As we’ve seen in the NBA finals for the last three years, it’s not only about having a top-heavy roster, but having the right kind of players around them in order to win a championship, which automatically puts a lot of questions marks around the new superstar tandem created by the Houston Rockets with Dwight Howard and James Harden.
For example: The Miami Heat, in 2011, had Mike Bibby, Joel Anthony and Juwan Howard play substantial roles in the NBA finals. Yes, LeBron James came a long way from his first season as a Heat player, while Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh both adjusted to their new roles over time. But if it wasn’t for the growing roles of Mario Chalmers and the additions of more shooters in Shane Battier & Ray Allen or Chris Andersen, James might still be without any title rings on his fingers.
The Rockets, in the summer of 2012, looked like a team that still hasn’t gotten over the hangover of the Yao Ming & Tracy McGrady years which eventually, didn’t amount to much. Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic were moved or left, and the Rockets based their squad on the signings of Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons. The future was the goal: A high draft pick in 2013, and having enough cap space for two big signings in 2013 & 2014, while Kevin Martin continues to burden the team.
Then came the James Harden trade, and everything changed. Suddenly, the Rockets had a young All-Star caliber player to lead their team, and he played better, at least when numbers are concerned, than anyone expected him to. He scored 82 points on the team’s two opening games, and the Rockets made the playoffs for the first time since 2010, with Harden making the All-Star for the first time, averaging 25.9 points per game.
The Rockets played badly for most of the way against the Thunder, but many expected that from a team suffering from style problems and bad coaching, not to mention a limited roster when it came to scoring once Harden and Lin were off the floor. But the Rockets turned into a team that can attract big names, and none seemed bigger than Dwight Howard once the season ended.
The Rockets landed Howard, something that will become official on July 10, and will put a lot more spotlight on the team, not to mention expectations that weren’t there last season. Lin brought attention, and Omer Asik gave them a true, reliable center to build around. James Harden made this team into a playoff caliber-group, and Dwight Howard makes them a team that might not be good enough to reach the NBA finals right now, but will surely take expectations to a new high, or to a level people in Houston don’t really remember having.
But the question is – what team will be built around them? From a young core than was going to be about Harden, Parsons, Lin and Asik, the dynamic has changed. Suddenly, Asik becomes a backup center who wants to leave. Jeremy Lin, allegedly, is being used as a trading chip. How will these Rockets look like?
With Greg Smith, Francisco Garcia, Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley, the Rockets have a decent bench, but not a special one. They’re far from set when it comes to the Power Forward position, even if Asik spends plenty of minutes with Howard on the floor (which according to Kevin McHale, is going to happen). They still have a Mid-Level exception they can use, or the contract of Jeremy Lin ($8.3 million) to use. From here, it’s a question of what team they want to see next season on the floor in terms of basketball.
Howard and Harden are both players with NBA finals experience, but no one has called them great leaders up until now. Lin seems to be the kind of guy a team can rally around, but it doesn’t matter when the ball isn’t in his hand most of the time, and he isn’t the kind of player who’ll suddenly become a great off-the-ball kind of facilitator. Lin is a point guard who needs the ball in his hand.
The Rockets have weapons to spread the floor, while a more formidable inside presence, on offense and defense (if he’s healthy), than before. The question is will they have the intelligence on the floor to take advantage of the spacing and spreading we’re likely going to see more than before, and if no one is going to step on anyone’s toes along the way.
Harden wants to be the star, the leader, and play first fiddle. The situation for him in Oklahoma City meant he’s a third option, all the time. It was good for the Thunder, but bad for him personally. Now, Howard once again shakes the foundations on which his stardom is based upon. If he reacts well and understands that not everything is going to be about him next season, the Rockets have a good shot of challenging for the Western crown, with or without Lin. But like we saw with the Lakers this season, it doesn’t take much to get Dwight Howard unhappy with his situation, and the moment that starts, the Rockets can kiss their grandiose aspirations goodbye.