After a tumultuous season with the Lakers, Dwight Howard appears headed south, to join the Houston Rockets. Just how good can the new-look Rockets be? And what about the teams that missed out on Dwight? Our panel weighs in on all the angles in the aftermath of Howard's choice.
1. Did Dwight Howard make the right decision?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Yes, but there wasn't really a wrong decision. Every situation offered something particular, whether it was money, geography, teammates or culture. But Houston's formula is smart for Howard. It's a large market, but there's no Hollywood glare. He's got a young, perimeter running mate in James Harden. Add a couple of spot-up shooters to a supporting cast starring Chandler Parsons, and possibly Josh Smith at the 4, and it makes a ton of sense.
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: Absolutely. It's easy to play psychiatrist and try to pick apart Howard's personality and understand his motivations, but the answer may be more simple than we think. Was there a better young star for Howard to align with this offseason than Harden? For good old fashioned basketball reasons, this is the right choice.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: I think so. As I wrote in my anaylsis Friday morning, going to Houston gives Howard the best chance of winning big. A Harden-Howard partnership should be fruitful for many years, and nobody has a better track record of finding cheap role players to surround them than Daryl Morey.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN Insider: For him, it seems that way. The tax breaks in Texas offset what Howard will lose in leaving the Lakers. As a nice bonus, he gets to compete immediately alongside James Harden. Much as I'd love to watch the hypothetical Warriors situation, I can't say that a stranger should give up millions of dollars.
Brian Windhorst: Yes, I believe so. I think it would be fascinating to have seen him with all those shooters in Golden State, but that route was complicated. He never seemed really sold on L.A. and was clearly unhappy in that system and playing under Kobe's thumb last year. I don't think he thought any of it was going to change and when he looked at the age of the roster, it cinched it. Leaving L.A. is a gutty decision, but it makes sense.
2. Where do the Rockets now rank in the Western Conference?
Arnovitz: Top three, but it's a big ol' scrum at the top of the pile and there's a lot we still don't know. Will the Rockets now land Josh Smith? How will the Clippers and Memphis fill out their benches? How dangerous is Golden State? Are we really going to fall for that old trick and bet against San Antonio? And OKC looms large. For all the grief the Thunder continue to draw for the Harden trade, they were a juggernaut before Westbrook went down last season.
Foster: Houston already had the sixth-ranked offense last season, and the improvements of guys like Harden, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley in addition to Howard's presence as a pick-and-roll and post threat could legitimately make them the league's best offense. Let's wait to see what happens with Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, but the Rockets should be just as dangerous as any other team out West.
Pelton: Second. I tentatively have them behind the Oklahoma City Thunder but ahead of the San Antonio Spurs.
Strauss: They're tied in the top tier with the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers. I'll shade optimistic about Dwight's recovery from injury and say Houston has two frontrunners for first-team All-NBA. Much as fans might scoff at the notion that Dwight can immediately compete for a title, that's a great starting position for this young team.
Windhorst: Can't say because they're not done. Let's see what complementary moves they can make. The Josh Smith stuff is interesting, but I think getting a better shooter would make more sense with Harden and Howard. Either way, I suspect the Rockets will upgrade the roster some more. And for all the complaining about Kendrick Perkins' big contract from the Thunder, he has value against Howard.
3. What should the Mavericks do now?
Arnovitz: Tank. Nobody understands incentive structures better than Mark Cuban and he's well aware that winning 39 games in the NBA is death. The Mavs should commit as few long-term resources as possible in preparation for a deep draft and a rich free-agent class in the summer of 2014. Terry Davis and Mike Iuozzolino live!
Foster: Hit the reset button. It looks like Dirk Nowitzki will once again be left to fend for himself as the lone star in Dallas, and it might be time for the Mavericks to come to a mutual agreement with Dirk to allow him to play for a title contender in his last years. It won't be easy or fun, but it's probably time to start over.
Pelton: I would make a run at Brandon Jennings. Dallas hasn't had a quality young point guard since Devin Harris, and if you're going to overpay in free agency it may as well be for a young player with a chance of growing into the contract. Jennings represents the best possible long-term gamble on the market.
