What Is the Houston Rockets' True Ceiling?

John WilmesContributor IFebruary 20, 2014

Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard grabs a rebound during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The newness of the Houston Rockets core and rotation makes them the target of much speculation. We simply don’t know how good they can be.

In time, the team is sure to gel more and at least maintain top-five contention in the Western Conference, a level the Rockets are currently operating at without fret. This much is clear to us.

But where is their true ceiling? Could they be championship contenders soon?

Seeing as they’re already fringe fighters who very well might arise from their conference this season, it seems safe to say the answer is "yes." GM Daryl Morey is always looking to make big moves—as the recent Rajon Rondo rumors remind us—to craft a so-called "super team," but with these Rockets he’s already successfully put together a squad that can win it all soon. The pieces are in place.

The Rockets could win it all now the way they look lately.

They’ve got an elite scorer in James Harden, one of the best two rim-defenders in basketball with Dwight Howard (the other is Roy Hibbert; pick your poison) and a deep array of slashers, shooters and role players led by Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The best part? They’re very young, as Howard is easily the oldest player in their rotation at 28. If they’re this good now—without much time together and without much NBA seasoning in general—the rest of the league should be frightened of what’s to come.

Imagine if Jones, only 22, learns better defensive principles and becomes a two-headed paint-stopper with Howard. He’s certainly got the aggression and athleticism to project such a reality. His reputation at the University of Kentucky was as an unknown entity with the full basketball tool belt, and his reputation in the NBA has perpetuated that line.

And imagine if the Rockets grow to lean less on outgunning teams and harness their considerable range of skills in order to more mystify in the half court.

Such progress has already seen daylight, as the Rockets’ current eight-game winning streak owes a lot to a more consistently complex offense. They’re finding Howard for easy finishes much more often and learning how to utilize his presence for the space to create open shots.

The Harden-Howard pick-and-roll, for instance, is only now starting to take significant form. Watch it executed to perfection against the Los Angeles Lakers:

See Harden and Howard scheme the action on the inbounds, and then play the L.A. defense like a fiddle. They’re learning just how hard of corners they can force defenses into, just how devastating of chess moves they can land with their dual potency.

They’re finding out what impossible decisions they can create for the opposition.

Perhaps most impressive is the vindictive nature the team has taken on in its latest streak. Putting an exclamation point on a blowout like their 134-108 drubbing of the Lakers on Feb. 19 is about more than Howard showing up his haters in L.A. It speaks to the cold-blooded edge they’ll need to develop to win in the postseason.

It’s go-time, and the Rockets are reacting by improving.

The key development to this transition features a transformation that would have seemed impossible one year ago, but now looks to be very concrete. Dwight Howard has matured before our eyes, making good with a team and fitting his huge talent into a larger concept, happily acting as a roll man and secondary offensive option, instead of whining about a lack of post-ups.

He’s even allowed his previously ingratiating sense of humor to be an ally and not a distraction. Watch him join in with the “Howard Sucks” chants against the Lakers, making levity from a parade of criticism that used to cripple him:

A focused, well-running Rockets team is upon us, and it’s a wonder to watch. Whether it can topple the Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers in a seven-game series remains to be seen, as it's struggled mightily against both teams this season, but such a prospect certainly seems less preposterous than it did even a month ago.

Rather than an experiment of talent, this Houston roster now looks the part of one with an increasing sense of identity, cunning, and toughness. It looks like veterans.

The ceiling for these Rockets is the same as it is for neighboring NASA—it’s way, way up there.