Mired in the throws of a disappointing season rumors are swirling about the future of the Houston Rockets and Dwight Howard. There's only one old but new again solution: Dwight Howard needs to opt in to the final year of his contract.
It's the only solution that preserves Houston's short and long-term salary cap flexibility, gives a clear signal to potential free agents Houston is a buyer and not a seller and
What we know:
- Howard has a player option for next season. 10+ years of NBA service allow a maximum contract to consume 35% of a team's salary cap.
- The team has said they are expecting Howard to opt out.
- The team has said they have no plans to trade Howard.
Why Dwight Opts Out
Howard signed a four year $88 million contract with the Houston Rockets as a free agent with an early termination clause giving him a player option on the final year. Signals have already surfaced that Howard intends to opt out of the contract, forgoing $23,282,457 for the 2016 - 2017 season.
The expected move is a financial one. By opting out the big man would make himself eligible for a maximum contract of $170 million over five years with the Rockets. Should he make a move away from Houston he could command a four year $128 million salary.
Dwight's Last Opt In Saga
Howard unsuccessfully pushed back on the thought of opting out when it surfaced in December:
"I chose to go to Houston [via free agency in the summer of 2013], so why would I just say, 'I'm not happy' and leave... And I want to make this thing work here. Obviously we haven't been playing great basketball, and personally for myself my numbers don't seem like I've been playing great, but the only thing on my mind is trying to grow as a man and grow as a teammate and a leader. All the BS that's around, sometimes it is frustrating to hear it, because I know who I am as a man and I know what I'm trying to do for this city." Dwight Howard, 12/16/2015
Howard is saying the right thing. He wants to stay and win a title, that's why he came to Houston to begin with. The team backing Howard and the Houston Rockets know the reality. Dwight is an aging big man with a brand bigger than his play* and a chance to land one last maximum contract worth more than ever before thanks to the rising salary cap which allows a maximum contract to command more money, as it's pegged to the percentage of the total salary cap.
*It needs to be said that Dwight Howard has worked harder than anyone else on the Rockets team on the court this season. There's a legitimate argument to be had about his total worth, but his loyalty to the Rockets this season seems unquestionable in my opinion.
Dwight Howard opted in to his Orlando Magic contract in the great Dwightmare of 2012. On Wednesday March 15, 2012, Howard declared he was going to opt in to his contract with the Magic. This cancelled a pending trade with the Nets with the trade deadline a mere 24 hours away.
At the time Orlando was in better condition than Houston with a 28 - 16 record, but didn't look like world beaters with the Miami Heat on a clear path for a title.
The entire process was described by JJ Redick in his recent podcast with Woj. Redick offered the initial firsthand retelling of the process I can recall seeing.
The Magic were playing the San Antonio Spurs two days before the trade deadline. Howard was late for the team bus to the game while on a conference call with Magic executives attempting to convince him to opt in to his contract for the following season. Redick says Howard got on the bus, played the game and then this scene played out:
"We play the game. We get on the bus. And we get on the plane. And then, I was kinda in the back of the player's section listening to music. And all of a sudden I realize guys are kinda goofing around. And they start taking pictures. And it's like, this is our last time together. We're going to take pictures. So they start taking photos of each other. I think somebody had posted a photo on Twitter. And then like, after five minutes, Dwight's just like 'You know I love you guys. I'm coming back.' And really that was it. That was it. There was no like heart-to-heart. He was just having a good time on the plane and decided to come back."JJ Redick on The Vertical Podcast
Why Dwight Should Opt In
If Dwight Howard wants to get paid and play for a title contender opting in accomplishes that goal. While it only takes one team to land a max contract, it seems unlikely the league's best teams are going to offer up four years and $128 million to a 30-year-old with 30,000 minutes on a fragile back and knees. This offer seems more likely to come from a desperate Sacramento, New Orleans or even Orlando over an Oklahoma City or Golden State.
With Daryl Morey's history of budgetary management and willingness to cast aside players it seems unlikely Houston will be the one to offer up over $100 million guaranteed to Howard's uncertain future.
Houston continues to contend with on-court trouble and lagging results, but the pieces to contend remain. The front office desire to win now marches on. And fans can't help but think of what this team would look like with Chris Bosh or Kevin Durant or Kevin Love.
There's a contract coming Howard's way, but it seems unlikely his goal of getting a four year maximum contract offer and being on a title contender will be realistic. Opting in gives Dwight the best of both worlds.
Opting in sends a message to potential free agents, a title can still be fought for in Houston and it's being proven by making an immediate sacrifice. It still keeps Howard handsomely paid at $23 million and recognizes the reality that a new maximum contract and NBA title are likely not synonymous.