However, I think most everyone associated with and backing the Rockets assumed that the opt-out would be a formality to allow him to sign a long-term deal to finish his career as a Rocket, and honestly, a year ago, after a run to the Western Conference Finals, all of that still seemed to be in play. But the storybook ending was not to be. As first reported by Shams Charania of The Vertical, Howard opted out of his contract Tuesday afternoon.
Howard's career as a Rocket, though, is likely over.
After a 41-41 season that saw Howard and James Harden fall out of favor with one another, and which saw Howard's usage at the offensive end of the floor dwindle to a trickle by the end of the season, Howard will likely seek greener pastures, and honestly, it's probably for the best. Howard needs a new start, and the Rockets can remake their team via free agency with nearly $40 million in cap space this offseason.
If Howard's uneven play down the stretch wasn't enough to drive a wedge between the eight-time All Star and his employer, then the Rockets' hiring of Mike D'Antoni as their new head coach a couple of weeks ago probably did. Howard and D'Antoni were paired together in Los Angeles during Dwight's lone Laker season, and the two did not mesh at all.
When you consider just how long general manager Daryl Morey had been pursuing Howard (all the way back to Howard's final season in Orlando), the numerous moves that went into positioning the Rockets to sign Howard, and the extensive sales pitch to convince Howard that Houston was the right place for him, this ending has to be incredibly disappointing for Morey, who will now try to recalibrate the roster around Harden. My guess is Howard's replacement will be light on necessary post touches and heavy on dirty work and rim protection.
So where could Howard go from here? Well, he immediately becomes one of the more intriguing free agents in this class, only because it will be fascinating to see what the league's free market referendum says about his value. After multiple surgeries on various body parts and a semi-delusional sense of what his skill set is offensively, Howard is not a max player in the traditional sense anymore, but between name value and the glut of cap money available this offseason, he could easily exceed the $23 million he was slated to make in the final year of his Rockets deal.
The question is "With whom?" Here are a few possibilities for Howard:
Steve Clifford is a solid, defensive head coach, and Howard would bring a major defensive presence in the paint for them. The Hornets have shooters galore to space the floor, if they're so inclined to acquiesce to Dwight and him low post touches, although they have work to do to re-sign some of them.
No way, right! Well, probably right. Still, it's fun to think about a redemption story for Dwight to close out his twilight years in the league. It ain't LeBron returning to Cleveland by any means, but my guess is Dwight would be welcomed back, and he'd be a solid fit for what Frank Vogel wants to do defensively. The Magic are a young team, so I'm not sure they compete for much, even with Dwight, so they might have to overpay.
Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum in the backcourt...if Dwight could get a shot of self-awareness and just rebound, defend, and pick and roll like crazy, this would be really intriguing.
Mark Cuban clearly has a) a Dwight fetish (the Mavs were in play back in 2013) and b) a burning desire to take on Rocket-rejected free agents (what up, Chandler!). He can also dust off that cartoon they used to recruit Dwight back in 2013.
There was talk of the Rockets moving Howard to Boston at the trade deadline. Now, the Celtics can have him without giving up a thing.
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