James Harden's arrival rendered Houston an NBA destination of choice and brought the Rockets back to the playoffs. Howard brings them within reach of title contention, though they're not there yet.
Offseasons help shape the championship picture, but much too often we're left ushering in the next era of dominance before anything even happens.
Such was the case with the Los Angeles Lakers only last season. Steve Nash and Howard, when placed alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, left the Lakers a favorite. Right up there with the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, there was Los Angeles, a force that would inevitably rival the Miami Heat's superteam.
Well look how that turned out.
Hollywood sneaked into the playoffs by the skin of its teeth and was promptly shown the door after dropping four successive contests to the eventual Western Conference champions. Just like that, the honeymoon was over before it began.
Injuries plagued Los Angeles' Big Four throughout the season, yet even when the team was collectively healthy (or close to it), glimmers of championship hope proved fleeting.
Not that the Rockets are any worse off or incapable of winning anything next season. The blueprint is there.
But it remains unfinished.
Getting to Know You
Instagram would have us believe that Howard and Harden are best friends, the kind that weave each other "BFF" bracelets at summer camp.
Newsflash: They're not. And even if they were, that means little when it comes to basketball.
This team is new to each other. Houston had to part ways with a number of players last year to make room for Howard, and now Superman is tasked with assimilating into his new culture.
No team is immune to the rigors of growing pains. The Heat weren't in 2010, the New York Knicks certainly weren't in 2011, the Lakers weren't in 2012 and the Rockets aren't going to be in 2013.
Superstar dyads take time to cultivate an on-court rapport. Rosters can be built overnight, and the general public can deem an outfit a viable contender equally as quickly. Those championships these teams are built to chase aren't won as fast, though.
These partnerships take time and preach patience. Howard needs to get used to playing alongside another ball-dominator like Harden, and the bearded wonder must become comfortable with running the ball through the post more. That matters.
Chemistry is not to be taken lightly. Familiarity and fundamental cognizance can often mean more than a prolific skill set or what it says on paper. Ask the Spurs, who have built a dynasty predicated on team chemistry. They'll tell you how important syncing up is, and how long it takes to reach that point.
Tim Duncan and Tony Parker will tell Howard and Harden too. Though, they may not have to. They're bound to find out for themselves soon enough anyway.
Do the Pieces Fit?
En route to both of Houston's superstars acclimating themselves to one another, the Rockets must also find out if the pieces they've put around them even fit.
Houston apparently doesn't have any plans to trade Omer Asik, an anecdote that makes less than little sense.
Neither Asik nor Howard are able to man the power forward slot. They can't hit mid-range jumpers or defend the increasing numbers of stretch 4s that are popping up around the league. Playing them at the same time has the potential to be a disaster.
Asik can always come off the bench to relieve Howard, but assuming Superman logs at least 35 minutes a night, that leaves just 13 minutes of staggered court time.
Paying Asik more than $8 million annually to come off the bench in a limited role doesn't stand to pay dividends. If anything, he's taking up the salary and roster spot of someone else who can actually play alongside Houston's newest star.
Trading away Asik doesn't guarantee anything either. The returning players may not fit. We'd like to believe they will, but nothing is absolutely certain.
Then there's Jeremy Lin and Harden himself to consider.
Both are ball-dominating guards who struggled to coexist next to each other last season; Howard presents another potentially problematic dynamic.
Other suitors attempted to convince Howard that Harden was going to be the Kobe of Houston, that he would have the same in-game control the Black Mamba did. And they may be right.
Harden is nowhere near as stubborn or strong-willed as Kobe (that we know of), but a large portion of his offensive success comes from playing on the ball. He's not a complementary spot-up shooter, existing solely to assist Howard in whatever he needs.
Last season, Harden held the eighth highest usage rate in the league (29 percent). Kobe was at a not-so-distant third (31.9). Howard struggled as the second (sometimes third) offensive option in Los Angeles. Magically embracing that role and then finding a way to instantly succeed in Houston isn't a plausible course of action. It doesn't work like that. In due time, maybe. Out the gate, absolutely not.
Asking Harden to be more of Howard's offensive sidekick isn't going to be a seamless method of attack either. Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), he knocked down just 39.8 percent of his spot-up attempts last year. Again, he's not Ryan Anderson 2.0 or a tactical chameleon who can vacillate between a Chandler Parsons-type role and a Harden-esque one.
