Latest rumblings highlight Houston's lack of direction and purpose
POSTED: Feb 11, 2016 5:31 PM ET
Dwight Howard will almost certainly opt out of his contract next summer and seek a max deal.
After another listless, desultory effort in a loss at Portland that sent them staggering into the All-Star break with a record below .500 and out of the Western Conference playoff seedings, interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said his team was "broken."
So the response might be to break the Rockets up completely.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports is reporting that general manager Daryl Morey is reaching out around the league about trading center Dwight Howard.
The 30-year-old former eight-time All-Star plans to opt out of his contract this summer to become an unrestricted free agent and will reportedly seek a maximum level new deal. With a team churning in turmoil and torpidity, neither side is willing to commit to the future and so a decision must be made by the Feb. 18 NBA trade deadline.
League executives told Yahoo Sports that Howard's agent, Dan Fegan, and the Rockets are working together on potential destinations for Howard, an eight-time All-Star who turned 30 in December.
But in a statement to ESPN on Thursday, Fegan said: "I'm not privy to what the Rockets are doing or not doing with respect to Dwight Howard. What I can say, with 100 percent certainty, is that Dwight has not and has never asked the Rockets for a trade. And neither have I."
This all comes just 8 1/2 months after the Rockets used a run to the Western Conference finals to proclaim themselves as true championship contenders in 2016 and barely three months following coach Kevin McHale's firing due to a 4-7 start to the season.
It's like a marriage. You might need time away to get back right. I've seen worse.
– Rockets' Jason Terry on team's chemistry
The Rockets, Morey said then, play to win.
Just not every night and not, on most, nights for all four quarters. Things had gotten so bad that after a pair of recent games — a win at lowly Phoenix and a home thumping by Portland — when they fell behind big with lackadaisical starts, Bickerstaff sang his team's praises for not leaving the arena at halftime. "Scrappiness," he called it.
But after Wednesday in Portland, it became clear that the only thing the Rockets are scrapping is the bottom of their barrel of credibility.
To trade Howard now would mean Morey has to give up on his fantasy pairing of the big man he chased for years with All-Star guard James Harden. It also would mean changing his pitch to headline free agent Kevin Durant in July. The plan had been to offer K.D. a chance to complete a Big Three with Howard and Harden that would vault the Rockets right into the elite contenders, then go back afterward and re-sign Howard to a new deal. Without Howard in the middle, it's hard to see how a chance to reunite with Harden would be anymore appealing to Durant than staying in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook.
"Where we're at shifts how much you focus on now versus future," Morey told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "Doesn't make you exclusively look at one versus the other."
For the Rockets to unload Howard means they would have to take back $17 million in salaries and find a partner willing to embrace the knowledge that the big man will most certainly opt to become a free agent in 4 1/2 months.
Assuming that could be done, it still doesn't solve the other big problem — the Rockets' lack of direction and purpose.
Firing McHale was the quick and easy move back in November for an organization built on analytics that weren't adding up to enough wins in the short term. But the truth is the bad defense and sloppy offense that the Rockets brought into the season was more a reflection on the players.
For three seasons with Harden and Howard, the Rockets have lacked leadership on the court and are not seen by opponents as a team that works hard. Both want the perks and trappings of being the big dog pulling the wagon, but neither will do the real work. Howard smiles and says everybody should keep positive thoughts. Harden shrugs his head and goes back to seeking his next 40-point game.
Howard and Harden have been an oil-and-water mix since they came together for the 2012-13 season. It was only days after Damian Lillard's 3-point dagger eliminated them in the first round of their first playoff series together when both were sending out messages and maneuvering to get the other one traded.
Harden is a difficult teammate to play with, dominating the ball and so much of every shot clock and Howard too often felt ignored. The solution was supposed to be the addition of Ty Lawson at point guard this season to take the ball out of Harden's hands. But that combination never worked from the start and steadily the Rockets have come unraveled.
It also didn't help that Harden says a sprained ankle over the summer prevented him from reporting to training camp in shape. Then when McHale was sliding toward the cliff, Harden all but nudged him over the edge with his uninspired play.
"If you look at it, the chemistry is not quite where you would like it, and hopefully the break can be what we need to get away from each other," veteran reserve guard Jason Terry said after the bottom fell out in Portland. "It's like a marriage. You might need time away to get back right. I've seen worse.
"Genuinely do we like to play with each other? That's as simple as I can get it; X's and O's take care of itself. We're talking about basketball, and if you can't get five guys on the court that can function as a unit you're not going to have much success."
That's often when one of them has to go.
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