Dwight Howard paired with the Rockets could blast the Rockets into the next stratosphere.
So first, let me get out of the way what I don't like.
I don't like D12's attitude. At all.
I don't like that he lost his composure and got kicked out of a playoff game. He might as well have stuck a middle finger up to every Los Angeles Lakers fan.
I don't like that when he has a gripe, he complains publicly. I don't like that he seems to have a never-ending list of gripes, and I don't like that his complaints crop up whenever things are getting the least bit tough.
I don't like that nothing ever seems to be Dwight's fault.
I don't like that sometimes he gives maximum effort, and sometimes he doesn't. I don't like that the best center in the NBA frequently decides not to play like it.
I used to really, really like Dwight Howard. I can't honestly say I like him right now.
But I sure would like him to play for these Rockets. Because I think I would like him again. In fact, I think the whole league would remember why they liked this guy in the first place.
To start, I believe Dwight's attitude will change in Houston, simply because this is a group of guys who don't air their grievances to the media. In fact, these Rockets don't seem to have grievances at all.
Jeremy Lin could not have been happy with his frequent fourth-quarter benchings. Did you hear a peep out of him?
James Harden could not have been happy that, at 6' 5", he was the only reliable offensive option down low (keep working on those hands, Omer Asik). Do you recall ever hearing that observation anywhere but in my and other sportswriters' columns?
Kevin McHale got lambasted by fans for various perceived injustices and supposed missteps, despite getting this squad to within two wins of an historic upset and doing so in the midst of an unspeakably tragic family loss. Can you remember one instance of McHale venting his hurt and frustration?
Nope, as far as we can tell, this squad is the freakin' Brady Bunch. Secret handshakes, sideline laughter and good cheer. Positivity all around.
Maybe it's because of a legitimate communal gratitude. Maybe the men on this roster are aware that they are the underestimated, the overlooked, the ones considered expendable.
Dwight Howard fits none of these three categories. Yet he might have every reason to feel the same gratitude. Because unlike his last two stops, he won't have to be The Man (Orlando Magic), and he won't have any negativity around him (Los Angeles).
Were Howard to return to Los Angeles, he'd be coming back to a team paralyzed by the injury to Kobe Bryant and riddled with salary-cap issues. It's a team that would look to Howard—a man who has demonstrated over and over how much he despises responsibility—to lead this team. On the Rockets, James Harden is the clear and undisputed leader.
Whereas the Lakers were one of the oldest teams in the NBA this past season, the Rockets were the youngest. Were Dwight to join them, might we see a return of the young, happy-go-lucky D12 whose smile and cheerfulness were as big as his game?
I say it's possible. I say stress and unhappiness can bring out a side of ourselves, any one of us, that we don't like the world to see.
I say a Dwight Howard who has trouble finding anything to complain about will simply stop complaining, and start remembering what it's like to have fun again playing the game he's so good at playing.
And make no mistake: he is really, really good.
But I can't begin to imagine how good he will be when paired with James Harden.
Harden had to do way too much all by himself on the Rockets this season. With Howard underneath, defenses will have to account for the big man in a big way, so Harden will have more space on his drives.
When Harden is stymied—and even when he simply sees an opportunity—he will have arguably the league's best above-the-rim player to pass to underneath. 2012-13 had its share of struggles for Howard, yet he was second in the league in dunks and has led the league in flushes six out of the last eight years (per Basketball Reference).
The great thing is, the Rockets don't need Howard to do anything more on offense than what he does best: dominate down low. For one thing, their offensive philosophy emphasizes shots either at the rim or beyond the three-point line. They have plenty of folks who can shoot the three, but nobody who's dominant at the rim.
That's where Howard comes in—as the Rockets' power forward.
I've gotten many comments from fans who believe the Rockets need a stretch 4 like Josh Smith fancies himself more than they need a player like Howard with a limited offensive game.
I believe nothing could be further from the truth. First off, Smith's field-goal percentages away from the rim are nausea-inducing. Second, the Rockets had a stretch 4 in Patrick Patterson. Remember all the rebounding problems we had?
No, the Rockets' game is already spaced to the perimeter. Where it's lacking potency is at the hoop.
Too many times last year, Harden tried to penetrate against defenses who, having no fear of Asik's offensive game, ganged up on The Beard. As good as Harden is—he's become arguably the game's finest knife—he was too often a knife in a gun fight. And as Indiana Jones will attest, gun beats knife every time.
When he's in his iso game, defenses know Harden will likely either drive or shoot a stepback jumper. Thus they focused their attention on Harden, which often worked to great success, especially as this season wore on.
One of my favorite plays Harden makes in isolation is a swing pass with the shot clock running down, because the short jumper keeps defenses honest. The problem is that he doesn't make that swing pass often, as the 15-foot jumper is anathema in the Rockets' offensive scheme.
With Howard, Harden in isolation will have a deadly option underneath that will fit the Rockets' strategy, and will make it impossible for defenses to simply key on the Beard.
Orlando and Los Angeles wanted Howard to do more offensively. All the Rockets will ask Howard to be offensively is who he already is: a specialist who excels at the rim and on the pick-and-roll.
Speaking of the pick-and-roll, no center is as adept at running it as Howard. In Harden and Jeremy Lin, he's got two guards who embrace the pick-and-roll like a long-lost brother.
Offensively, Howard is in every way a perfect fit for this team.
Defensively, the combination of Howard at the 4 and Asik at the 5 would give the Rockets a Twin Towers 2.0 that would essentially make the paint a no-fly zone. If you're a fan of defense like I am—somebody please bring back hand-checking—this pairing would be an absolute delight to behold.
In addition, rebounding for these two is like shooting fish in a barrel. Both players were top-10 in defensive boards per game (not to mention top-13 in offensive rebounds).
Howard has deservedly won three Defensive Player of the Year awards and has been an All-Defensive first teamer the past four years. Houston desperately needs to improve defensively. Adding Dwight Howard to the defense is like adding Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and sauerkraut to a corned beef sandwich: an instant and massive improvement.
This match made in heaven is only a John Hancock away. And getting Howard to sign on the dotted line is apparently Harden's offseason goal.
According to these ESPN tweets, not only does Harden want to help the Rockets recruit, but he also wants to specifically recruit Howard:
On way out of Toyota Center, asked if he'll be active participant in Rockets' free-agent recruiting, James Harden tells ESPN: "Hell, yeah"— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 4, 2013
Asked specifically about joining Rockets' well-chronicled plans to chase Dwight Howard, Harden cracked a smile and said: "Maybe. Possibly"— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 4, 2013
Should there be a contingency plan if signing Howard doesn't work out? Absolutely. Were Howard to fall through, my dream alternative is Al Jefferson. His post game is straight outta Basketball 101, and to my eyes, that means it's a thing of beauty.
Is he slower than Howard? Is he less dominant? Is he far less skilled defensively? Yes, yes and yes. But could he also catapult the Rockets to elite status? You betcha.
That's because the next big piece in the Rockets' puzzle doesn't have the carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. He just has to fit the team's needs. Dwight Howard fits them to a T.
D12, if you happen to be reading, you've got to really get that. If you come to Houston, you can just be yourself, do what you do, and have fun again.
And trust me, the fun will be contagious. All your teammates and all your fans at the Toyota Center will be joining in.
After all, when it comes to winning a championship, we're all like minded.