Assessing the Dwight Howard Era (and Four Other NBA Free Agency Observations)

This was a much happier day in Houston for Dwight Howard, his arrival in 2013.
This was a much happier day in Houston for Dwight Howard, his arrival in 2013.
Photo by Jeff Balke

In terms of pacing, sequence and the overall agenda, the NFL and NBA offseasons are two completely different animals. The NFL's offseason is a chaotic free agency period that serves as a tandem car to the months-long buildup to the NFL draft. The overall pace is relatively slow, almost glacial, at times. 

The NBA's offseason is a relative hiccup, a three-week firehose of transactions — trades, free agency and the draft — and a sea of dollars, hundreds of millions, being plunked down on the players who will carry franchises forward into next season and beyond. 

The common trait? Both are supremely compelling and have become, in many respects, the second most popular "season" within their respective products, behind only the postseason. For the NBA, the 2016 offseason will be remembered for the always silly dollar amounts becoming out and out ludicrous (Timofey Mozgov for $16 million per year, anybody?).

Mike Conley now has generational, nine-figure wealth coming his way the next five years. So does Bradley Beal. Chandler Parsons almost does. He only got $94 million. Those three players have never sniffed an All-Star Game! The list goes on and on. The money is there, though, so we shall not begrudge. Instead, let's put out of our minds that Kent Bazemore can now purchase a small island if he wants to, and see what this all means to the on-court product around the league.

Here are five top-of-mind observations from the happenings of the past week or so....

1. The Golden State Warriors are the home for wayward ring chasers.
When you clog your salary cap with three max players and an MVP who is making "only" $12 million next season, part of the strategy has to include selling aging veteran players on an opportunity to chase rings while making the minimum salary (or close to it) on short-term, non-cap-clogging deals to fill your bench, especially when you consider that Durant is going to opt out and try to re-up for more next season, and Curry is up for a max deal of his own. Well, the Warriors are executing this part (and every part, really) of their offseason plan with much success, inking veteran center Zaza Pachulia to a one-year, $2.9 million deal to likely start at center and signing forward David West, who did this same thing last season with the Spurs and seems so desperate for a ring that I called him a "trophy ho" on my radio show (I felt bad about that), to a veteran's minimum deal of one year, $1.55 million. On top of that, Ray Allen, who's been retired for two years, reportedly had his people reach out to the Warriors to see if they needed another outside shooter, which is like asking Derek Jeter if he needs another Victoria's Secret model. Allen has rings already — wake me up when Karl Malone is lobbing phone calls to the Dubs.

2. Now the focus shifts to Cleveland...what do the Cavaliers do?
Because let's face it, this is now an arms race between the top two teams, like Jon Snow and Ramsey Bolton and all roads leading to the "Battle of the Bastards." The Cavaliers had an epic comeback from down 3-1 that exposed some flaws in what had previously looked like a pretty flawless bunch. The Warriors responded by signing the second-best player in basketball to team with the third-best player and two other top 20 players. So now what does LeBron do? (Well, hopefully, he's able to assemble a better army than Jon Snow, who needed help from Littlefinger, but I digress...) It appears there's a puncher's chance that Dwyane Wade could wind up with the Cavaliers, which would be amazing on so many levels. The Heat have completely  butchered the contract negotiations with their franchise icon, and now Wade's  teaming up with LeBron seems to be in play. Dan Le Batard has an outstanding piece on this in the Miami Herald in which he shows two paths for Wade to Cleveland — either with James taking a pay cut and opening up cap space to sign Wade, or with Wade signing a deal in Denver (or some other Shitbird Express team) and getting traded to Cleveland in December.  As of late last night, it appears Wade is going to sign a deal in Chicago, so we now wait....such drama! (Dwayne Wade could be Littlefinger!!!)

(UPDATE: As of Thursday morning, it is confirmed — Dwyane Wade will be signing a two-year, $47.5 million deal with his hometown Chicago Bulls. This feels a little less like the short-term parking space that Denver or Milwaukee would have been as a facilitator to get Wade to Cleveland in a trade come December. This feels more like a homecoming, albeit an awkward fit of a homecoming with Jimmy Butler playing the same position as Wade, and at a higher level. Actually, it's not the worst idea for Cleveland to ask about Butler's availability, now that I think about it. Butler's relationship with the Bulls seems to vacillate more than a teenager's status on Facebook. It is, without a doubt, "complicated.") 

3. In an absurd contractual market, which contracts were the most absurd? 
Never has there been a free agent market in any sport where we've had to divorce ourselves from the enormity of the numbers and how ridiculously overpaid people who are bad at their job are going to be. (And considering we live in a world where Major League Baseball free agency exists, that's saying something.) The hardest contracts to pull off ignoring their ludicrousness, for me personally, were these:

* TIMOFEY MOZGOV, Lakers (four years, $64 million): This was the opening salvo of free agency, a deal that was agreed to before the first hour of free agency had even ended on Thursday night, probably because Mozgov didn't want the Buss family to sober up and realize that they just offered Timofey Mozgov $64 million over four years.

