Following the huge trade that the Rockets pulled off last season landing James Harden, a playoff berth may not have been expected, but there was a new aura around the franchise after the early retirement of Yao Ming and physical breakdown of Tracy McGrady left them searching for a true superstar. They did reach the playoffs, however, finishing in the eighth and final playoff spot, facing the Oklahoma City Thunder in a hard fought six game series they would eventually lose. The improvement from players like Chandler Parsons and even Harden himself showed the Rockets’ front office that they were a potential championship level team and they went to work getting the final piece of the puzzle that would push them over the top. They believe they found their man, Dwight Howard.
The melodrama that was Howard’s final season in Orlando wound up with a trade to the Lakers. Injuries to stars Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, as well as Howard’s difficulty adjusting to the triangle offense led to a disappointing start and the firing of Mike Brown. Mike D’Antoni was hired to turn the team around and for awhile it looked as if there was promise for the Lakers. However, Nash was hampered throughout the year, Pau Gasol played barely over half the season with multiple injuries, and the offense D’Antoni prefers to run did not suite Howard either, something he made abundantly clear. Not only did Howard have problems with the “run and gun” style, but he had issues with a back injury as well. With his contract expiring and becoming a free agent, Howard was the most sought after man in basketball this past offseason. The Rockets put together an attractive offer and recruited him heavily, calling on current players Harden and Parsons along with Rockets greats like Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming to convince him that Houston is the place he needed to be. The recruiting job was effective and Howard decided to bring his talents to Houston to join the Rockets.
It’s obvious that Howard is the big story surrounding the Rockets. He is the best center in basketball when healthy and happy. He has an incredible combination of size, skill, and tenacity at both ends of the floor. He needs to improve on his overall post moves, but in the pick and roll game, his athleticism makes him deadly. With a mediocre passer he would be fantastic at catching and finishing lobs, but players like Harden, Parsons, and even Jeremy Lin are better than average passers and will love playing with someone like him that can turn any pass into two points with ease. On the defensive end he is one of the best in the league at any position. He led the NBA in rebounding last season with 12.4 per game and has done so four other times in his career. He has led in blocks twice as well and averaged 2.4 per game last season. More than just the stats, Howard puts the effort in on the defensive side of the court. There is an obvious enjoyment stopping his opponent and getting the ball back in his team’s hands. With the Rockets allowing 102.5 points per game last season, ranking 28th in the league, Howard’s presence will be welcomed. If, and this is a big if due to it being a back injury, Howard is fully healthy and back at his previous level of play, the Rockets have a huge piece in the middle.
That’s not to say the rest of the depth chart is bare in Houston. The previously mentioned Harden has proven that he can be the star after his first few years as a phenomenal sixth man with the Thunder. He made his name as a great scorer off the bench in Oklahoma City and that production carried over last season as a starter. His offensive game is well rounded, with an ability to shoot the three and the mid range jumper as well as take the ball off the dribble and get to the rim. Last season he ranked first in free throw attempts and second in makes. That aggressive mentality leads to plenty of points and the Rockets ranked second in the league in points per game last season as a team. He may have room to improve on the defensive end, but his incredible offensive talent has allowed the coaching staff to look past that deficiency and leave him out on the floor without hesitation.
Chandler Parsons was not talked about coming to the NBA before the 2011-12 season but he showed plenty of promise his rookie year that he could be a scorer and playmaker on the wing for the Rockets. Last year he put that potential on full display and showed the league that he was going to be around for a while. His size and length at the wing position is a great asset to go along with his ability to handle the ball. He is not completely a one dimensional player on offense, putting up threes, driving to the rim and finishing, and pulling up for a mid range jumper are all part of his arsenal. However, when you are as bad as the Rockets were last season on the defensive end, there is obvious room for improvement and Parsons is no exception. Their team defense and Parsons himself got better with the addition of Howard but he needs to put that effort in and have the pride to not allow his opponents to get their points whenever they want. With Howard on the roster he should help with that mentality.
Omer Asik, a great rebounder and defender overall, will back up Howard and while they will miss the offensive production without Dwight on the floor, Asik is capable of catching and finishing. The multitude of other options allows Asik to focus on his forte. Jeremy Lin will need to step up and show that the Rockets knew what they were doing when they brought him in. During the “Linsanity” period in New York, Lin was a fantastic playmaker and offensive player. However, critics could say that this was simply the right place and right time for Lin, with Carmelo Anthony hurt and not able to control the ball. Lin needs to return to his previous form and stop worrying about his critics, just play basketball and have fun. Donatas Motiejunas is a potential starting power forward for the Rockets and while he has limited experience, he has shown flashes of being a good stretch four and a complement to Howard on the inside. He played well during the NBA’s summer league as well. Take that with a grain of salt if you choose but those performances give reason for hope that he can be a solid NBA player.
Even with a relatively weak bench and the question of who will actually be the starting power forward, the Rockets should be among the top three or four teams in the Western Conference this season. Teaming Howard with Harden and Parsons give them a potent trio and while their bench may be unproven, there is talent to rest some hope on in the form of players like Lin, Asik, Francisco Garcia, Motiejunas, and Terrance Jones, as well as a veteran center in Marcus Camby. The top of the West may be tough to crack, but if everything comes together well, Houston will be in store for a deep playoff run and an exciting season.