Every Houston Rockets fan is psyched about the offseason addition of Dwight Howard, and for good reason. It's not every day a team lands a three-time defensive player of the year, let alone one with something to prove after a disastrous 2012-13 campaign.
But the Rockets did much more than land D12.
They also added a few supporting pieces to an already deep roster, constructed a team that actually makes sense from a chemistry perspective, and most impressively, did so without sacrificing financial flexibility.
The Howard signing deserves all of the headlines, but if the Rockets wind up the contender that many now envision, it'll have just as much to do with the moves that didn't get quite as much ink.
The Big One
You really can't discuss the Rockets' summer without first mentioning Howard. By signing him to a four-year contract worth nearly $88 million, Houston earned near-unanimous A-plus grades from most pundits.
He's the key to the Rockets' abrupt transformation from a team likely to make another first-round postseason exit to one that could legitimately compete for an NBA title. There are a handful of other worthy contenders in the Western Conference alone, but Howard's presence gives the Rockets the star power to measure up with any of them.
Speaking of stars, it has become pretty obvious that it takes more than one such player to be a real championship threat in today's NBA. Now that incumbent luminary James Harden has Howard at his side, the Rockets have the requisite top-end talent to get the job done.
The Rockets' other accomplishments are worth celebrating (and celebrate them we shall), but the Howard acquisition was the catalyst for all of their subsequent offseason maneuverings.
(Not So) Mad Money
The Rockets are one of a precious few championship contenders that have risen to the top without running up a massive tax bill. Credit general manager Daryl Morey and his front office staff for avoiding the frightening trend (thanks a lot, Brooklyn Nets) of going crazy with the checkbook.
With about $63.6 million committed to this season's payroll, Houston will be over the cap but beneath the luxury tax in 2013-14.
The following season, the team's financial situation will be just as good—but possibly even better.
Thanks to a half-dozen or so non-guaranteed contracts (h/t to the always useful ShamSports.com), the Rockets can buy out a number of not-so-important players on the roster in order to clear up a few million dollars. There's no way to know if they'll suddenly need that money to pursue a mid-tier free agent next summer, but the option exists should the Rockets choose to exercise it.
In addition to some hidden financial flexibility, the Rockets have a couple of very valuable—but also, surprisingly expendable—trade chips if they want to give the roster a more thorough makeover.
Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik are both desirable and reasonably priced supporting players for whom Houston could easily find takers. Nobody's saying the Rockets are currently looking into moving either player (although I will encourage that later on), but it's never a bad thing to have options.
Perhaps most critical of all, Houston made the difficult move of unloading Thomas Robinson to the Portland Trail Blazers. Even though it was tough to surrender a former lottery pick with plenty of room to improve, the Rockets had to let him go in order to free up the extra bucks they needed to max out Howard.
So Houston not only spent wisely; it also sold wisely.
(Note: I'm not even going to discuss Chandler Parsons' insanely team-friendly contract. It just seems mean at this point.)
The Other Guys
All of that wiggle room on the Rockets' payroll comes courtesy of a bunch of shrewd league-minimum free-agent signings.
Francisco Garcia, Marcus Camby, Omri Casspi, Aaron Brooks and Ronnie Brewer are all Rockets on the cheap. And unlike most players who command the bare minimum compensation, every one of them has a real NBA resume with track records of (at least a little) success.
Garcia and Brewer aren't that far removed from being among the league's best perimeter defenders, Brooks can score in spurts, and even the ancient Camby might still give Houston a few rebounds here and there.
None of these players need to play major roles, but they give the Rockets a bench that goes much deeper than most.
You can't just throw talent together without giving some thought to chemistry. That approach can result in disaster. Just ask the Los Angeles Lakers.
Most of the Rockets' rotation players were already in place when Howard signed on in July. But the organization deserves praise for constructing a roster that fits very well around Howard. In a sense, Houston was a team built to surround D12.
The Rockets embraced a run-and-gun identity last season, which will still be a part of the team's makeup but no longer its only real option.
Now that Howard is in the middle, the Rockets have a real pick-and-roll partner to team with Harden. If the big man finally acknowledges that he needs to give in and start rolling to the hole (something Howard has always inexplicably resisted), Houston immediately has one of the best pick-and-roll tandems in the league.
According to Synergy (subscription required), Harden was the NBA's fifth-best ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets. And despite an offense that didn't emphasize such plays in L.A., Howard still ranked as the ninth-best roll man in the NBA a year ago.
Sounds like a dynamic duo to me.
Beyond an ideal one-two offensive punch, the Rockets have loads of options on both ends. If Howard continues to resist the pick-and-roll, the Rockets can simply surround him with shooters like Harden, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley. Houston can be a conventional inside-out team in the half court if it wants to be.
On the other end, much hinges on the role head coach Kevin McHale assigns to Asik. But almost every possibility sounds like a good one.
The Rockets will be equipped to play both big men together against some of the league's larger front lines, or they could use Asik in relief of Howard. In the latter case, Houston would be able to play every minute of every game with an elite defensive presence in the middle.
No other team has that luxury.
The takeaway here is that the Rockets have a team that can play almost any style on either end. They can run, slow things down, bang inside or bomb away from the perimeter. On D, they can go big or small.
However they choose to play it, the Rockets are going to get loads of high-percentage looks on offense while denying opponents those same chances on the other end.
Here's the part that nobody wants to hear, but it has to be discussed in the interest of objectivity.
Houston is a well-constructed, financially sustainable team. But there could still be a few issues that keep it from immediately ascending to championship status.
For example, it's unclear whether the Rockets can keep Asik happy alongside Howard. The incumbent big man asked for a trade immediately after D12 signed, and although all outward appearances suggest that the Rockets have things under control, it's still possible he eventually repeats his request.
In addition, it's unclear whether or not Lin should be starting. Beverley is a better shooter and defender, and Lin's facilitating skills are somewhat redundant with Harden in the first unit. There's a potential for unrest in that area as well.
Finally, there's the lingering issue of Howard's well-earned reputation as a malcontent. We've seen him say and do the right things before, only to eventually turn into a whiny mess when he doesn't get his way. If anything goes wrong with the Rockets, Howard might get fussy.
If he's ready to shut up and play like he did with the Orlando Magic, that's great. But there's always a risk that we may never see that version of Howard again.
The Rockets are among the smartest, most well-run organizations in the NBA. They proved that in definitive fashion by signing Howard, but they also did it more quietly by assembling a financially viable roster that fits perfectly around their marquee addition.
Houston returned to prominence without bottoming out or relying on lottery picks—a truly remarkable feat in today's tank-happy NBA. With solid balance sheets, loads of versatile talent and star power to spare, this is a franchise that used a single offseason to complete its transformation into a perennial contender.
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