As much as Daryl Morey loves statistics, there is one mathematical formula that thus far has eluded him.
The one for winning a championship.
If such a formula existed, one can easily imagine the Houston Rockets general manager, in some underground lair, plugging "James Harden + Dwight Howard" into a Minority Report-like gestural interface computer, and waiting anxiously to see if the word "title" floated up on the see-through glass screen.
That's because there's no such thing.
Witness the Los Angeles Lakers of this past season, who started this year as a superteam, and ended it as a cautionary tale. Witness the San Antonio Spurs, who were once again projected to be over the hill. And yet here they stand, champions of the Western Conference and two victories away from their fifth Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Witness the Miami Heat two years ago. Many fans and media practically gift-wrapped the title the moment the Big 3 signed in July 2010. But when the dust settled, the trophy went to long-suffering Dirk Nowitzki instead.
So predicting whether or not the Rockets will win it all, let alone be in the finals, is flat-out impossible. Add to that the personnel other contenders will add via free agency and the draft, and prognostication gets even murkier.
Bearing all that in mind, let's look at what we know at this moment in time and decide the following question: Will the Rockets be title contenders with James Harden and Dwight Howard in their lineup?
Let's start with the small picture and work our way outwards. What would the rest of the roster look like?
Rumor has it that in order to create cap space to sign Howard, the Rockets will trade power forward Thomas Robinson (a mistake, I say for the umpteenth time). If the rumors hold true, such a move would likely leave the Rockets with the following starting lineup:
POINT GUARD—Jeremy Lin
Showed flashes of his Linsanity brilliance but far too much inconsistency in his stroke; he'll need to work hard this offseason on his shooting.
SMALL FORWARD—Chandler Parsons
The second-round draft pick now certainly ranks in the bottom half of the top 10 in the NBA at his position.
Despite a down year, ostensibly due in part to back surgery and a shoulder injury, D12 was still a hefty contributor. Was his disappointing 2012-13 an outlier or a harbinger of things to come?
Morey's gamble on the offensively graceless Asik was a terrific one, as the big man was a titan on defense, and managed to average well into double figures in points per 36 minutes as well.
The bench would have several solid if unspectacular contributors, the leader being Carlos Delfino (if he returns). Unheralded Patrick Beverley showed great promise at the point, Terrence Jones was a D-League All-Star at power forward, and Donatas Montiejunas could back up at the 4 or the 5.
Is this the starting lineup and roster of a title contender?
Well, let's compare it to the two teams vying for a title right now.
If you can accept my premise that Mario Chalmers and Jeremy Lin are relatively equal—this season, Chalmers had a far better three-point shooting percentage, and per 36 minutes had more steals and fewer turnovers, while Lin led in all other major offensive categories; Chalmers is superior overall defensively—Houston is actually better 2 through 5.
Yes, there's no megawatt superstar on the scale of LeBron James, and that's a big missing piece, but there's no filler like Udonis Haslem either. Plus the Rockets' starting five would have far more upside.
I like Mike Miller and Norris Cole over the Rockets' backup guards, but Houston's backup bigs show far more promise than Miami's. So even if we call that a wash, the Rockets still come out ahead overall.
What about the Spurs?
Here, which team has the advantage is less clear-cut. The Spurs win at the point and at power forward, because even at Duncan's ripe old age, I'd take his per-36 minute stats over D12's. The Rockets win at center and at shooting guard; Danny Green is solid, and has had some spectacular moments in these playoffs, but Harden is still the clear choice offensively. Chandler Parsons and Kawhi Leonard are a relative wash.
OK, but let's return to the original question: would this lineup make the Rockets contenders? If we're saying they're on a par with the Spurs, then the answer is yes.
Now, San Antonio's bench walks all over Houston's—and that's not even considering that the Rockets might have to jettison Delfino to sign Howard. But the starting five would have a chance, and if Morey can find more diamonds in the rough like Beverley, a seven-game series between the two teams would at least be competitive.
Now let's widen the picture. It's fair to assume the OKC Thunder might well have advanced to the finals with a healthy Russell Westbrook. So how would the Rockets with Howard stack up against them?
Westbrook beats Lin handily, and Durant's prodigious talent dwarfs that of Parsons. Harden easily trumps former Rocket Kevin Martin, though, and Asik is the clear choice over either Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison. That leaves power forward, and although Serge Ibaka had his best season—heck, even Howard himself said Ibaka should have been Defensive Player of the Year—the sane general manager would take Howard over Ibaka 10 times out of 10.
So once again, it's a virtual draw. I'd give the slight advantage to the Thunder here, and when their bench is considered—especially their backup guards—the Thunder extend that advantage. But the Rockets with Howard would certainly be a match for them.
How else would one determine whether or not a team are title contenders?
Chemistry? Well, if the Rockets rub off on Howard, and he reverts back into the charming behemoth who took the league by storm for his first half-dozen years, it'll be all fun and (winning) games for H-Town. And the likelihood that the "new and not improved" Howard would rub off on the Rockets is slim—that's how terrific this team chemistry is.
Coaching? As much as Jeremy Lin fans resent head coach Kevin McHale for what they believe is unfair treatment of the point guard, the truth is McHale did an excellent job with this team overall, especially considering their age, lack of experience and limited time playing together as a unit.
Young rosters and defense have historically never gone hand in hand, and this Rockets team was no exception, but McHale nicely implemented Morey's probability-based offense, to the tune of the Rockets being at or near the top of the league in many offensive categories.
I'm sure readers will make the case that the rosters of other teams—the Memphis Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Golden State Warriors—would have the edge over the Rockets with Howard. But that misses the overarching point: these teams are potentially in a title conversation. So even comparing them with the D12 Rockets means Houston would be contenders.
But I've taken the two best teams in the West, and the clear top dog in the East (sorry, Indiana), and compared them to a Rockets unit featuring Dwight Howard. The Rox certainly stacked up, if are not equal to, these mighty foes.
So taking a snapshot of this moment in time? Yeah, the Rockets with Howard would be title contenders. And I'm not alone in my thinking. Even as loyal a Lakers luminary as Magic Johnson agrees.
But if wishes were horses, every fan in the greater Houston metropolitan area would be a cowboy. (Wait a minute...they pretty much are.) Let me try again—speculation regarding Howard's impact on the Rockets roster is just that—speculation.
I am quite certain Rockets fans would much rather celebrate than speculate.
In other words: Bring on July 1. And Daryl Morey, do your best to get a deal done by July 4, so the good citizens of Houston can put those sparklers and firecrackers to extra-special use.