By itself, talent doesn’t cure all ills. The 2015-16 Houston Rockets, with supposed leaders James Harden and Dwight Howard, are living proof of that.
After reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2015, few could’ve expected that coach Kevin McHale would be fired after 11 games and that it would take the Rockets over a third of the season to pull their record over .500. (Houston now sits back at .500 after a loss to the Orlando Magic on Wednesday.)
There are plenty of reasons for the bad start, but at the root of everything is a lack of effort, a responsibility that falls to the team’s best players.
Talented as they are, Harden and Howard have never shown themselves to be great motivators of teammates. So while the combination looked good on a roster when it first came together, the lack of leadership is rearing it’s head this season.
So much so that rumblings are starting to surface that Howard may want out of Houston, according to Sheridan Hoops’ Chris Sheridan.
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.
General manager Daryl Morey may need to pivot with his team-building strategy, this time taking chemistry a bit more into account. Moving Howard could be that pivot.
Of the two stars, he’s the only one that makes sense to move before the trade deadline. He’s reportedly set to opt out of his contract this summer, meaning Houston would either have to let him walk away for nothing in return or pony up the max to keep him around.
Plus, the Rockets’ backup center may be making Howard expendable. Clint Capela’s per-36-minute numbers are nearly identical to Howard’s, and his PER is better. And most importantly, he’s 21, nine years younger than Howard.
With a replacement waiting on deck and Howard’s free agency coming up this summer, it’s time for the Rockets to capitalize on the value he still has left.
Here are some potential trade packages from around the league that might make sense.
A variation of this deal was proposed by Bill Simmons on the Bill Simmons Podcast, where he proposed a swap of Howard for Marcin Gortat, Nene Hilario and a first-round pick. The premise is good, but I’m not sure it’s enough to get a deal done, especially as other teams up their bids closer to the trade deadline.
Washington can sweeten the deal by swapping Otto Porter for Trevor Ariza, basically giving the Rockets a younger version of what they already have at the 3. Kelly Oubre Jr., a rookie wild card who’s only played 200 minutes this season, is the cherry on top.
If that seems like a lot for Washington to give up, that’s because it is. Trading for Howard is inherently risky, given his personal history with teams and the fact that he’s a free agent this summer. But this is still a win-now move for a team that’s surprisingly last in the Southeast Division.
Make no mistake, Howard is still one of the league’s best if he’s motivated, and John Wall will get him the ball more than any other guard he’s ever played with.
Plus, Ariza’s played in significantly more big games than Porter and Oubre combined. His playoff experience could be critical in getting the Wizards a step closer to the conference finals.
The Rockets aren’t the only team with a disgruntled big man. Phoenix’s Markieff Morris may have more public issues with his squad than Howard. It only makes sense that two players spending so much time in the rumor mill would cross paths.
Adding Morris to an already talented crop of power forwards in Houston (Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones), may not make a ton of sense now, but Morris is on a contract that’ll look like peanuts under the new salary cap (four years, $32 million).
Taking on Tyson Chandler would be a little bit of a burden, as he’s in the first year of a four-year, $52 million deal, but it’s still about half of what Howard may command this summer.
Finally, Archie Goodwin and the first-round pick provide Houston with some youth, or assets they can use in subsequent deals.
The deal makes sense for Phoenix if it feels like it can convince Howard to stick around beyond this summer. He’s three years younger than Chandler, and a core of Howard, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight could make some noise with the right role players filling in the gaps in the coming years.
CRAZIER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED
If Dwight Howard is truly available, plenty of teams are sure to come out of the woodwork. Here are a few (possibly crazy) ideas that might make sense.
Strange but true: The Miami Heat’s Defensive Rating is significantly better when Hassan Whiteside sits. And Pat Riley generally craves star power (Howard) over young assets (Justise Winslow). Luol Deng and Chris Andersen would have to be included to make salaries match.
Has Howard experienced enough to want to go back to his first NBA home? Nikola Vucevic is a better offensive player than Howard, but Scott Skiles is a defense-first coach and Howard gives the Magic the anchor they lack. This move would also open up minutes for youngsters Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon.
The most puzzling part of this deal may be Orlando giving up Victor Oladipo, but at some point, either he or Elfrid Payton may have to go. Their games don’t really complement each other and Orlando is outscored by 3.0points per 100 possessions when they share the floor. The deal still works if you include Payton instead of Oladipo.
OK, this deal might be the craziest of all. But you have to admit, it’s kind of fun. Carmelo Anthony and Harden would instantly be among the toughest one-two punches to defend in the league. And no one would be able to score inside on Howard and Kristaps Porzingis. For what it’s worth, the “Hollinger’s Analysis” in the trade machine says this deal increases the winning percentage for both teams.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.