The next two months will be absolutely excruciating for Houston Rockets fans.
But in a good way.
After signing Dwight Howard in July, this franchise finds itself in prime position to build upon a breakout season engineered by 2012 acquisition James Harden. With Chandler Parsons emerging as one of the league's most dangerous wing shooters, Howard would seem to be the third and perhaps final missing piece.
All the more so if Jeremy Lin returns to form or Patrick Beverley proves he's here to stay. There are multiple reasons for excitement, and that's the problem—the good problem. The meantime will be fraught with a lot of thumb-twiddling and curious peaks into training camp.
And maybe a little planning. Here are 10 games from Houston's recently released schedule that just might be worthy of your viewing enjoyment.
How will Clippers' fans react to Dwight Howard? Or will they react at all?
On the one hand, Clippers fans should be at least a little amused by the Lakers' misfortune. On the other hand, they could perceive Howard's defection as a slight against the entire city of Los Angeles. And then again, they may be more focused on just seeing a few nice lobs.
Subdued drama aside, this game means more in terms of bragging rights. Both of these organizations engineered impressive coups this summer (acquiring Doc Rivers in the Clippers' case), and both expect to take the Western Conference reigns from the San Antonio Spurs.
Early into the season, this contest will be one of the first indications of who really won the offseason.
It won't be quite as momentous as Dwight Howard's actual return to Los Angeles (against the Lakers), but it's the perfect opportunity for Rockets' fans to rub this summer's events in the Lakers' faces.
Granted, that would mean adding insult to a season's worth of injury, but fans around the league probably don't feel too sorry for L.A., who—in fairness—eagerly jumped at the chance to pry Howard from the Orlando Magic.
Whether what goes around comes around, Houston knows its ascension into the ranks of Western Conference contenders still goes through the most dangerous contender of the last decade.
Meanwhile, those Lakers aim to prove this decade won't be all that different from the last. There may be some new faces, and Kobe may be transitioning from his prime to the sunset of his career—but it's always too soon to announce this club's demise.
The Lakers will also be aiming to prove they're better without Howard.
That will sound utterly absurd to most Rockets fans now, but give it a few months. The fact that Howard and Los Angeles didn't mix isn't necessarily Howard's fault, but there's no question the Lakers' locker room will be a less dramatic place this season.
If everyone gets on the same page and figures out how to make the most of Mike D'Antoni, this year's iteration of the Purple and Gold really could be better than the last.
The Rockets don't plan on helping that cause in November.
This isn't the first time the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks face off, but it's the first time they do so in Big D.
Mark Cuban's charm offensive (or is it offensive charm?) wasn't enough to keep Dwight Howard out of Houston's more star-studded clutches, and there's no way he's happy about it. After all, someone went to all that trouble to design this Superman Dwight recruitment video—replete with Hans Zimmer's score from Man of Steel.
This is Cuban's chance to prove his Plan B was better than his Plan A after all, and it's Houston's chance to gloat.
Even without the Howard subtext, this is a game between two Texas teams, which means an implicit rivalry—ranking somewhere just behind who makes the best BBQ in these parts.
The Rockets are on the up-and-up, but the Mavericks were the better team throughout the last decade, the most recent team to win a title. You can forgive them for being a bit sensitive about their current state of affairs, where as Dirk Nowitzki's last chapter isn't look as rosy as Tim Duncan's or Kevin Garnett's at the moment.
Tim Duncan has probably had that exact expression for well over a month now. He may even still be at that very podium. Those Finals will never stop stinging.
The Houston Rockets are one of the teams that could make Tim Duncan a much sadder man. Last season's shot at a fifth ring benefited from Kobe Bryant's torn Achilles and (less directly) Russell Westbrook's torn meniscus. Not only could this season's opposition be healthier, it could be significantly better on account of offseason maneuvering as well.
Dwight Howard's arrival was perhaps the most important of those maneuvers, but the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers are also better positioned to threaten San Antonio.
In short, this Christmas Day game will mean more to the Spurs than it does the Rockets. Houston has all season to put its pieces together and develop a rhythm in time for the postseason. San Antonio, on the other hand, will battle for continued relevance from Day 1.
There won't be much drama to this one, but it's an interesting test for the Houston Rockets all the same.
The Memphis Grizzlies' frontline (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) is one of the few that rivals Houston's. As much of the Rockets have become synonymous with a run-and-gun offense, Dwight Howard's touches will change that to some degree—to say nothing of those minutes in which Howard and Omer Asik are on the floor together.
