2012-13 Lakers Are Cautionary Tale for Houston Rockets' Superteam Plan

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2012-13 Lakers Are Cautionary Tale for Houston Rockets' Superteam Plan

So the Houston Rockets want to sign Dwight Howard when the NBA's biggest headache hits free agency this summer, eh?

Are they sure about that? Did they see what happened to the Los Angeles Lakers this past season?

Okay, okay, so Dwight isn't the only one at fault for the Lakers falling as woefully short of expectations as they did. Nor is he the only big name on Houston's radar at the moment. According to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, the Rockets also have their eye on Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who's likely to strike up a recruiting war of his own come July 1.

Getting both of the NBA's top free agents to reroute their careers to Space City would require quite a bit of salary cap trickery.

But, as Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal recently noted, pulling off such a coup isn't exactly out of the question for Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who knows his way around the league's collective bargaining agreement better than most.

Hypothetically, bringing three superstars together on one squad would launch the Rockets right toward the top of the heap in the Western Conference. They'd have an All-Everything point guard in CP3 to run the show, a powerful center in Dwight to control the interior on both ends and a dynamic swingman in James Harden to score off the ball when Paul's on the floor and operate the offense when he's not.

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The rest of the core could include, say, Chandler Parsons, a skilled forward; Omer Asik, a dynamic defensive presence who blossomed under the auspices of Kevin McHale this past season; and any number of cheap, soon-to-be sophs currently under the Rockets' control.

That is, assuming Houston wouldn't have to give up some of these players in a sign-and-trade for either of LA's wandering superstars.

Even if the Rockets were to land "only" one of the two between Paul and Howard, there would be significant concerns with each.

There's no telling how CP3 would react to finally sharing a backcourt with another guard who's anywhere near his level. Fostering long-term partnerships with the likes of Marco Belinelli, Marcus Thornton, Devin Brown, Willie Green and an aging Chauncey Billups (among others) is no easy feat.

Presumably, then, Paul would have no problem pairing up with a rising talent like Harden. Their familiarity from sharing the floor during Team USA's gold-medal run at the 2012 London Olympics might smooth out some of requisite bumps.

Except, their particular talents aren't exactly complementary.

Both are creative guards who run a ton of pick-and-rolls—and just so happen to excel at doing so. According to Synergy Sports, Harden (1.0 points per possession) was actually slightly more effective than Paul (0.98 points per possession) as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in 2012-13, though Chris shot more accurately in the pick-and-roll (49.2 percent to Harden's 45.7 percent) and ran it more often (37.3 percent of the time for Paul vs. 24.8 percent of the time for Harden).

Still, Paul and Harden are both pick-and-roll specialists with only occasional experience as the screener. Both are also superb and frequent proprietors of handling the ball in isolation, but, again, doing so as often as these two tend to (26.2 percent of the time for Paul, 27 percent of the time for Harden, per Synergy Sports) might not make for such a seamless fit in the backcourt.

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At the very least, Harden has plenty of experience with deferring to other stars. At this time last year, he was serving as the Oklahoma City Thunder's third guard in the 2012 NBA Finals after taking home Sixth Man of the Year honors. If Harden can sacrifice his game for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, then surely he could do the same for Chris Paul...right?

Whether doing so would actually be what's best for Harden and the Rockets in the long run is another story.

The Beard blossomed into a bona fide force of nature after he arrived in Houston and was all but given the keys to the team. Harden finished fifth in the NBA in scoring at 25.9 points per game and led the league in nearly every category pertaining to free-throw frequency. He'll be 24 by the start of the 2013-14 campaign, with plenty of room still to grow.

Might slotting him next to a ball-dominant guard like CP3 actually stunt Harden's growth? James can be effective off the ball, but doing so hardly takes full advantage of his prodigious talents as a slasher and distributor. 

As far as personalities are concerned, would Harden take well to Paul's demanding, often grating brand of leadership? Would the Rockets, who led the NBA in possessions per game this past season, readily revert to a slower, more deliberate style of play that aligns more closely with the preferred pace of a soon-to-be-28-year-old Paul?

And what of Chris' troublesome left knee? He had it scoped back in 2010 and has experienced periodic discomfort in the same knee since. The lingering effects have led Paul to reconfigure his game to include fewer forays to the hoop and contributed to his missing 12 games during the 2012-13 season.

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Thus, the Rockets would have to ask themselves, to what extent could they count on Chris over the long haul? And if they wanted to, how much would doing so come at the expense of allowing Harden to be at his best?

From a purely basketball perspective, then, Howard would probably be the better fit of the two superstar free agents in Houston. He occupies a different area of the floor, fills different needs (interior scoring, setting screens, finishing on the pick-and-roll, rebounding, protecting the rim, etc.), and doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective.

In Houston, Howard would find a squad whose ability and preference to shoot three-pointers isn't unlike that of Stan Van Gundy's Orlando Magic during Dwight's heyday. The Rockets sport the sort of gunners who can spread the floor and open up space on the interior in which Howard can go to work.

