December 17, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) during a stoppage in play against Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
As expected, Dwight Howard informed the Rockets that he would be declining his player option in order to become a free agent on July 1st.
Dwight Howard has officially opted out of the final year of his contract with the Houston Rockets. The big man is coming off a rough individual season, riddled with injuries as well as chemistry issues. Rumors circulated throughout the year that he did not like taking a backseat to James Harden and were validated by D12 averaging the fewest points per game (13.7) since his rookie year despite shooting 62% from the field.
The Vertical Sources: Houston Rockets star Dwight Howard has declined his $23.2 million player option for 2016-'17, enters free agency.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 21, 2016
It’s unsure as to whether Dwight’s decision is due to his rumored negative relationship with Harden, because the Rockets hired Mike D’Antoni as head coach, or simply because he thinks he can earn more money elsewhere than in Houston.
No matter why the decision was made, Dwight’s decision to opt out will have several effects on the Rockets as the offseason wears on.
Next: 1. More money to blow
Dec 12, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) dunks the ball during the second quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Howard opting out will more than double the cap space for the Rockets to spend in free agency.
Howard would have been owed more than $23 million had he decided to opt into the final year of his contract. Now that he’ll be off the payroll, the Rockets will have upwards of $45 million to throw at whatever free agent they choose to target. With the salary cap set to increase to $94 million, that could allow the Rockets to offer max contracts to two different players if Daryl Morey plays his cards correctly.
With Howard off the books it gives Rockets $45 million in cap space.
— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) June 21, 2016
Though Kevin Durant is reportedly not interested in reuniting with Harden, there are plenty of other solid players in the market this summer who could work out well with the Rockets. Al Horford is among the few players who have been linked to Houston in rumors over the past month or so. The big man would be a good replacement for Howard at center but would also fit well starting at power forward next to the up-and-coming Clint Capela.
Next: 2. Shortage of centers
Nov 20, 2015; Memphis, TN, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) and Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) talk during the second quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Howard and Capela were the only centers on the roster going into the summer, so Dwight opting out leaves the Rockets with just one true big man.
An argument could be made that there isn’t any good reason to have more than one center on an NBA roster anymore with the way the league has changed, especially for the Rockets considering the coaching style of Mike D’Antoni.
However, the lack of rim protection provided by Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas (the other two players who could suit up at center in certain situations) creates a need for players whose play styles are that of a traditional defensive big man.
Granted, there are several big names at the center position in the free agency market (Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, and Andre Drummond for example), but the Rockets haven’t exactly done a great job at making Houston look like an appealing destination. If the front office is unable to strike up a deal with a quality center come July, then the young Capela better prepare himself to play double the minutes this year than he did in the 2015-2016 season.
Next: 3. Limited scoring threats
Nov 17, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) dunks the ball as guard James Harden and Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) and guard Tony Allen (9) look on during the second half at FedExForum. Memphis defeated Houston 119-93. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Without Dwight, the Rockets will have a significant hole to fill in the scoring department.
James Harden is obviously the best player on the Rockets. There’s no denying it. He was in the top ten in assists per game last season and was second in points per game. He led the league in minutes and was by far the most impactful player on the court in the large majority of his games.
However, James can’t do it all. That point is proven by the Rockets’ dismal 41-41 record despite him posting legendary numbers. Dwight Howard was the leader for the Rockets in rebounds this past season and, despite posting averages lower than his career norms, was second on the team in points per game. He shot an efficient 62% from the field as well, largely due to the fact that he dunked a ridiculous 176 times this season.
In addition to his ability to play the roll man and finish above the rim, Howard has aided Harden with his scoring by demanding double teams. One of the reasons Harden has been able to get his isolation plays so often the past few seasons is because defenses have had to constantly monitor Howard. In the instances when they’ve forgotten to do so, they’ve often been punished by a Harden-to-Howard alley-oop.
The Rockets will have plenty of money to throw at a free agent who can put the ball in the basket, but not many players can score as efficiently as Howard while freeing up Harden for his bearded heroics.
Next: 4. Freedom for the Beard
Nov 2, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) celebrates against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the third quarter at Toyota Center. Rocket won 110 to 105. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
With Dwight no longer there to demand touches, Harden could be free to play exactly how he wants.
For better or worse, Harden will probably be able hold onto the ball as much as he wants if Howard doesn’t resign with Houston. Other than Dwight, no players on the Rockets are known for wanting the ball in their hands. Patrick Beverley is known for his defense, as is Trevor Ariza and Capela. Players like D-Mo and Corey Brewer may like to have the ball more often, but don’t really have the stature to demand touches.
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The Beard led the NBA in isolation points scored in 2015-2016, and it wasn’t even close. He scored 524 points on isolation plays this past year and second place Carmelo Anthony only scored 374. While many are quick to point out that Harden ran more isolation plays than anybody else (which is true: Harden ran ISOs 24.2% of the time compared to Carmelo’s 23.7%), it’s worth noting that he was not even in the top fifty in turnover frequency on isolation plays. There’s no denying that Harden likes to hog the ball, but at least he does it efficiently.
The Rockets will almost assuredly try to sign a player who can act as a secondary playmaker in order to relieve Harden of some of the ball handling pressure. However, signing a player who would not be willing to allow Harden to run the offense would only create the same problems that existed between him and Howard.
Howard opting to enter free agency most definitely creates problems for Houston, but they are not irreparable. If the front office can use the money that would have been owed to D12 and put it towards a solid replacement, and if D’Antoni can integrate his system with no major issues, and if Harden puts up similar numbers to the past two seasons, and if the team as a whole shows improvement on defense, then the Houston Rockets can be successful, Dwight or no Dwight.
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