The Houston Rockets' greatest challenges lie well off in the distance. A team built for postseason success can only turn so many heads during this 82-game climb to the playoffs.
Yet, even at such an early stage, it's evident that a perfect storm is brewing in Houston. Led by the bearded baller James Harden on the perimeter and a hulking Dwight Howard near the basket, the Rockets are ready to mark their arrival.
The current of the deep Western Conference waters is changing. The ferocity of the waves from seasons past is dying down. There are bubbles here and there beneath the surface, but a relative calm at the top.
The NBA championship field, while seemingly deep as ever, has a certain East Coast slant to it. The West holds its strength in numbers, but a top-heavy East appears to be the one forging true championship contenders among its elite class.
Out West, there are far more questions. But none offers a more promising solution than the one brewing in Houston, as general manager Daryl Morey's master plan takes shape.
Right Time, Right Place
Franchise fortunes can change at any time in the NBA. With the right bounce of the lottery ping-pong balls, a fingers-crossed draft dart finding its mark or answering the correct call at the trade deadline, organizations can shift their ceilings in an instant.
The important thing is to be ready when opportunity knocks.
So it is here, beyond the unending streams of analytical stat sheets and meticulously calculated financial books, where Morey has shined at his brightest.
Last season, he had the right package of proven talent (Kevin Martin) and future intrigue (Jeremy Lamb and three future draft picks) when the cash-strapped Oklahoma City Thunder made Harden available. With Harden at his side, Morey used Houston's collection of championship-ready players and tantalizing prospects to lure Howard out of L.A.
Howard had other options, but not that suited his style like Houston could.
On the court, the Rockets have everything Howard needs to maximize his potential.
For a player still incredibly raw in the offensive post, Howard couldn't have found better tutors than Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon.
As for his new teammates, they aren't too shabby, either.
Harden's the kind of dynamic scorer (27.5 points per game through his first two games this season) capable of pulling defenders away from the big man. But he's far from being a black hole. The 13.0 points created by his assist per game stands tied for 21st in the NBA.
Harden's every bit the ideal complementary piece he appeared to be in Oklahoma City. The right shot, whether his or his teammates', is the one he wants to find.
This kind of generosity can be tough to find anywhere in this league, let alone from a top-five scorer. But Harden, like Howard, is more focused on the win column than the box score.
Harden alone wouldn't have brought Howard to Houston, though. He was merely the starting point.
Howard has a prolific pick-and-roll partner in Jeremy Lin. Far removed from his "Linsanity" days, Lin remains a potent scorer (15.0 points) and willing passer.
Out on the wing, Chandler Parsons, Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi provide the three-point sniping to free Howard near the basket. Howard's still finding his offensive niche in Houston, but the Rockets' 37% team three-point percentage will only ease that process.
Houston didn't add Howard for his offense, though. The Rockets had the league's sixth-most efficient offense last season (106.7 points per 100 possessions, via ESPN.com), but it was undermined by Houston's inability to get critical stops.
The sample size is admittedly minuscule at this stage, but the early returns on Houston's new-look defense help validate the Rockets' status as a true title contender.
Defense Wins Championships
It's one of the longest-held cliches in the professional sports world. But its lasting power comes from the truth that it holds.
The 2005-06 Miami Heat were the last NBA champion to finish outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Five of the last seven champions have finished inside of the top five.
Houston, for all of its offensive weapons last season, never found anything close to a championship-caliber defense. The Rockets' 103.5 defensive rating tied for 16th in the league. Houston finished tied for 15th in field-goal percentage allowed (45.4) and 11th in rebound differential (plus-1.8).
The Rockets fluttered between decent and mediocre at that end, which also describes the team's good-not-great performance as a whole. Houston managed to snap a three-year playoff drought, but not even Russell Westbrook's injury could save the Rockets from an early exit.
The Rockets hold the fifth overall spot in defensive efficiency (92.2). Houston's staggering plus-12.5 advantage on the glass, led by Howard's 21.0 rebounds per game, unsurprisingly is the league's best. So, too, is Houston's 37.4 field-goal percentage against.
How much weight can we give these numbers this early in the year?
Well, I'd be shocked if the Rockets lead the league in any defensive categories at season's end. But a wire-to-wire run as the NBA's best rebounding team would hardly be surprising, especially if the Rockets resist the urge to move Omer Asik in a trade.
As for the rest of those figures, top-10 finishes in any category wouldn't be surprising. Howard's a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, five-time All-Defensive Team selection and five-time rebounding champ. And he looks determined to add a sixth rebounding crown to his resume.
More importantly, he told NBA.com's Fran Blinebury he's healthier now than he's been in a long time:
I’m a lot healthier than I was last season and that comes from all the work I put in this summer to get my body back right. My teammates need me to rebound and be a dominant force on both ends. I’m healthier and I’m able and willing to do it.
A healthy Howard can do some pretty amazing things. He carried the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals without a teammate anywhere near Harden's class. He's put up 22 points, 14 rebounds or three blocks for entire seasons.
He can put a team across his broad shoulders and carry it as far it wants to go. But he doesn't have to do that anymore.
That's a big part of the reason that he's in Houston, and why the Rockets look like a tidal wave in this watered-down Western Conference field.
Best in the West?
It's hard to make any definitive statements less than one week into the season, let alone making them while so many prominent players are on the pine.
Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, Harrison Barnes and Ryan Anderson have yet to crash this party. Tim Duncan's been a part-time participant. Even Houston's opening-night starting point guard Patrick Beverley has already been sidelined.
But how many teams that entered this season as title contenders have looked better than these Rockets?
No offense to the Minnesota Timberwolves, but their defensive holes are going to surface. Not saying they won't remain in the playoff hunt, but it's hard to buy Minnesota's league-leading plus-12.0 point differential.
Houston's second-ranked plus-10.5 split, though? That may well be something that could stick.
The Rockets can overwhelm with offense and suffocate with defense. Houston can put up points in bunches and send opponents into frustrating scoreless droughts.
Harden's a superstar. Ditto for Howard. Outside of OKC, how many teams out West can match that kind of star power?
San Antonio needs Gregg Popovich's preservation plan to keep its aging stars fresh for the playoffs. The Warriors and Clippers are hoping to find enough floor time for their young guns to be ready for the bright lights of postseason basketball.
Houston just needs its established stars to come together, a step of the championship process these Rockets may have already cleared.
Howard's reputation needs some repair work after these last two tumultuous seasons. Houston's in search of the kind of substantial success that has eluded the franchise over the last decade-plus.
But the stars have aligned for Howard and his Rockets to reach the NBA's greatest summit. Call it terrific timing or incredible luck.
Just don't forget to call it what it is—greatness.
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