Rocket Man

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Unless something unexpectedly dramatic happens before July 10th, when free agents are officially allowed to sign on the dotted line, Dwight Howard will sign a 4-year, $88 million contract with the Houston Rockets.

And mercifully so.

The “Dwightmare”, as many have aptly labeled Howard’s free-agency saga, dragged on for almost two years — at least LeBron’s “Decision” only took one hour. It reached a fitting climax on Friday night, as conflicting reports regarding when Howard would announce his decision (Friday? Sunday? Christmas Day, perhaps?), and last minute changes of heart, created a collective Twitter meltdown.

In truth, it was an example of 21st century, 24-hour news cycle journalism at it’s very worst—with everyone rushing to be the first to break a story in 140 characters, and relying on questionable sources to achieve that goal. Howard and his people probably said nothing, but what we all heard was that he was signing with the Rockets, but later had second thoughts about leaving $30 million on the table, and was meeting with the Lakers for last-minute discussions.

As it turned out Howard was simply flying to L.A. to inform Mitch Kupchak and Lakers brass of his decision to sign with Houston. Apparently Howard had always intended to let the Lakers know of his final decision in person. Though it can’t have made Rockets fan, and those who had already penned 2000 words on his decision to go to Houston, any less anxious.

But here we are. No more Dwight Howard free agency circus — at least for another 3 years. And for all the criticism Howard’s taken over the past 2 years, most of it justified (particularly the way he handled the Orlando situation) ultimately he’s made the right basketball decision by joining the Rockets. He could’ve made more money by staying in Los Angeles and signing for that extra year (although no state taxes in Texas makes the hit on his wallet marginal) but if he was serious about becoming an NBA champion — and his decision would indicate that he is — the Lakers were never going to be the best choice.

That sounds crazy, of course. How could the Lakers, a team that’s won 16 championships, a team that always makes the right moves to stay relevant, not be the best option if Dwight wants to win? In the long-term the Lakers probably will turn things around. They always do. But Dwight is 27 — not ancient, but not exactly young by NBA standards — and he needs to have success now. Kobe Bryant, a guy who Howard was never going to mesh with anyway, will miss most of next season recovering from injury, Pau Gasol has one year left on his contract, and Steve Nash is almost 40 and way past his prime. And I’m almost certain that Chris Duhon, Jodie Meeks, and Metta World Peace aren’t great selling points.

Of course, there were other issues that factored into Howards decision to leave Los Angeles. Kobe’s overbearing presence didn’t help — his sales pitch to Howard didn’t exactly pander to the big man’s ego. In addition, the bridge between Howard and D’Antoni appears to have been burned long ago.

And maybe Shaq is right. Maybe the bright lights of Hollywood were simply too blinding for Howard — the pressure of following in the footsteps of some of the NBA’s greatest big men, and co-existing with one of the greatest players ever, was just too much. That can all be debated, and will be by Lakers fans for a long time — they’re understandably pissed — but the fact remains the Rockets are the logical choice from a basketball standpoint.

Houston has a genuine superstar in James Harden, a guy who, unlike Kobe, looks like fun to play with. Actually, the entire Rockets team looks fun to play with. They have other very talented pieces, in Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, and Patrick Beverley. And unlike the Lakers, have the flexibility to make a few more moves this season and improve further. What’s more, the Rockets are coached by Kevin McHale, one of the greatest low-post players ever — a guy who Howard must feel could help his game immensely.

Last season the Rockets played an up-tempo, offensively explosive style of basketball that helped them reach the playoffs and take the Thunder to 6 games. Their game was centered on Harden’s dribble-penetration and the 3-point shots that it opened up. Throw Howard into the mix next season and the Rockets should be better defensively — even with Omer Asik’s 1.1 BPG they were awful in that respect. What’s more, Houston’s shooters should get even better looks with Howard drawing defenders’ attention down low.

Of course, whether the Rockets are genuine title contenders depends a lot on whether Howard is last season’s Lakers version of himself, or the more familiar Orlando Magic version.

Last season Howard wasn’t the dominant force we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. His points per game and field goal percentage were down, and defensively he didn’t look like the same player that had been a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year. But in his defense (pardon the pun), he was coming off back surgery and was playing on a team where no one seemed willing or able (Kobe included) to play defense. And despite having his worst statistical season since his rookie year, Howard still led the league in rebounds. The potential for greatness remains. One sub-standard season doesn’t negate that.

Assuming that he’s back to somewhere close to 100% health-wise, there’s no reason that Howard can’t be the dominant force he was in Orlando. On the Magic he consistently made a team with some really bad perimeter defenders (note: James Harden, at this stage, is a really bad perimeter defender), into a top-5 defense.

There will still be question marks about his character (those won’t go away for a while), and about his role in any NBA offense. In Los Angeles he complained D’Antoni’s system limited his touches. Apparently he wants to be a back-to-the-basket, low-post scorer, but in Houston they’re going to want to spread the floor with shooters, and put him on the pick-n-roll with Harden. That could be an issue if Howard doesn’t slot into the system well from the start.

But surely Howard realizes that this is his last shot at rehabbing his damaged image, both on and off the court. If he doesn’t make it work in Houston — and given the talent and personalities there, he absolutely should — he won’t make it work anywhere. With a healthy and happy Dwight, Houston will absolutely be a contender next season. The West is stacked, but they’re now amongst the elite.

As for the spurned Lakers, it might be better now to call next season a write-off and, to put it crudely, tank for a high draft pick. 2014’s draft class, according to experts, is going to be one for the ages, and although it’s not in the Lakers’ nature to build through the draft, snagging a top-8 pick might be a really nice building block for the future. And there’s the fact that after next season, other than Nash, the team has no salary on the books. Pair a talented rookie with Kobe, and a notable free agent, maybe a certain LeBron James, and there could be some light at the end of the tunnel.

I wouldn’t feel too sorry for the Lakers. They’ll probably win the lottery and get Andrew Wiggins. Things have a way of working out for them.

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