2013 NBA Free Agents: Houston Rockets Aren't Contenders Even with Dwight Howard

Bruce Chen@bsk1364Analyst IJuly 6, 2013

Is Houston now a contender? Cue the dopey face.
Is Houston now a contender? Cue the dopey face.

We as sports analyzers tend to have "red-ball theory." It's too easy for us to write articles or calibrate opinions that obsess over the flavour of the moment. It's too easy for us to buy into the narrative that the Houston Rockets are the new powerhouse in the Western Conference following the groundbreaking report that Dwight Howard will join them. 

This happens way too often in the NBA, more so than any other sport. Why? Because basketball is unlike any other sport.

Replacing an average player with a superstar at his position can instantly change your team from a 27-win team to a 55-win team simply because of how much he touches the ball, stays on the court and dictates your teams' style of play.

In baseball, there are nine-man batting orders. In hockey, your best skater is really only on the ice for a third of total game time. And in football, there are 22 starters on the field.

Bottom line, the media is too quick to anoint a team as the best thing since sliced bread before they've even played a game.

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh went to Miami, the "Welcome Party" happened, and we all thought they would win the 2011 NBA title, no problem. Same thing happened when Howard was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for Steve Nash. And it was this same paradigm that we, the media had, that led to us subsequently excoriating them for not winning.

The 2013 Lakers got ripped apart by the media for sneaking into the playoffs as an eighth seed. And the 2011 Miami Heat got creamed beyond belief to the point where a non-sports fan might've thought they caused the economic collapse. 

That's where we're at with Howard joining forces with James Harden. When healthy, you're crazy not to say he's the best center in all of basketball. This is a position where superstars are scarce. It's like having Jimmy Graham at tight end in your fantasy football league; you have a decided advantage over your opponent at all times because you know you're already winning one matchup in any given game.

It's easy to envision how good the Rockets can be with Howard. Harden is a dominant lead guard and probably one of the top 10 players in the league. Howard's greatest weakness as your No.1 guy is that you can't give him the ball in crunch time because he'll get fouled.

In Houston, Harden will simply take over. And as much as it pains me to write this being Kobe Bryant's biggest fan, he'll obviously be the better long-term 2-guard, with similar scoring prowess to Bryant, but minus the abrasive personality. 

We could get carried away with this stuff all day and eventually convince ourselves that the Rockets are now the favourites to win the conference. But let's hit the brakes for a second.

The arrival of Howard is replacing the incumbent, Omer Asik, who absolutely does not want to play with him, according to a report by Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com.

He and Jeremy Lin could be on the way out, which means it's probably too early to entirely determine Houston's fortunes. But the reality is that Houston had the 16th-ranked defense (per HoopData) with Asik anchoring the paint, while Los Angeles had the 19th with Howard anchoring theirs.

Obviously, the defense doesn't entirely hinge on one guy. But the notion that Howard is the end-all and be-all, defensive stopper who transforms your defense from horrible to pretty good like he did in Orlando isn't true anymore. He's no longer the dominant shot-blocker or rebounder he once was, thanks to his back surgery.

Houston went from paying their center around $8 million a year to $22 million a year. The difference in production? seven points, 0.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks. Is that really worth an extra $14 million a year?

Let's take some more juicy numbers from our good friend HoopData. Houston's pace rating clocked in at 98.8, good for No. 1 in the NBA. It's well-known that usage and pace allows for a potent offense, but compromises your defense, and Houston had the third-ranked offense in the league last year at 102.5 points a contest.

Now, we can all agree that one reason Howard left Los Angeles had to do with the fact that Mike D'Antoni refused to cater his style of coaching game plan to Howard's skill set.

You might think that the Lakers with two dominant seven-footers in Pau Gasol and Howard should have slowed it down and played a grinding half-court game. Wrong. They ranked sixth in pace, not too far behind Houston. D'Antoni loved running and compromising his half-court game, and that's what Howard and his shredded, under-the-knife-ridden back hated.

Since he chose Houston, we can probably assume that the Rockets promised they'd cater their system to him in ways the Lakers couldn't promise. Otherwise, Howard is going to get moody and indecisive again and either invoke his opt-out clause or force a trade again.

Logically, if Houston wants to incorporate a dominant big man who needs the ball in his hands on post-up plays, they can't run the fastest offense in the league. It's physically impossible.

So what happened here? Howard doesn't rebound a whole lot more than Asik, and there's not a lot of conclusive evidence other than 1.3 blocks that he's a whole lot better defensively than Asik was. At least after his back surgery, and whether he can return to his old, more dominant form in Orlando is a whole other story in and of itself.

They now have to slow down their pace, which is what made their offense so potent and was, by far, their best asset and overall team identity. Now you're going to slow it down and dilute your offense for this guy, and you're not sure if he's not significantly improving your defense?  

Harden scored 26 points a game and dominated the ball a lot, proven by his 29 percent usage rate (ninth in the NBA), according to Basketball-Reference.com. Wasn't that a part of what made Howard leery of playing with Kobe for another five years? We know he wants to be "the guy," and he was only ever in that situation when he wasn't playing with a ball-dominant 2-guard who was the main scorer.

Houston now has a top-four of Howard, Harden (who by any account, at 24, isn't better than the pre-Achilles injury Kobe), Jeremy Lin (who's somehow worse defensively than the creaky, epidural-shot needing Steve Nash) and Chandler Parsons (an intriguing talent, thought streaky at times). They have a lukewarm bench, and they are, as we established above, changing their team identity around Howard.

Can somebody explain to me how that's better than what we just saw with the 2013 Lakers?

Everyone else in the Western Conference stayed the same or got better. Oklahoma City's getting Russell Westbrook back. Nobody will doubt San Antonio for being too old again. Memphis, Denver and Utah will still be there.

Golden State added Andre Iguodala. And the Los Angeles Clippers made less splashy moves, but will genuinely be a better team with a re-invested Chris Paul, Doc Rivers coaching instead of the acrimoniously terrible Vinny Del Negro, and two of the smartest acquisitions this summer in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley.   

Again, we'll see what assets GM Daryl Morey can get for Asik and possibly Lin. They better be good. You aren't convincing me that the Rockets can be competitive with the cream of the Western Conference crop just yet.