* MATTHEW DELLAVEDOVA, Bucks (four years, $38.4 million): Ah, another player who couldn't get off the bench in the NBA Finals cashes in! I'm sure that this will all go very smoothly with Jabari Parker, Michael Carter-Williams and Giannis the Greek Freak making a combined $11.5 million and Delly making $9.6 million all being in the same locker room. What could go wrong?

* AUSTIN RIVERS, Clippers (three years, $35 million): Good to have pops as the general manager! I had more than a few people explain to me how good Rivers was off the bench for the Clippers last season. Whatever. To me, he will always be the dude who breaks his own ankles on a regular basis.

* JON LEUER, Pistons (four years, $42 million) and E'TWAUN MOORE, Pelicans (four years, $34 million): 
These guys were both cut by the Rockets in the same week back in July 2012. Today, they are making a combined $19 million per year! What a country!

4. Assessing the Dwight Howard Era
We will begin any assessment of the Dwight Howard era in Houston by asking for a show of hands of any Rockets fans who thought the signing was a bad idea — (looks around room...sees no hands...continues) — okay, good.

So we can all agree that any criticism of the move is pure hindsight and not "I told ya so!" (If there is anyone who can dig up 2013 pieces denouncing the signing, please email them to me.) On a purely "results-oriented" basis, for a franchise that is very public about NBA titles being the ultimate measurement, there's no other way for the Rockets to assess the Howard era than as an overall failure. However, it is possible to do two things — evaluate what could have been done differently and find any silver linings that came from the three years Dwight was with the team.

On the former, I would say there are two things the team could have done better. First, whether it's Dwight's issues with clarity or the team selling him on one vision and asking for another (only the parties involved truly know), there obviously needed to be a better vetting process with what Dwight was and wasn't willing to become as a player for the Rockets. The Rockets needed a souped-up version of what Hassan Whiteside became, and Howard wanted to be Olajuwon 2.0. That became a problem, and one that lies more at Dwight's feet than at the team's. Anyone with a working set of eyes knows what Howard is at this point in his career. Reportedly, he sold Atlanta on his embracing the exact same role he eschewed from the Rockets. Color me skeptical that Dwight is now getting it. 

Second, I think the construct around Howard and especially around James Harden kind of crumbled this season. The Rockets are an analytical team whose philosophy has been to rely heavily on the "math" of three pointers versus two pointers, yet other than Harden, they don't have any great shooters. Yes, they have guys capable of knocking down threes, but no snipers who can carry you on a given night with their shooting. And as we saw in the playoffs, they had plenty of guys who could shoot you OUT OF a game. If nothing else, Ryan Anderson and Harden together should be fun to watch this season. 

If there's a silver lining in the Dwight aftermath, I'd say that the team's trip to the Western Conference Finals will certainly be something they lean on when selling the performance of the franchise overall during the past decade, the same way they do the overall won-loss record of the Leslie Alexander Era. Those numbers and achievements are certainly relevant, but frustrating consolation for fans seeking the ultimate glory. Also, the team has gained some clarity on how to optimally construct this team if you're going to build around James Harden, which they clearly intend to do. Certain players are ideal fits around him; some are clunky fits. If a player is a clunky fit, move on, star power be damned. 

5. A top-heavy league got even more top-heavy, but can we call these odds "optimism" for the Rockets?
So now here are the latest odds, courtesy of Bovada.lv, for the NBA title chase:

Golden State Warriors 5/7
Cleveland Cavaliers 7/2
San Antonio Spurs 8/1
Boston Celtics 22/1
Los Angeles Clippers 22/1
Toronto Raptors 33/1
Oklahoma City Thunder 35/1
Miami Heat 40/1
Atlanta Hawks 50/1
New York Knicks 50/1
Indiana Pacers 60/1
Houston Rockets 66/1
Minnesota Timberwolves 66/1
Memphis Grizzlies 75/1
Chicago Bulls 80/1
Detroit Pistons 80/1
New Orleans Pelicans 80/1
Dallas Mavericks 100/1
Milwaukee Bucks 100/1
Portland Trailblazers 100/1
Utah Jazz 100/1
Washington Wizards 100/1
Charlotte Hornets 125/1
Los Angeles Lakers 150/1
Denver Nuggets 200/1
Orlando Magic 200/1
Sacramento Kings 250/1
Brooklyn Nets 350/1
Philadelphia 76ers 350/1
Phoenix Suns 350/1

That's a massive chasm between the top three teams and the next level, from 8/1 all the way down to 22/1, but for anybody saying that the league's power being consolidated in the top three teams is a bad thing, just know that the biggest boom periods for the league were fueled by top-heavy eras — the mid-'80s with Magic and Bird, the early '90s with Michael winning six titles, and the LeBron post-Decision Era. As for the Rockets, I think they should actually feel pretty good about where the oddsmakers see them, tied as the fifth best odds on the board for a Western Conference team (tied with frisky Minnesota!). For a team that scrounged to get to the eight seed, the market still sees them somewhat favorably. 

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.    


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