After the Houston Rockets’ early elimination from the NBA Playoffs last week, the future of veteran center Dwight Howard became the key focus. After three mostly disappointing seasons in Houston, Howard is likely to opt-out of his deal and became a free agent this summer.
After Houston was blown out by the Golden State Warriors in game five, Howard was asked about his future with the team. However, the 30-year-old chose to remain silent, instead giving a faint answer about the team needing to improve for the next campaign.
“It didn’t go the way we wanted to go,” Howard said to ESPN. “We had a lot of ups and downs and I’m sure all of us are going to take some time to reflect on what we can do to better ourselves.”
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Is there really going to be an “ourselves?” Hours after the Rockets were eliminated, ESPN’s Calvin Watkins reported that the Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trailblazers, and Charlotte Hornets are the favourites to land Howard – if he opts out.
All of those possible destinations make sense in their own way. The Bucks were reportedly in pursuit of Howard at this year's trade deadline but a deal never came together. The Hornets and Trailblazers both lack an intimidating presence in the post that can both score and grab rebounds. As for the Magic, it’s well known that Howard was comfortable during his eight-year run in Orlando.
Mark Jones of ESPN recently tweeted that Howard’s preferred destination in free agency would be a reunion with the Magic.
It also makes sense for Howard to opt out because he all but guarantees himself a hefty contract. A change of scenery could also be of help. Yet, the biggest concern is that Howard’s on-court abilities have regressed significantly from his earlier days.
Kevin McHale, the Rockets’ former head coach, gave his take on why Howard’s numbers steadily dropped during his run in Houston.
“Throw it down to him occasionally but if you throw it down to him on a steady diet the poor guy just can’t get down low and move anymore," McHale said during a late April appearance on SiriusXM NBA Radio Friday with Rick Mahorn and Jonathan Hood (via NBC Sports).
“I think that back bothered him, his hips are tight from that and he just wasn’t the same player. He’s worked hard on it. The kid does work hard on his physical conditioning and trying to get healthy and stuff. But he is not what he used to be down there in the low post. And I think the knee surgery, too.”
Last season, Howard averaged 13.7 points – the lowest total since his rookie campaign in 2004-05. His rebounds (11.8) and field goal percentage (.620) were in line with his career averages. But it was clear that the eight-time All-Star just wasn’t playing with the same mobility.
The Rockets were also hesitant to trust Howard with the ball. A lot of controversies were made of the “big fella” not receiving as many touches as his scoring suffered. Yet, Howard continued with a parade of team-oriented answers, not verbalising his frustration.
“As a competitor, I’m going to get the job done, no matter what it takes,” Howard said to ESPN after the Rockets’ game one loss. “If I get the ball, if I don’t get the ball, if I score two points or I score 30 points. I got to go out there and play as hard as I can as long as I’m on the floor, that’s all that really matters.”
Much like his one-year run with the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard’s propensity to draw criticism for his desire to win and overall attitude followed him to Houston. In fact, his former teammate Kobe Bryant was quoted as saying that he didn’t appreciate his run with Shaquille O’Neal until he played with Howard.
With that kind of negativity following Howard around, it’s important for him to ingratiate himself into a winning culture. Teaming with Damian Lillard in Portland, Kemba Walker in New Orleans, or Jabari Parker in Milwaukee could be a step in the right direction. But, a return to where it all started can help solidify Howard as an all-time great.
The Magic roster is one of the youngest in the league; topping at sixth with an average age 24.7 last season. The roster includes some talented future All-Stars, including Aaron Gordon, Viktor Oladipo, and Shabazz Napier.
With Howard in the fold, the Magic go from young upstarts to legitimate Eastern Conference contenders. Perhaps it’s time for Superman to enter the phone booth and emerge with a new team’s uniform for next season.