There’s no doubt that the arrival of Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets is the biggest move of this offseason, but it doesn’t mean that what stood at the basis of the enthusiasm from last year’s team, which was mainly the arrival of James Harden and a bit earlier than that, Jeremy Lin, without forgetting about Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons as well, won’t be as important as it was last season.
The NBA has changed, and while it’s important to have a dominant big man in a league that doesn’t seem to occupy as many as it once did, but the decisions on games and series being won are made outside the paint, or at least being away from it. The Miami Heat have won two NBA titles by playing without a center. The San Antonio Spurs have an excellent Tim Duncan, but what was their bread & butter was the ability of their guards and perimeter players, which eventually failed and were outplayed in the final two games.
The Houston Rockets had a solid center last season in Asik. He averaged 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, getting a chance to start in the NBA for the first time in his career. In the postseason he was just as good, and maybe even better. Not that it was enough to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.
Howard is a star, the best in the league at his position, and all of the hate spewing from anything having to do with the Lakers won’t change that. He says he’s willing to upgrade his offensive game in order to finally become the low-post threat he should have become years ago, and working with Hakeem Olajuwon and maybe Kevin McHale as well (an NBA head coach doesn’t really have time for individual workouts) is probably the best school to fulfill that ambition.
However, Howard can’t give himself the ball. James Harden has it in his hands most of the time, and the rest of the playcalling is usually done by Jeremy Lin. At the moment, it doesn’t seem like Lin is going to lose his starting job, and Patrick Beverely, besides injuring Russell Westbrook, hasn’t done anything special to overtake him as the starting point guard. He’s one-dimensional more or less, and besides a bit more speed and explosiveness isn’t the playmaker that Lin is.
James Harden is the key in this. The ball will be in his hands, and the team, more or less, is his. Just like Dwyane Wade needed some time to pass over control of the Miami Heat to LeBron James, Harden isn’t just going to accept being a second fiddle after tasting what it’s like to be on top of the hill, and proving he’s one of the very best in the NBA on the first season he got the chance to be a starter and a leader, a number one option like he was always meant to be but couldn’t next to Westbrook and Durant.
Jeremy Lin is more of a question mark, but his forgettable postseason erased the excellent impression he left from a very strong finish to the season, averaging 17.3 points per game in April and showing when he’s the man in charge of the ball while Harden gets more time off of it, the Rockets are a better basketball team. Not that it matters if the decision about him to be a spot-up shooter 80% of the time has been made.
Howard and Harden need balance, and not just in scoring. With Howard demanding the ball and Harden loving it in his hands as well, some mediator needs to be put in. Jeremy Lin is that guy, or should be it. He makes better passing decisions than Harden, and probably hs less of a need to prove he’s the alpha-male on the court, which he isn’t anyway. Dwight Howard arriving makes the Rockets genuine contenders (although it might take them a season to figure it out), but it doesn’t make him the most important piece of the puzzle.