To whatever extent Houston remains an up-tempo, free-firing kind of operation, this contest will also be an intriguing contrast in styles. If the Grizzlies are legitimate contenders, their world-class defense will have to slow down teams like Houston.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of this game, though, is how the Rockets fare a night after playing the San Antonio Spurs on Christmas—especially against a true peer in Memphis. This could very well be a first-round matchup between No. 4 and No. 5-seeded teams. With a trip to OKC three days later, this is a crucial stretch for Houston.
It won't define who they are come playoff time, but it will certainly impact momentum along the way for better or worse.
So let's get this schedule straight.
Fresh off an All-Star weekend in New Orleans (at which James Harden and Dwight Howard will presumably be in attendance), the Houston Rockets head to Los Angeles to play the Lakers on February 19. They won't play another game at home until March 1.
That's a long time on the road and a perfect opportunity for the Rockets to become distracted. And by Rockets, I really mean Howard. There's nothing like the mid-season vacation that is the All-Star game to knock an easily sidetracked player off stride—except for a return to the scene of the crime in L.A.
If he pulls this off and stays focused, it's a good sign. If not, Rockets fans will know the pain of their Laker brethren.
The Golden State Warriors had eyes for Dwight Howard this summer, and for a moment, it seemed like the feeling might be mutual.
While the Houston Rockets emerged with Howard, Golden State made an important upgrade of its own landing Andre Iguodala. The Warriors were also a step ahead of the Rockets last season, so it's hard to say how the two sides match up now. These are both young rosters, so much of the unknown depends on how guys like Harrison Barnes or Chandler Parsons continue to develop.
Golden State also has a big man in Andrew Bogut who could give Howard trouble. Bogut isn't much of a scorer—at least not in Golden State's system—but he's a big, rugged defender.
This will be the third and final time Houston plays Golden State this season, and it comes on the heels of the All-Star Break and a trip to Los Angeles. Houston has to return to the real world and focus in on the playoff march ahead, and a win against the Warriors would go a long way toward accomplishing that.
This is make-or-break time for the Houston Rockets. Coming into this game against the Miami Heat, Houston will have just come off two off days. Before that, though, they play the Oklahoma City Thunder and then the Chicago Bulls.
All three contests are on the road.
It'll be the second (and last) meeting between these two clubs, both of which are in March. Throw in home games against the Indiana Pacers and Los Angeles Clippers, and March will be handful for these Rockets. Which is another way of saying it will be an opportunity for these Rockets.
There's little doubt Houston will put together an impressive regular-season record, but it's the quality wins in which we're interested. March won't define these Rockets forever more, but it should speak volumes about what kind of playoff team we're looking at.
It provokes an interesting thought experiment, at least if you're into that sort of thing. Had Howard wound up with the Nets in 2012, it's safe to say Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce wouldn't be there now due to financial constraints (if the Nets are indeed bound by such constraints like the NBA's 29 other teams).
Joe Johnson probably wouldn't be there, either. Brooklyn could still boast a formidably talented roster to be sure, but it would look very different.
Alas, Howard took a different path in large part because of negotiations that were out of his hands.
That path eventually led to Houston, an organization that's trying to do the same thing the Nets are trying to do—albeit in a more sustainable, forward-looking way. Houston's window of opportunity extends beyond the Brooklyn's, at least if we're talking about their cores as currently constituted.
Mirror images though they are not, these two clubs aren't that far apart. They each rank as their respective conference's X-factor, holding the potential to either shake up hierarchies or seriously embarrass their front offices.
Granted, all the "James Harden vs. his old team" stuff is so last year.
But this game will be important for a different reason altogether, one that actually matters in basketball terms.
With the season nearing its end, this contest will very likely have implications for playoff seeding and home-court advantage. Both of these teams figure to have strong shots at a top-four record out West, guaranteeing that home-court advantage in the first round at least.
But with similarly compelling arguments coming from the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies, well, expect another tight race this season.
Fortunately, this game shows up on the schedule just before teams start resting starters in anticipation of the postseason. Chances are we see everyone in action.
And, chances are we'll see one of last summer's forgotten trade components actually making an impact. We didn't see much of the Houston-drafted Jeremy Lamb last season, but he's due for a significant promotion after Kevin Martin signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Lamb probably won't make any Rockets fans regret the Harden deal, but he could certainly make Thunder fans feels marginally better about it.