Will Houston Rockets Belong to James Harden or Dwight Howard in 2013-14?
Somehow, Los Angeles—the sprawling, star-studded metropolis that it is—wasn't big enough for Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant. According to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein, Howard left the Los Angeles Lakers in part because he didn't like the idea of sharing the spotlight with the Black Mamba beyond the 2013-14 season.
What's to suggest, then, that there will be room enough in Houston to satisfy both Howard and James Harden?
(Other than the rote response about everything being bigger in Texas and whatnot.)
To be sure, the circumstances surrounding Howard's arrival with the Houston Rockets will be far different from those he faced during his single-calendar sojourn with the Los Angeles Lakers. Harden sports neither the monstrous ego (that we know of) nor the historic track record that Kobe, a five-time champion and surefire Hall of Famer, brought to the table.
Not that Harden isn't a superstar, but he's practically as new to Space City as is Howard.
Remember, Harden landed in Houston not nine months ago in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder at which even the guys from The League would cringe. He did well to lead the Rockets to their first playoff appearance since 2009, albeit modestly as the eighth seed. Still, it's not as though Harden's roots run to the core of the Rockets organization.
And they won't until he's lifted the team into title contention over the course of, say, a half-decade or so of service at the very least.
That being said, Harden still has a leg up on Howard in whatever race there may or may not be for supremacy in Houston, if only because the Beard had a head start.
But if the Rockets are going to make good on their considerable promise as a team, they'll need Howard to play the part of team leader in word and in deed—which, at this point, seems a tall order for a guy whose credentials for the former remain in doubt.
Howard's already proven that, at his best, he can carry even a so-so supporting cast into title contention.
During his six-year playoff streak with the Orlando Magic, Howard played with just two concurrent All-Stars—Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis, both in 2009—and not once with someone who joined him among All-NBA honorees.
In that way, Howard in Orlando wasn't at all unlike LeBron James during his tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Both competed in multiple conference finals and lost in an NBA Finals series to one of the defining players of the previous generation: LeBron to Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs in 2007 and Dwight to Kobe Bryant's Lakers in 2009.
James, too, had been dogged by questions about his leadership (or lack thereof). A poor performance against the Boston Celtics during a second-round series in 2010 left many to wonder whether LeBron had "quit" on his Cavs prior to free agency.
Likewise, there was some speculation during the spring of 2012 that Dwight had opted for back surgery not because he needed it so badly (which, as it happens, he did), but rather because he wanted an "easy" way out of Orlando.
In any case, Dwight has, at times, proven himself to leading teams with far less talent than what he'll have in Houston to title contention.
Luckily for Howard and the Rockets, Harden is intimately familiar with playing a supporting role on a similarly successful squad. He spent his first three years in the NBA as the leader of OKC's second unit, earning Sixth Man of the Year honors in 2011-12 while helping propel the Thunder to the Finals.
At no point now should Harden be relegated to bench duty, to say the least. He's already established himself as one of the 10 to 15 best players on the plane. He performed well enough for Kevin McHale last season to make the Rockets' ball-handling, distribution, and perimeter scoring duties his own.
But, as great as Harden already is, he can't do everything.
The additional workload took its toll on Harden's shooting percentages and contributed significantly to his league-leading total of 295 turnovers. By teaming up with and deferring to Howard, Harden can all but ensure that he'll get better, easier shots and that he won't have to do everything himself off the dribble.
And, as one of the premier pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the NBA, Harden should be even more efficient now that he has, in Howard, a mobile, athletic big man with a well-established ability to screen and finish in two-man sets.
If Harden is smart, he'll willingly defer to Howard if it means keeping the big man happy and playing at his best on both ends of the floor.
But only if Howard is capable of his best.
Howard was hobbled throughout the 2012-13 campaign after rushing his recovery from back surgery. Not until late in the season did he begin to display the sort of explosiveness and athleticism to which we'd become accustomed on a regular basis. Even then he clearly was operating well below full capacity.
There's reason to believe that he'll never be the same guy he was at his peak. He's already slogged through nine grueling seasons in the NBA, during which he's been hacked, pushed, shoved, poked and prodded to no end. The contact that Dwight typically incurs on the court takes enough of a toll of its own on the body.
Like, say, the sort that eventually requires major back surgery. Complete recoveries from procedures like Howard's are difficult, lengthy and rare.
That being said, it shouldn't surprise anyone if Dwight looks far better next season than he did last season. Rather than limping around Beverly Hills like he did for much of last summer, Howard is now fit and mobile enough to return to his previous offseason routine of strength and conditioning workouts.
Truth be told, Dwight will need every bit of his old self to earn his keep as Houston's BMOC.
He can't (or, rather, shouldn't) expect the Rockets to hand him the keys to the franchise from Day 1, despite the $20-plus million per year they'll be paying him. It's up to him to demonstrate that he can handle the responsibility, that he can dominate again to the point where there's no doubt to whom the team "belongs."
If Howard does that much, he will have more than earned his keep because, more than likely, he'll have the Rockets competing for championships again for the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon last roamed the court. Surely, James Harden won't mind riding Dwight's coattails if he gets to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy as a result.
Because no matter the size of the city or the egos therein, there's always room for winners.
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