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Saturday, July 6, 2013
Fantasy impact of Howard decision

By John Cregan
Special to ESPN.com

Dwight Howard
Now that he's chosen the Rockets, is Dwight Howard worthy of a first-round fantasy pick?

It's hard to call Dwight Howard's announcement that he'll be joining the Houston Rockets a surprise. Warriors' cap clearances and last-minute "50-50"-ing notwithstanding, it was difficult to fathom a scenario where Howard didn't end up in the clutches of Daryl Morey.

Taking the long view, Howard is at an absolute crossroads. His 2011-12 and 2012-13 campaigns amounted to lost seasons. At this career juncture, someone with Howard's quixotic (to put it diplomatically) makeup could go either way. Many Lakers fans (now) believe Howard will continue to regress, but all signs point to a return to his fantasy peak of just two seasons ago: 22.9 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game and a .593 field goal percentage.

I believe we saw Howard's numerical floor last season -- 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game -- which is still pretty darn good, especially if you ignore the games lost to injury and his performance at the free throw line, which went from anemic in 2010-11 (59.6 percent) to apocalyptic in 2012-13 (49.2 percent).

One situation that closely resembles Houston's for fantasy purposes/comparisons? How about the team Howard just left? Both the Rockets and Lakers ran fast-paced attacks, and both featured dominant shooting guards with high Usage Rates (30.0 for Kobe Bryant, 27.4 for James Harden).

The difference is the supporting cast. Let's take a look at your 2013-14 Houston Rockets (as of Saturday morning, at least):

PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Donatas Motiejunas/Greg Smith
C: Dwight Howard

Houston has the same type of supporting talent that served Howard well in Orlando, and he will be surrounded by outside shooters to space the floor. Parsons, Harden and Lin proved last season that they could excel within that type of attack. Even better for Howard: There's no Pau Gasol to compete with for frontcourt touches.

Houston struggled mightily in the post in 2012-13. Omer Asik, who is most likely on his way out of town, is a nice rim protector who grabs rebounds, but he isn't on this earth to call for the ball down on the block.

Despite the palaver about Howard being a poor fit in Houston's offense, I'm not worried in the slightest. I'm sure Kevin McHale -- arguably the owner of the most diverse array of post moves in NBA history -- is salivating to amend Houston's attack to fashion more of an inside-outside dynamic. Don't underestimate the tutorial effect McHale (and Hakeem Olajuwon) could have on Howard's offensive numbers.

And how will Howard co-exist with Harden? Much, much better than he ever did with Kobe. Temperament-wise, Harden is better suited to deal with Howard's ups and downs. He gives Howard an alpha dog to defer to down the stretch when his free throw shooting becomes a major liability.

For better or worse, Howard wasn't looking for someone to show him "how it's done." D12 wants a shooting guard he can relate to, not one who gives him night terrors. Howard and Gasol share one important fantasy trait: Their mental state is a bellwether for their overall statistical output.

Howard is an emotionally delicate superstar who collapsed in the Lakers' well-calibrated pressure cooker. Harden has history with a couple of All-NBA Usage Rate aggregators (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook). He has proved he can customize his diverse game to suit the surrounding talent.

Harden
James Harden figures to be a good fit alongside Dwight Howard.

Harden's field goal percentage sagged in 2012-13 under the weight of his newfound offensive responsibility (down from .491 to .438). A market correction in Harden's numbers could be in store, with a drop in scoring down into the 23-24 PPG range accompanied with a rise in offensive efficiency.

Ideally, Houston would deal for an impact stretch 4 to pair with Howard up front. Morey might look for a Ryan Anderson-type (or even better, the actual Ryan Anderson) to supplant the less-than-imposing mix of Motiejunas and Smith.

To justify a first-round fantasy pick, Howard has to remain ambulatory and has to be more than the 17-and-12 player he was in Los Angeles. To return to the fantasy elite, Howard must get back to the 23-and-14 averages he posted during his early prime in Orlando.

I don't believe his multiple injuries (back and shoulder) will continue to be an issue. He was looking more like his old self over the final month of the season, especially after Bryant went down with his Achilles tear (20.9 PPG in April). The torn labrum was more of a freak injury that held back his production, and he's had a full year to recover from back surgery.

Howard looks primed for a turn-back-the-clock charge to fantasy dominance, gifting his owners with shots at winning rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage.

But here's the twist: I still wouldn't draft him.

I've never drafted Howard. I wouldn't draft Howard with a notarized pledge from Ye Fantasy Gods that he wins the slam dunk contest, finds new jobs for Stan Van Gundy and Otis Thorpe, becomes as decisive as Sun Tzu and throws down a 23-and-14.

I've never drafted Howard because I don't believe in punting categories. And when you draft Howard, you're kneecapping your team's free throw percentage. Yes, he'll get more touches in Houston. But the more touches Howard gets, the more he gets fouled and the more he affects your team's bottom line at the charity stripe. I don't subscribe to spending first-round picks on players who force you to tailor your entire draft around a singular shortcoming.

But that's just me. You certainly can win with Howard. I just believe that your early picks should set the table for you to go in multiple directions in the later rounds. Which means that in the end, in the first round, I'd rather have Harden.

What about the Lakers

The Lakers are still in the fast-paced hands of Mike D'Antoni and have shed one big fly in the ointment of the NBA's most fantasy-friendly system.

I'm not saying the Lakers are going to make the playoffs. I'm not saying they'll win 35 games. All I'm saying is that the Lakers, fantasy-wise, will be fascinating heading into 2013-14.

Not only did they lose Howard, they also lost Earl Clark, who was a nice fantasy Cinderella story for about a month. If they can stay on the court, Bryant, Gasol and Steve Nash will all probably outproduce their average draft position.

All early post-Howard indications point toward the Lakers looking for a stopgap at center as they hoard cap space for a run at LeBron James next summer. I see them going the route of the 2012-13 Mavericks and looking for a couple of well-chosen retreads to hold down the fort. This means there will be a couple of nice under-the-radar fantasy success stories emanating out of Lakerland. In other words, hello, Chris Kaman!