Strauss: Be humbled? I get why Mark Cuban let Tyson Chandler go, but he was so condescending in the aftermath that it's hard not to laugh. Dallas had a great thing in the Nowitzki-Chandler frontcourt and they dismantled it to chase long shots. Now it's time for Dallas to go into a full rebuild mode, not unlike the Celtics of late.
Windhorst: I tell you what they shouldn't do. They probably shouldn't give Monta Ellis or Paul Millsap a huge contract that will only help them get to the middle. But they have struck out repeatedly in the free-agent game, and Mark Cuban's declaration that they're back open for business hints that he's going to want to spend again.
4. Where do the Warriors now rank in the West?
Arnovitz: Let's put them in the top six with the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Clippers and Grizzlies, with the understanding that health will be as important a determining factor as any in the Bay. But the healthy version of the Ws are tantalizing: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson stretching defenses thin, two elite defenders in Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, and -- as Mark Jackson has maintained more than once -- divine intervention.
Foster: Iguodala is a phenomenal addition, but I still have my concerns about the health of Curry and Bogut, the effectiveness of David Lee, and perhaps the slight overrating of Harrison Barnes as a complete player. The Warriors certainly improved, but the floor is much lower for them than it is for a team like Oklahoma City.
Pelton: Sixth. That doesn't seem like much, since Golden State earned the sixth seed without Iguodala, but the Rockets have leapfrogged them in the standings and the gap between the top five in the West and sixth place was enormous during the regular season. Iguodala will help, but Andrew Bogut's health is still the determining factor in the Warriors' 2013-14 season.
Strauss: I'd slot them right behind the Thunder-Spurs-Rockets tier, mainly because I'm not sure what they do with Lee. The Warriors are better when going small and spreading the floor with shooters around Bogut. The Bogut-Lee frontcourt is workable, but it's an awkward arrangement for now. GSW did improve, though. Iguodala provides better defense and increased positional flexibility.
Windhorst: They are a top-four team, which they were last season, as proven in the playoffs. They are right there in the mix with the Thunder, Grizzlies, Spurs and now Rockets. They will not be the favorites but they will be competitors depending on how things play out.
5. What should the Lakers do now?
Arnovitz: Implode and Reload. The Lakers could try to take back pieces from the Rockets in an effort to ward off a truly horrendous season, but what's the point? With Kobe Bryant sidelined, Howard in Houston, and Steve Nash and Pau Gasol aging, write off the season in preparation for the bounty waiting next summer.
Foster: Outside of trying to work a sign-and-trade with Houston to get a giant trade exception back? Dealing Nash and completely wiping the books clean for 2014-15 could allow the Lakers to be a prime superstar destination in a stacked class. Either way, I wouldn't sweat the Lakers' future too much. They're the Lakers.
Pelton: Call up Andrew Bynum. As of now, the Lakers have only their taxpayer mid-level exception available, but they may as well see if they can replace Howard with the center they traded for him this time a year ago. Failing that, it's probably time to tear down with a Gasol trade/amnesty and look ahead to cap space next summer.
Strauss: It might be time to get in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes. It's hard to see how they'll woo LeBron to take a pay cut when they couldn't sway Howard to stay. It's possible that James and Bosh choose against another warm weather location with lower taxes, but I doubt it. The Lakers are the biggest brand in basketball, but it looks like they'll probably be mediocre for years.
Windhorst: There aren't many places where it's smart to build through free agency. It is such a risk play because if you whiff it can be a disaster. But I don't see a better way for the Lakers. They have limited trade assets and they've traded away so many picks that they have no prospects on the team. They should ride out the Gasol/Kobe/Nash team and perhaps add a piece or two on one-year contracts, then clear the decks and try to rebuild through free agency. Los Angeles is still a place where players want to play.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz, Kevin Pelton, Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Brian Windhorst cover the NBA for ESPN.com. D.J. Foster contributes to the TrueHoop Network.
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