What's more, playing in Houston would offer Howard the opportunity to brush up on his low-post game with the help of not one, but two of the greatest back-to-the-basket artists of all time in head coach Kevin McHale and Rockets legend/"Guru to the Greats" Hakeem Olajuwon.

That all sounds well and good for Dwight, but what does it mean for the Rockets? Ideally, the seasons to come would see Howard regain the health of his back, which would allow him to be the dominant presence that he was in Orlando but couldn't quite be in LA.

Along the way, he'd fit right into Houston's spread pick-and-roll as a screener and finisher—a role in which he's long excelled. According to Synergy Sports, Dwight was the eighth-most-efficient pick-and-roll finisher in the league last season, scoring 1.29 points per possession, albeit on 11.4 percent of his plays.

Which brings us to the first of many concerns about Dwight that Houston should have after watching him in LA: that he doesn't run many pick-and-rolls anymore, in part because he doesn't want to.

For whatever reason (Shaquille O'Neal's continued ribbing, perhaps?), Dwight has demonstrated that he'd rather try to establish himself as a low-post powerhouse than continue to torment the NBA on the move in the pick-and-roll.

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Even though Howard is merely above-average with his back to the basket. In 2012-13, Howard posted up a whopping 45.2 percent of the time and scored 0.74 points per possession on such plays, per Synergy Sports.

His rank amongst his peers in that regard? 121st. Not bad, but not exactly sparkling, either.

Especially for a guy who's due to make well over $20 million per year for the next four or five. And especially if that guy's best days are already behind him.

As Grantland's Bill Simmons recently argued, Howard's been on the decline for a couple years now, in part because of his back injury but also in part because of the toll exacted by years of dragging along a subpar supporting cast and getting punished by opposing players on the interior.

He also noted that most of the notable big men in NBA history haven't seen such steep drops in their productivity during their first 12 years as pros, and that those that have were stricken by serious, health-related setbacks.

As such, would it really be wise for the Rockets to hitch their wagon to a guy who doesn't seem to understand his own strengths, would likely slow down what Houston does by insisting on the development of his low-post weaknesses, and probably won't recover well enough from his injuries to fully make up on the defensive end for his offensive deficiencies?

And what of Howard's personality? His leadership, if at all extant, has left much to be desired to this point in his career. He's been known to whine and complain about coaches and teammates, both behind closed doors and in front of hot mics.

Granted, with Harden (and, perhaps, Paul) around, Howard wouldn't have to shoulder that particular burden in Houston. He could defer to a star guard and reap the benefits of success.

Then again, before Howard arrived in LA last summer, rumors swirled about his desire to be the face of a franchise—preferably of the Brooklyn Nets. Kobe Bryant's ownership of that mantle in Lakerland was thought to be a turnoff for Dwight.

And yet, when the opportunity arose for Howard to lead by example after Bryant's Achilles went bunk, the moody big man got himself ejected and stormed off the court in what proved to be the final game of the Lakers' short foray into the 2013 playoffs:

The point being, Dwight can't have his cake and eat it, too. He can't be the face of a franchise, soaking up the spoils therein, and yet deflect blame and responsibility for his shortcomings onto others. 

Perhaps a move to a smaller, less demanding market in Houston will help to heal Howard's psyche. Perhaps another fresh start and an offseason of rest and regular training will set his ailing body straight. Perhaps a new collection of teammates, coaches, and support staff will provide the proper setting in which Howard can mature to the degree that his birth certificate—dated December 8th, 1985—suggests he should already be.

Which superstar should the Rockets push harder to acquire?

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Make no mistake: Dwight Howard would, on paper, render the Rockets a potential contender in the wide-open Western Conference, alongside the likes of the Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers. Throw Chris Paul into the mix, and the future would be even brighter.

And if we're talking about "superteam" experiments, a Harden-Howard-Paul trio would likely fall somewhere closer to the Miami Heat's Big Three than to the Lakers' purported Big Four, as far as prospects for long-term success are concerned. The Rockets would be adding two superstars in the midst of their respective primes, just as Miami did in 2010.

This, as opposed to LA, which attempted to reload on the fly behind Howard and three over-the-hill Hall of Famers, all of whom suffered through the worst plagues of injury in their careers in 2012-13.

Howard and Paul (and, to a lesser extent, Harden) will still be vulnerable in Houston, though they'd be better bets to remain upright than, say, a 39-year-old point guard, a 35-year-old shooting guard, or a soon-to-be-33-year-old big man. And if the Rockets are presented with the opportunity to win their first title since their back-to-back runs in 1994 and 1995, they'd be foolish not to seize it.

That being said, making the jump from fringe playoff team to presumed title contender in the span of a year can be fraught with risk, even more so when the springboards in question are as controlling (Paul) and finicky (Howard) as those the Rockets are due to pursue.

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But getting too close to the heat of championship competition without the proper trust, time for coalescence both on and off the court, and mix of personalities is a dangerous endeavor. Flying higher means falling harder if/when things go wrong. Just ask Icarus, the tragic figure from Greek mythology who met his demise when he flew too close to the sun and his wax wings melted.

Or, better yet, ask the Lakers, whose own collapse with Dwight Howard on their side and Chris Paul across the hall will live forever in NBA infamy.  

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