But how effective can the two be together? Can they create a superstar synergy deserving of the team’s early title buzz? Can they be the very best tandem in the league?
It’s possible, yes. Of all of the NBA’s greatest current one-two punches, few (if any) can compare to the potential of Harden and Howard. Most of this unmatched possibility is due to how different Houston’s two stars are.
Simply put: Howard is the league’s de facto best center, and Harden is one of its very best perimeter players.
The other duos that come to mind, in terms of guard-center dynamism, are Chicago’s Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, New York’s Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler and Brooklyn’s Deron Williams and Brook Lopez.
How can Harden and Howard transcend all of those pairings? It will take a mutual selflessness, and an embrace of the creativity that makes both of them special players.
In a more technical sense, the two will have to use space and distraction to the maximum of their skills in order to stymie opposing defenses.
Harden is perhaps the league’s trickiest player, constantly keeping the enemy on his toes with unpredictable footwork, and his ability to release the ball—and make the shot—from seemingly any spot on the floor, at seemingly any moment.
If he can collapse defenses as well as he did last year while adding a lob to Howard as one of his moves? The Rockets will be terrifying.
Similarly, Howard should be prepared to draw defenders with his post moves, and then dish to Harden either while he’s darting to the rim or free for a jumper. Early signs are good on this front, as Howard has been quick to find an open Harden in the preseason.
If both players use each other in these ways, it won’t just mean higher assist totals—it will make their team much harder to guard on the whole.
Harden was one of the more impressive offensive players in the NBA last season, and he did a whole lot of it in transition. This is a testament to his improvisatory abilities; Harden is a magician, and nearly impossible for defenses to follow without getting into their defensive sets first.
What Howard adds to this magic (pun intended, sure) is potentially enough distraction to break down defenses in the half court. The more he can open the floor up for Harden, the more the shooting guard can pull defenses into his spells.
Probably more significant is what Howard brings on the other end of the floor. Omer Asik was one of the best defenders in the league in a bad Houston defense last year, but he’s no match for what Howard is capable of.
With Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin at his disposal, Howard may want to strive toward Bill Russell’s classic old role: guarding the rim mercilessly, grabbing endless rebounds and whipping it off to his main man on the run. If Howard can occasionally sacrifice his offense, this is an approach that might allow for last year’s relentless Rockets counterattack to proceed in even more effective fashion.
Harden’s abilities on defense may also be improved with Howard as his anchor in the paint. That kind of help defense does wonders for all players.
More than anything, though, the two stars need to respect each other on the court and off. Even LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had some growing pains when they aligned, and it should be expected that two players of Harden’s and Howard’s statures will have at least shades of these problems in their first year as well.
Both players left their last two teams not just for financial reasons, but also to be more central players elsewhere. One hopes that each will feel pivotal enough, and appreciated enough, while playing alongside another superstar in Houston.
Inevitably, narratives about Howard’s inability to be focused and humble will leak into the media as the season progresses. Such stories have much precedent, and much success in gaining our attention.
Ignoring this buzz was going to be a larger challenge of Howard’s career regardless of where he went in free agency. If Harden stands by him and convincingly has his back in public when the haters come to sing their doubtful song about Dwight, he may offer the greatest proof yet that Howard chose the right team.
Signs have been hopeful on this front, too. It's hard to see through early media projections, of course, but it does seem that the two get along and respect one another. The more they do, the better they'll work together.
We'll see where we are at midseason. But as for now? Harden and Howard seem as good of candidates as any for the best one-two punch in the NBA.