He's James Harden, a superstar unlike any other Howard has teamed up with, which isn't necessary a good thing.
For better or worse, this is what the Rockets have to work with—an uneven front court, two guards who still need the ball in their hands to be successful and an All-Star coupling that will need time to find a happy medium.
Chances are, that even if everything continues to go Houston's way, the Rockets won't have resolved all the prominent questions marks efficiently enough to take down the rest of the West.
Speaking of which...
Don't Forget About These Guys
One of the cardinal offseason mistakes fans and pundits alike are guilty of is tunnel visions.
Teams don't always control their own destinies. Just because the Rockets have Harden and Howard doesn't mean they're the best team in the Western Conference. Or even the second best. Or third best. Or fourth best. They may not even be in the top five.
The Rockets are the best basketball faction currently residing in Houston—unless Phil Jackson's assertion that the Astros are an NBA team is correct— that's all we know for sure.
What DH brings to the game is power and D. This past year didn’t show due it to rehab and confusion. If he is better of an Astro, so be it.— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) July 7, 2013
How the rest of the standings unfold is up to the Rockets and their ability to mesh as soon as possible, yes, but there are also other tantalizing teams that deserve consideration.
The Oklahoma City Thunder lost Kevin Martin Martin to the Minnesota Timberwolves, but they still have a Big Three of their own in Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and what we have to assume will be a healthy Russell Westbrook.
San Antonio is still the reigning Western Conference champ, and if we've learned anything over the last decade, it's to never count Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili out. No matter how old they are. Never, ever.
From where I'm standing, you also can't posit that Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green aren't going to get better, because they are.
Moving right along you have the improved Golden State Warriors, who lost Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, but added a more talented/restrained playmaker and better defender in Andre Iguodala, and Carl Landry, The Sequel in Marreese Speights.
Sit Golden State's newest acquisitions beside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and a healthy David Lee and Andrew Bogut, and you've got something.
Hollywood's red-jerseyed stepchild has been busy as well. Chris Paul is back, which is never a bad thing, and the Los Angeles Clippers have added J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley and Darren Collison to the fold. Blake Griffiin is still a kind-of-sort-of superstar, and the return of Matt Barnes deepens their rotation considerably. And I suppose DeAndre Jordan isn't all bad either.
Oh, Doc Rivers is there too. Can't forget about him.
Less improved, but equally as harrowing a foe are the Memphis Grizzlies. Lionel Hollins is gone, but the core that stifled opposing offenses league-wide is still intact. Unless the Grizzlies shakeup their roster yet again—Zach Randolph?—they're going to remain players as well.
Most wouldn't hesitate to exclude the Denver Nuggets, Timberwolves and even Lakers from this list, but let's think outside the box.
Denver lost Iggy and Danilo Gallinari's ACL injury is disconcerting, but the way that roster is built, the Nuggets are still a threat.
I'm not prepared to write off the Timberwolves, provided they have a healthy Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. Sure, they overpaid for Martin and Chase Budinger, but once Nikola Pekovic re-signs (and he will), you're looking at a team built to make the playoffs.
Finally, you have the Lakers, in all their supposed ruin. Kobe isn't going to be ready to start the season, and Nash and Gasol had injury problems of their own last year. They could be lottery bound. They could also be a legitimate threat too.
What if they get healthy and stay healthy? Do we really believe they're going to be a pushover?
Kobe is still one of the most dangerous scorers in the game, Gasol should see more time at center (unless he's traded on account of Chris Kaman's arrival) and Nash is, well, he's Steve freaking Nash.
The Western Conference is stacked with talented aggregates, from tenured powerhouses like the Spurs and Thunder, to teams on the up-and-up like the Warriors, to dark horses like the Timberwolves.
Nothing in that conference is going to come easy. Absolutely nothing. Not even for the Rockets, who aren't the best team in the conference, or even built to instantly overthrow the Heat when you travel East.
How will the Rockets fare next season?
They'll throw Harden, Howard and Parsons on the floor and call them a Big Three, when they're not. They may very well be eventually, but not now, when Parsons still has a lot to prove and Harden and Howard are so new to each other.
One day soon, the landscape will shift and the Rockets could find themselves atop the NBA's pedestal, or close to it. At present, they're somewhere in the middle.
Better than last season, but still not in position to automatically win a championship.