Last year we learned James Harden is capable of being the top option for a high-powered offense. Perhaps this season we're being reminded of just how freaking good Dwight Howard can be as the anchor of a franchise's back line.
It's not like what has developed in Houston began as an offseason experiment. But to say the Rockets expected to be on the title-contending side of the NBA's line of demarcation is a stretch most folks were unwilling to make.
Yet here they are, boasting the best record in the league since the calendar turned to 2014 (23-7) and employing a top five offense and top seven defense during that span. But we already knew about that rim-running, three-point launching offensive attack. It's the defense that's taken the next step.
The progression on that side of the ball has been interesting, not to mention necessary to a team with title aspirations. Houston made one of biggest, brightest moves of the 2012 offseason, utilizing stockpiled, middling assets to acquire Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The shooting guard isn't known for his defense, so the Rockets also signed Omer Asik away from the Chicago Bulls as a restricted free agent.
While the big man's rebounding and defense were a major plus for a roster that lacked these elements, Asik was limited as an offensive weapon, and Houston general manager Daryl Morey was committed to building a contender as quickly as possible.
The Rockets were a pain in the side of all their competitors during the 2012-13 season, but they lacked that true two-way presence along the front line.
Enter Howard. The former Defensive Player of the Year had gone from beloved to maligned after wishing his way out of Orlando and into the lights and elevated pressure of Los Angeles. He managed to work his way into the big-market situation he craved, but the results weren't nearly what most had expected.
But he just wasn't the same as a Laker. Rifts with Mike D'Antoni and his system along with a publicly strained relationship with Kobe Bryant were factors in what amounted to a failed experiment. Howard was supposed to be the next great big man in purple and gold, but he never even came close.
His early career dominance had been somewhat forgotten — shrouded in the effects of a serious back injury and the consequences of a strange transformation into petulance. All of these issues led to his departure from Los Angeles, after which he signed a blockbuster deal to play alongside Harden and Chandler Parsons—who was apparently instrumental in his recruitment—in Houston.
Harden's Rockets were a decent defensive squad in 2012-13, too. They held opponents to 103.5 points per 100 possessions with Asik as the man in the middle, good for 16th in the league, per NBA.com/Stats. Along with an offense that tossed up 106.7 points per 100 possessions, they managed to survive a tough conference and squeak into the playoffs as the West's eighth seed.
But they severely lacked any level of offensive competence on the interior. For all Asik's contributions defensively, he was a liability as an offensive player.
Only 5.4 percent of the team's offensive plays ended with the roll man out of a pick-and-roll, and still fewer (4.2 percent) finished with a post-up. And when they did dump it down to the block, Houston managed just .73 points per possession, good for 26th in the league, per Synergy data.
With Asik in the middle, the Rockets were limited. He shot at a 54-percent clip, but that was only because he often was able to get the ball to the rim. The problem with Asik was his stone hands. Even when Houston ran sets out of the pick-and-roll or found its big man in the post, it was a crapshoot.
Out of Asik's 173 turnovers last season, 120 came as a result of something other than a pass, per Basketball-Reference's play-by-play data, which is a terrible percentage for a big man who wasn't asked to create much offense on his own. Whether it was a lost ball, offensive foul, travel or step out of bounds—among other various occurrences—Asik was difficult to trust when the ball hit his hands.
But Howard has introduced an entirely different element. While he isn't viewed as the most polished, skilled offensive players, his great hands and resurgent athleticism have made a world of difference in Houston.
The Rockets' center is averaging 18.7 points, 12.4 boards and 1.8 blocks per night while looking more like the Dwight we knew in Orlando. He doesn't have the offensive responsibility he did then, but that's hardly necessary with all the perimeter talent that exists in Houston.
Still, he's been valuable on that end as well. The Rockets are now utilizing post-up plays on more than 11 percent of their possessions, a significant jump from the season before. And while Howard isn't known to be as much of a threat with the ball in his hands as he is when he's moving without it in space toward the rim, the defense must not only pay close attention to his whereabouts at all times, but it has to be ready to react swiftly when he does become the offensive focal point.
Houston is known for its three-point shooting, racking up more attempts from deep than anyone in the league. But don't let this fool you, as this team also attacks the interior relentlessly. The Rockets average 51 points in the paint every night, up nearly five points per contest from 2012-13, and Howard is a big part of that number, which is second in the league.
The amount of data available to us allows the use of statistics to more easily illustrate the impact of players on the court, but in the case of a guy like Howard, oftentimes the eye test is more than enough. He's a one-of-a-kind specimen that allows the Rockets to operate their system more freely and effectively.
With Harden in town, Houston's offense has become a lethal, run-and-gun attack that can be ruthless against most NBA defenses. But now, with Howard manning the middle, the perimeter players can act even more aggressively. The Rockets know if the opposition loses track of the big man and puts too much pressure on the exterior, acres of interior space will open up and allow him to take advantage of his size and athleticism in one-on-one situations.
Houston has made things particularly interesting with the roster around Howard. It's got floor-spacers everywhere—even at the power forward position—so he has freedom to work.
And defensively, Houston knows it can put more pressure on opposing offenses with the knowledge that Howard is waiting at the rim. As a result, the Rockets have gone from the 22nd ranked 3-point defense to sixth best in the league in only a year.
In a league where the three has become king, this is a crucial element for a team that loves nothing more than to kill its opponents from the arc. It's one thing to take and hit a bunch of those 3-pointers, but it's another thing entirely to shut down the opposition when it tries to match.
Howard is going to cost the Rockets a lot of money—more than $87 million over the next four years—but he's well worth the price tag if he's going to make this sort of impact.
Whether they're a legitimate title contender remains to be seen, and very rarely do teams make the kind of leap Houston will have to if it wants to win its first ring in nearly 20 years (going from a first-round exit to an NBA Finals). But the Rockets are becoming scarier and more confident by the day, and the relationship between Harden and Howard has become a thing of beauty.
It's been a long time since the Rockets were this good, and it's been Howard's ability to control both sides of the ball that's quickly boosted them into the championship conversation once again.