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Ball is life: On Dwight Howard’s future with the Rockets

Dwight Howard is still pretty good.

He had 36 and 26 Monday against the Clippers, and Forrest is right to call it his most “Superman” game of the season.

But this is just a part of a really good stretch as Howard looks healthy for the first time in a while. He is finishing better at the rim, drawing more fouls, and actually hitting free throws. While he’s no longer at the stage where he can singlehandedly make a defense elite, he is still Houston’s most important defensive player. This is especially so with Pat Beverley missing 9 games (and may be missing more games with that sprained ankle) and Trevor Ariza declining on the defensive end.

And he is actually on the court. He has averaged 37.5 mpg for January and missed just one game.

It’s a blasted shame that he has such a slim chance at making the All-Star game, because Howard’s numbers overall are comparable to his first Rockets season when he did. One could even argue that with Harden’s defensive issues (which Doc Rivers ruthlessly exploited), Howard is the most important player on the Rockets.

But let’s be realistic. Houston is not winning a title this season. Dwight has a player option at the end of the season, but everyone expects him to opt out and grab the long-term money. And with seemingly every team having max room cap space, what are the chances that Houston will still retain Dwight for the long-term?

Or perhaps more scarily, do the Rockets necessarily want to?

Cap space number time

First, let us take a moment to try to dive in and understand what’s going on with the salary cap. Because while “every team can throw out a maximum contract” has been thrown around a lot, it is not true.

The salary cap, thanks to the new TV deal, is expected to rise from its current rate of $70 million to an estimated projection of $89 million in 2016-17 and over $100 million in 2017-18. It could be more, it could be less. But this is a good place to start.

Dwight Howard currently earns $22.4 million from the Rockets. A maximum contract for Howard would start at around $23.5 million and continue to go up for four years. To start off, seven teams will not have that much cap room even with the $89 million cap. Those teams are New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Chicago, San Antonio, Golden State, Cleveland, and the Los Angeles Clippers.

But as options get picked up and players retained, there will be additional teams which cannot sign Dwight. Toronto, for example, could theoretically sign Dwight if it did not retain any players whose contracts expire at the end of this season. But that would mean letting DeMar DeRozan walk. And there is the fact that certain teams would be a bad fit with Dwight (Washington, Memphis), and Dwight would have no interest in joining another bad team with lots of cap space (Philadelphia, Lakers)

So, who does that leave? The three teams which have the most realistic shot of snatching up Dwight are:

The Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat (who will probably lose Hassan Whiteside this offseason), and the Dallas Mavericks. Portland and Atlanta are also potentially interesting.

Dallas is the really worrying one. They have about $26 million in cap room assuming that all their players comes back. They need a center – Zaza Pachulia has been a pleasant surprise for them this season, but he’s not Dwight. They tried to sign him back in 2013. And they’re a better team than the Rockets right now. When you compare the absolutely chaotic and disorganized mess which Houston has been this whole season with Rick Carlisle’s genius, the appeal of Dallas is certainly understandable.

Of course, some of you may be wondering whether teams will offer Dwight a max in the first place. I think so. For all the talk about the huge amount of cap space, there are not that many big free agents out there. Yes, Durant and LeBron are free agents. But after them, the next best player is…Al Horford. Or maybe Mike Conley.

There will be a team that looks to get Durant or LeBron, strikes out, and will then talk themselves into Dwight. It happened with Amar’e Stoudemire back in 2010, and that infamous free agency market had more stars out there and fewer teams with huge cap room. It will be worse in 2016.

Keeping Howard: Yay or nay?

Now that leads to the question of whether Houston should be the team stuck holding the bag on Dwight. I honestly don’t know.

I like Dwight. A lot. I don’t get why he’s hated so much by every other fanbase in the league (well, I get the Lakers, but sorry not sorry). He represented a huge free agent coup for the Rockets, has been nothing but a fantastic guy even as he gets slammed both on the court and by the media day in and day night, and is looking better than he has in a long while.

But I could have said a lot of the above about Chandler Parsons, and Daryl Morey let him go. And it was the right decision. If letting Dwight go is the best path for Houston to win a title, then maybe that’s just how it is.

We’ll see what happens in several months. But understand that as great Dwight has been and could continue to be, this very well could be the last season we see him in a Rockets uniform.

View this discussion from the forum.

About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.

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