howard denies Sheridan’s claims, there’s no disputing that something’s amiss in Houston. The defense is abysmal, allowing 107.1 points per game (28th in the league). The team’s lack of effort, which played a huge role in the dismissal of head coach Kevin McHale earlier this season, is also a problem. During the team’s recent loss to Sacramento, new sideline sultan J.B. Bickerstaff benched his entire starting rotation as a motivational tool to light a spark inside his first five. Afterward, he addressed his team’s lack of urgency:
“You can’t just sit back and watch things happen. We have to be aggressive as a coaching staff. We’ve got to push buttons. We have to get guys to respond. We’re willing to do whatever it takes, and we trust the guys on our bench that they can make things happen.”
Even though Howard isn’t solely at fault for the Rockets’ struggles, he certainly isn’t helping his cause with plays like this.
Another issue is Howard’s limited involvement in the offense. Howard is second on the team in scoring with 12.6 points and logging the third-most playing time of anyone on the roster at 32.4 minutes per game. However, despite being the highest-paid player on the team and owning the fifth-largest salary in the league at $22.3 million, D12 trails Harden, Trevor Ariza, Marcus Thornton and Terrence Jones in field-goal attempts per game. His 8.3 takes and 17.7 percent usage rate are his lowest efforts since his rookie season back in 2004-05.
Earlier this month, Howard said he wasn’t affected by his limited offensive role, per Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen:
“I’m trying not to focus on it. I’m just trying to go out there and be effective on the defensive end. And hopefully, the offensive side will happen sooner or later.”
The problem with Howard focusing his attention more on stopping enemy attacks is it isn’t showing up in the numbers. His 104 points allowed per 100 possessions is tied for the worst defensive rating of his 12-year-career. Opponents are also shooting 0.4 percent better with Howard defending within six feet of the rim, which is an area of the floor he used to instill the most fear.
Howard is also a free agent at the end of the season and the club already has his potential replacement in impressive 21-year-old Clint Capela. If Houston isn’t compelled to make Howard a bigger part of the offense now and his trademark defense is already starting to erode, what incentive does the team have to commit significant money next summer to a player who will be entering his 13th pro season and has a history of back problems?
Without a drastic change in his production, Howard’s stock is going to continue to plummet. When you add in the Rockets’ rapid fall from contender status and their inability to beat lowly teams like the Denver Nuggets and Brooklyn Nets (who are a combined 5-0 against Houston despite being 13-31 otherwise), frustration in the locker room is bound to grow.
Howard says he isn’t unhappy, but he should be. He came to Houston in 2013 to chase championships alongside Harden, and he’s come up short the last two seasons. Now, he’ll be lucky to make it back to the postseason. We’ve seen in previous stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic how much of a distraction Howard can become when his demeanor takes a turn for the worst.
The Rockets haven’t gotten to that point yet, but a change in scenery may be the wake-up call that both parties desperately need.