Since a report Tuesday that Dwight Howard is unhappy with his role on the Houston Rockets, talk has quickly turned to the possibility of Howard getting traded -- despite the fact that Howard publicly denied any unhappiness after Tuesday's loss to the Sacramento Kings.
I'm not sure Howard's mood should actually matter. Whether he wants out or not, the Rockets should be looking to move the eight-time All-Star center.
The long-term move: Trading Howard
Here are three reasons why a Howard trade makes sense:
1. The Rockets shouldn't pay Dwight's next contract
Howard can opt to become a free agent next summer or play out the final season of his contract for $23.3 million before hitting the market in 2017. Either way, Howard will surely be looking for similar money to what he's making now while locking in more years, having turned 30 last week.
Not only is Howard now past the prime years for most players, he's carrying heavy mileage because he entered the NBA directly out of high school. While he's no LeBron James in terms of minutes played, Howard is closing in on 30,000 for his career -- more than Dwyane Wade has played at age 33.
Add in Howard's troublesome injury history, including back surgery and knee injuries that limited him throughout last season, and he might never be an All-Star-caliber player again.
With his declining productivity and limited availability (Howard was unable to play both games of back-to-backs at the beginning of the season), Howard ranks 58th in the league in my wins above replacement player metric this season and 50th in wins generated according to ESPN's real plus-minus.
Given the number of teams with cap space and the limited number of worthwhile free agents available in 2016, paying Howard $20-plus million a year during the decline phase of his career might make sense for some teams -- but not the Rockets, who have consistently been a player for the top free agents on the market. They can do better with the money.
2. Houston isn't going anywhere this season, anyway
Everything in the previous section was true before the season, and trading Howard would have seemed unthinkable then. Houston was focused on Howard's value to a championship contender, not his next contract. That should no longer be the case.
While the Rockets have rebounded a bit since starting 4-7 under Kevin McHale, their 12-14 record actually overstates how well the team has played. Houston's minus-3.0 point differential ranks 11th in the Western Conference. As a result, projections using ESPN's basketball power index have the Rockets making the playoffs less than half the time.
Even if Houston does make the postseason, it's hard to envision a scenario where the Rockets could threaten the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder in the West. As a result, it's time for Houston to look to the future.
3. The Rockets have a center of the future
When Houston looks ahead, the team's center isn't Howard -- it's Clint Capela, the 21-year-old Swiss big man who has started at times next to Howard at power forward. Despite lacking floor spacing, that combo has been stunningly effective this season, outscoring opponents by 15.9 points per 100 possessions in 84 minutes according to NBA.com/Stats. And lineups with just Capela (minus-0.9 net rating) have been better than those with just Howard (minus-2.1).
Capela's individual stats also suggest a bright future for the second-year player. He's averaging 14.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes. According to Basketball Reference, just five players have topped 14 points, 12 boards and two blocks per 36 in their age-21 season: Andrew Bynum, Darryl Dawkins, Andre Drummond, Moses Malone and Shaquille O'Neal. (Howard just missed this group, having averaged 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes in his age-21 campaign.)
Perhaps Capela isn't better than Howard today, but projecting ahead over the next few seasons, his development curve is trending upward while Howard's is trending downward. And Capela's presence also gives the Rockets more options in a Howard trade because they don't need to get a replacement center in return.
The challenge: Finding a workable Howard package
Despite that flexibility, figuring out what team might be willing to offer the right package for Howard is perhaps the biggest impediment to a trade. At this point, a Howard rental wouldn't make much sense; any team dealing for him would have to realistically believe it could re-sign him next summer. It also must have a need in the middle and big enough contracts to match Howard's salary. That leaves only a few reasonable options.
Lee wouldn't have much value to the Rockets, who might just buy him out. Besides offering some flexibility with the hard cap Houston is working under this year after using its non-taxpayer mid-level exception, this trade is all about getting one of Boston's huge stockpile of picks to flip in another trade. That could work out like when the Rockets traded Kyle Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for a lottery pick that ended up being a key part of the James Harden deal months later.
This trade would give Houston maximum cap flexibility and upgrade the Rockets' shooting dramatically. However, adding a veteran center next to Anthony Davis is probably the exact opposite direction the Pelicans should be headed.
I like the idea of Howard returning home to provide a defensive upgrade in the middle for a Magic team that already has the league's seventh-best defensive rating under Scott Skiles. But would Orlando really trade a 25-year-old center for a 30-year-old one? And Houston would probably want another team to take on Frye's long-term salary.
ESPN's Calvin Watkins has reported that the Rockets have interest in Morris. While they probably weren't thinking about trading Howard to get him, Chandler could be a credible replacement in the middle -- if Houston is willing to take on the remaining three-plus years on his contract.
Howard would be an ideal fit for the four-out system the Wizards have moved to this season, and if he opts in Washington would probably still have enough cap space next summer to sign a max free agent (read: Kevin Durant). But the Wizards would leave themselves perilously thin in the middle in case of a Howard injury, and it's not clear his former backup (Gortat) would be enough of a return for Houston to deal.
Are there teams that would want a three-time defensive player of the year? Surely. Whether the Rockets can find a deal that works for all involved is another question. But they should be trying.