The smell of change is in the air... or it could be the hot stench of the rotting corpse of this Houston Rockets team, but regardless of where the funk is emanating from, one thing is for certain: this version of the Rockets is dead, finished, done-zo. And it leaves behind almost as much disappointment and almost as many what-ifs as the McGrady-Yao version from last decade.
How we got here
It was announced yesterday that the Rockets will begin pursuing a trade for superstar center Dwight Howard, with the decision coming immediately following a meeting between management and the team's two most important and best-paid players, Howard and James Harden.
It's anyone's guess what was actually said in that meeting, though Howard and his agent Dan Fegan are both adamant that Howard hasn't requested to be moved, with Fegan telling ESPN's Calvin Watkins:
"I'm not privy to what the Rockets are doing or are not doing with respect to Dwight Howard. What I can say, with 100 percent certainty, is that has not and has never asked the Rockets for a trade, and neither have I."
And Howard following up with:
"Dan's statement is true. I have not asked the Rockets to trade me, nor have I talked about trade rights. I want to win. I want this situation to work. I chose this team. And I'm not running because we've been faced with adversity."
Which leaves either the organization telling Howard they are not prepared to offer him a max extension in light of this season's failures, Howard vowing to finish out the season but now being understandably more reluctant to do a re-sign, or some combination of Howard and/or Harden laying out for management why the two can no longer be successful together.
After all, coach J.B. Bickerstaff did publicly refer to his squad as "broken", and it's highly probable both of the Rockets' stars feel the same way. But any way you slice it, this Houston team will likely look very different next year.
So what are the Rockets' options in moving Howard? The trade market for an aging center with no jump shot, a bad back and knees, and a $22.9 million expiring contract isn't expected to be exactly robust. The expanded salary cap next year means that almost everyone will have a glut of money. Those expirings that teams used to salivate over aren't simply worth as much this year. Basic supply and demand.
The trade market for Dwight
One of the more popular pieces of speculation being floated out there right now has the Rockets dealing with the Boston Celtics for some combination of David Lee, Jonas Jerebko or Marcus Smart, along with two of the four (yes four!) first round draft picks the Celtics hold for 2016.
The Rockets had been talking with the Celtics earlier this season, according to Yahoo's Chris Mannix, so a re-engagement of those discussions is an easy leap to make. The only problem is, Boston just hasn't been willing to give up the necessary pieces, with a league source telling Mannix just last week:
"Howard won't be going to Boston... and the reason is simple. The Celtics like Howard and believe he can be a cornerstone player, but are unwilling to part with any significant assets — including Brooklyn's coveted first round pick — to get him. Boston is aggressively pursuing deals and is motivated to add a frontcourt player to its promising young roster, but Howard won't be one of them."
It is possible the Rockets could lower their price, depending on how desperate the team is to move on from Howard, but it's highly unlikely that they move him unless there's at least one future pick involved.
Chicago or Charlotte could be potential partners and likely have the ammo to get a trade done, according to Bobby Marks of Yahoo's The Vertical, with the Bulls potentially offering up a package of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and a first round pick in exchange for Howard. Though I'm not sure if trading one 30-year-old center on the downside of his career for two 30-year-old centers on the downsides of their careers is worth the first rounder.
A potential Charlotte package would include Al Jefferson (another 30+ center aging before our eyes, notice a theme here?), Marvin Williams, and a protected first-round pick. This deal sounds a bit better for Houston, if only because of the protected pick, but there's really not a ton of other available options. Although Marvin Williams is one of Zach Lowe's Luke Walton All-Stars (that's a good thing).
There's potentially the Magic, who are supposed to be interested in moving Victor Oladipo, and the Atlanta Hawks, who are looking to move on from Al Horford and Jeff Teague. But it's highly doubtful Howard goes back to Orlando.
And while the Teague and Horford deal is intriguing (especially to Rockets fans) due to the close salary match (there would like have to be another minor piece or two involved), the Hawks are likely looking to get younger and more athletic by moving two core pieces. That's just not Howard anymore.
The number of teams in need of a true center is at an extreme low, and the likely massive price tag attached to Howard — both by the Rockets in their trade demands and the demands by Dwight himself with his upcoming contract negotiations — is likely scaring off the ones who are in need.
What happens next
One Eastern Conference executive told Yahoo's Mannix in regards to Howard's expected asking price in the summer, "Three years, $60 million. I'm not going any higher than that," with another saying, "I don't know that I'd make that serious an offer. That back is always going to scare me."
Most teams will be content to let this simply play out past the trade deadline and take their run at Howard in free agency in the offseason with the expectation that the market will set the price. Right now, it does seem very possible, maybe even likely, that the Rockets are stuck with Dwight until the season's end.
James Harden told Slam Magazine just earlier today that he doesn't think the Rockets make any major trades before the deadline.
If that's the case, the Rockets are almost certain to let Howard walk in the summer, and it appears the directions of the franchise and one if its top players are, one way or another, destined for separate paths. Though it would be a shame to let such a name walk out the door without any compensation, especially with the organization looking at wholesale changes around James Harden moving forward.
Howard hasn't been the only problem in this year in Houston (and in fact, it could be argued he's been one of the few guys to give an every-night effort on both ends of the floor), and the team could very well also look to unload any number of it's current roster members.
Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Jason Terry, Marcus Thornton, Trevor Ariza, Ty Lawson and Corey Brewer all have cloudy futures in Houston, with the Rockets looking to remake the team construct and all of those players underperforming this year against expectations. Moving on from Howard is likely only just the start in building a better group of shooters and securing some perimeter defenders around Harden.
For as much a beating as Dwight usually takes in the national conversation, there have been much bigger problems in Houston this year than anything going on with Howard. When healthy, he's given maximum effort, and this year especially, his readiness and professionalism were appreciated by his home fans perhaps more than ever.
However this newest saga in the journey of Dwight Howard's career ends up, it's the right the decision for both parties. When something is "broken", there's only two things one can do: fix it, or replace it. The Rockets have been trying to fix it all season, to no avail. Now is the time to replace it. Howard is just the first piece.