Rockets will seek Dwight Howard trade… again

Dwight HowardThe 2011-12 season did not go as planned for the Houston Rockets, but the offseason plans remain fairly unchanged.

The Rockets, with cap room, two first round draft picks and a willingness to trade just about anyone, are still in pursuit of that big name, and stop me if you’ve heard this one — a superstar in Orlando has fallen out of favor with the franchise, shut it down as the season neared to a close and will look for a trade in the offseason.

Tracy McGrady ended up in Houston in 2004, and if the Rockets have their way, so would Dwight Howard in 2012.

In March, the Rockets remained steadfast in their willingness to “rent” Howard and stayed involved in talks with the Magic. At the Toyota Center on trade deadline day after the dust cleared, I was told that Rockets GM Daryl Morey was the last one standing in the Howard chase. Weeks later I was informed that when Rockets front office personnel called it a night in the wee hours of the morning of the trade deadline, they believed they were going to land Howard later that day. The 6-foot-11 center reversed course and agreed to not exercise his opt-out clause to become a free agent, instead staying with the Magic for another year.

It wasn’t until this week that we could say it definitively — multiple sources tell ClutchFans that had Dwight not opted in, he was coming to Houston in a trade.

(If I could add here some speculation — while no one has told me this, it’s been my theory since the deadline that the Rockets nearing in on a trade for Howard may have played a role in Dwight’s decision to not opt-out and instead stay an extra year in Orlando. By being traded to a “rental” team like the Rockets at the deadline, any chance of getting the max years and max raises from a team on Howard’s preferred list would have been killed. He either would have to get that from Houston, or take less from someone else — sign-and-trades no longer give the best of both worlds, as they did under the old CBA. By staying another year in Orlando, Howard bought more time to work a trade to a team he chooses. End theory.)

The last thing Houston fans want to hear is another “we were close” story. In their quest for a superstar the last few seasons, the Rockets have mastered the art of the second place finish, executing near-deals and almost-signs with laser-like precision. In 2010 they had a sign-and-trade agreement in place with Toronto for Chris Bosh but forgot to ask Bosh. In 2011 they missed out on Carmelo Anthony, who reportedly had some interest in the Rockets before Yao Ming went down. Later that same year, the Rockets came close to a deal with Utah for Deron Williams.

While it is certainly a positive sign that the Rockets had an offer at the trade deadline that Orlando liked, it doesn’t make it a slam dunk in the summer.

For starters, will Orlando trade Howard? The belief is that if he won’t sign an extension, they will do just that.

Secondly, is he healthy? Howard underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disk on April 20th and may or may not be ready to go at the start of the 2012-13 season.

And lastly, the asking price in March was based on what was left on Howard’s contract — just a month or two, giving his new team an outside shot of re-signing him. Now, the superstar center is under contract for a full year and several other teams could get involved. The draft order will be established later this month and teams that end up in the top 5 that are interested in Howard could have a big advantage — in particular the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, who have about a 25% chance of landing a top 3 pick.

However, if the Rockets can successfully pull off the rental, they might finally be able to step off the mediocrity treadmill. Howard is the one player out there that could fill all the Rockets’ needs (superstar, big man, shotblocker, rebounder) and could make Houston an attractive location once again. In January we wrote that Deron Williams was the Rockets top target as they love Deron’s game and believed he could be the lure for Howard or other big names. With Howard staying another year, those roles could flip, with Howard playing the bait. Can you acquire Howard before Deron decides to stay with the Nets or join hometown Dallas? You may not see it now, but behind the scenes a Texas-sized battle is brewing between the Rockets and Mavericks for the same players: The Mavs are trying to build a dynasty while the Rockets are trying to avoid obscurity.

No one wants more empty talk. All of us are tired of the Rockets being “close” and trying to lure superstars that don’t really want to be here, but before discussing trade-ups in the 2012 NBA Draft or which free agent to chase in July, the Rockets will exhaust the slim shot and pursue first the opportunity to get Howard.

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