A year ago today, Daryl Morey sat in his office after a long couple of weeks of negotiating, his roster still without the superstar he desperately craved. He had hoarded draft picks and potential laden youngsters for months in an attempt to pry Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic, but as the draft passed and Howard remained in Orlando, Morey found himself without a face for his franchise. Morey would make one more push for Dwight in August, but ultimately it would the Lakers that landed Howard, and Morey’s boom-or-bust roster building philosophy was questioned more than ever.
But then something happened. Just days before the 2012-13 season was set to tip off, the Oklahoma City Thunder, after failing to workout an extension with him, decided to make James Harden available rather than playing out the year and letting him take a max offer in free agency. And for some reason unbeknownst to me, GM wunderkind Sam Presti accepted an offer of Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and and two first round picks (one of which turned out to be “meh” big man Steven Adams), and all of the sudden the Rockets had their superstar.
Fast forward to today, when a confounded Dwight Howard sat at some resort in Aspen, Colorado, and started crossing suitors off his list. The Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks were first to go, and then the Golden State Warriors seemed out of the mix, leaving just the Rockets and Lakers standing. Of course, no Dwight Howard sweepstakes would be complete without drama, and today’s plot twist came when the Warriors completed a salary dump trade and agreed to a deal with free agent forward Andre Iguodala, whom Howard is reportedly a fan of. With Iguodala in the fold, Golden State was prepared to offer some combination of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut to the Lakers in a sign-and-trade deal for Dwight.
While playing with Stephen Curry is a very intriguing proposition, Howard ultimately decided that Harden was the better right hand man, and USA Today’s Sam Amick is reporting that Superman is headed to Houston.
Houston seemed to be the favorite throughout this entire process, but the Warriors made a very compelling case when they added Iguodala. At that point – about three hours ago – whichever team Howard decided to join between Houston and Golden State would immediately be considered a title contender, and we now know that team will be the Rockets. While the Lakers could have offered Howard a longer and richer deal, the lack of state taxes in Texas will actually make the monetary sacrifice much smaller, and Houston is the team that offers Howard the best shot at a championship.
Howard had a down year in 2013 and has turned some people off because of how he’s handled himself off-the-court over the past two years, but there’s no denying that he’s the best big man in basketball when he’s healthy. If he’s able to get back to even 90% of his former self, the Harden-Howard duo will be the best in basketball, surpassing the Westbrook-Durant combo. Houston’s dynamic duo is a better fit, too, as Harden and Howard should mesh extremely well together. Howard is the prototypical pick-and-roll big man with unparalleled athleticism and agility and good hands while Harden was the league’s most efficient pick-and-roll ball handler last season. I’m sure Kevin McHale will do his best to make Howard into a supreme post-player, but the Rockets will still use the pick-and-roll as their primary process for point scoring, and they are going to be very, very good at it.
Howard will also help sure up Houston’s shaky defense. Omer Asik is one of the better defensive big men in the game and was tremendous last season in his first year as a starter, but he can’t affect the game as dramatically or for as long as Howard can. Howard won’t be able to make Harden any better on defense – that’s all about Harden’s effort level – but Dwight consistently made a Magic team with several poor individual defenders into an elite defensive unit when he was in Orlando. With the right scheme, Houston can become a top 10 defensive team, and with an elite offense, that is good enough to make them a title contender.
As if pairing up an offensive savant like Harden with a defensive building block by Howard wasn’t enough, the off-season isn’t over for the Rockets just yet. There’s a chance that the Rockets may be able to acquire a third star player to add to their already solid core. The most logical option is free agent power forward Josh Smith, a close friend of Howard’s and a former AAU teammate. It appears as if Smith is interested in joining Howard in Houston and the Rockets can kill two birds with one stone in a potential sign-and-trade deal by getting either Jeremy Lin or Omer Asik’s contracts off the books. Putting Smith with Howard and Harden, along with Chandler Parsons at the three and Patrick Beverley at point, would give the Rockets four above average (and two elite) defensive players in their starting line-up, which is a scary thought given how much that team would score.
Another domino that may fall involves free agent point guard Jose Calderon. It has been reported that Calderon was waiting to see where Dwight would go so that he could follow him (what an odd connection, by the way), and the Rockets could really use a veteran like Calderon that can play in crunchtime and give them elite shooting from the perimeter. If the Rockets can get rid of Lin, they may have some money left over to nab Calderon, and the two-man point guard rotation between Beverley and Calderon would offer Kevin McHale tremendous versatility with his backcourt.
Regardless of who the Rockets are able to add from this point on – and it’s worth noting that no GM has proven better at finding dirt cheap rotation players from the bargain bin than Morey – the core they have now already has championship potential. Harden and Howard will combine for some of the best looking basketball that the NBA has to offer, and with role players like Parsons and Beverley complimenting them perfectly, Houston has become one of the most dangerous teams in the league.
After years of searching for the right stars, Morey has finally secured two of the brightest superstars in the league to be the cornerstones of his franchise. So get ready, NBA, because Houston is going to be a problem.