Kobe's injury raises big questions about Howard's future

USA TODAY Sports

With Kobe Bryant's future in question, Houston could be the top destination to land the superstar center in free agency

Whether you're a Lakers fan, a die-hard NBA fan or a fan of another team who just flat out loathes the man, there are few NBA connoisseurs who would have wished for Kobe Bryant's career to end the way it may have on Friday night.

However, knowing Kobe's obsessive workout routines and determination to prove his detractors wrong, don't bet on this being the end of the inevitable Hall-of-Famer's career. He could come back as good as he has played this year, looking like the Kobe of 10 years ago, or he might be a shell of himself who only plays another season or two as he tries to surpass Kareem's all-time point total and reach other historic NBA milestones.

At this point, it's far too early to tell.

What we know for sure is the injury will have an effect on the entire league, just as the Rose injury has and major injuries before that. At the bare minimum, Kobe will probably not be back to 100 percent until early next season as Achilles' rehab takes several months to recover from . Not only will this injury damage the Lakers' playoff chances for this season, but next season now could be in jeopardy as well.

So, what about Houston?

So (this being a Rockets blog), how does this affect your Houston Rockets, you ask?

First off, it means the Lakers are not likely to be battling the Rockets for a playoff bid next year. Given their current cap situation, whether they re-sign Dwight Howard or not, they will be completely handcuffed when it comes to free agency because of Kobe, Pau and Nash's salaries, able to only utilize the MLE and add veterans to put band-aids over their fatal wounds.

But the real reason you should pay attention to this injury is the future of Dwight Howard's career. The Rockets have tried to attain the Lakers' center multiple times in the past and will almost certainly attempt to make a run at him this summer. After Kobe's injury, however, Houston may have leapfrogged the Lakers on Howard's list.

If there's one thing we have learned from Dwight Howard, it is that he is incredibly fickle and changes his mind at the drop of a hat. The Lakers can provide the sex appeal of Los Angeles, a max contract at five years thanks to his Bird Rights and the chance to play for one of the most storied franchise in the history of sports.

But with Kobe possibly gone for a good chunk of next season and no way to know for sure what kind of player a 35-year-old Kobe Bryant coming off an Achilles tear could be, Howard also won't be able to compete for a title next season. The Lakers will have a boatload of cap room in 2015 to entice free agents, but there's no certainty in that. Howard, a 27-year-old center who has been in the league eight years, already shows signs of back problems. This contract could be the last one he gets in his prime.

Houston a better fit than LA

With Houston, Howard does not get certainty of a ring, but no location can provide that. What this city can offer (aside from a booming economy, no state income tax and some incredible barbecue) is a dynamic young core of players with which he could thrive. James Harden (23) is the unselfish superstar who would elevate Howard's game, while Jeremy Lin (24) and Chandler Parsons (24) are incredible role players with high upside. All three are likely locked in for at least the next two seasons. Houston also has a talented young group of power forwards with upside in Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, Greg Smith and Thomas Robinson who are all 22 or younger.

Of course there's the little question of what Houston would do with Omer Asik should they deal for Howard, but Howard probably won't concern himself with that and neither will the Rockets until he gets close to donning Rockets red.

The Rockets won't be able to offer Dwight a five-year max contract without a sign and trade, but if Daryl Morey allows Carlos Delfino and some other non-guaranteed contracts to walk, the Rockets should have at least $17 million-$18 million to work with in the off-season. Morey could easily flick his magic wand and free up enough room to sign Dwight at a four-year max deal by swapping Thomas Robinson or another combination of young guaranteed players for draft picks.

Other teams such as Dallas and Atlanta will be able to make attractive offers to Howard, but neither team is as built for the future or tailor made to Dwight's strengths like the Rockets. If he doesn't re-sign to the purple and gold, Houston should be the clear favorite.

Asik versus Howard

Whether Houston should pursue Dwight in the first place is another question entirely. As much as Rockets fans (myself included) have fallen in love with Asik this season, Friday night's game was a perfect example as to the major differences between the Turk and a player of Howard's caliber. At one point in the second half, Asik missed an easy layup in a crowd of Grizzlies jerseys and then failed to convert on two follow-up attempts.

For all his strengths defensively and unselfish play, Asik squanders the easy opportunities offensively far too often which Howard would not.

Is Houston necessarily a better team with Howard than Asik? Probably so. When Howard is motivated, he is arguably the most dominating low post player in the NBA. Asik's 10.2 points per game and relatively efficient 56 percent TS% have been unsuspected, welcome additions to Houston this season, but his offensive game and a 16.4 percent USG% are indicative of a role player who will never match Howard's dominance. Even in what many consider an off year, Dwight has averaged 17 and 12 with a 58 percent TS% and a 22 percent USG%.

So while all NBA fans mourn what could be the end of one storied career in Los Angeles, consider it could point to the beginning of another career here in Houston. It's still nowhere near a certainty, but with Dwight Howard, nothing ever is.

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