When stars come together in the NBA, there's always pressure to provide instant results. James Harden and Dwight Howard have played less than a full season together for the Houston Rockets, but there are already questions of whether they can spearhead a title run.
The results we've seen so far would lead you to believe that the Rockets are at least close to being in the group of title contenders, if they aren't already there. Houston is currently holding down the fourth seed in the Western Conference, and it has the sixth best point differential overall. And if you're one of the best teams in the league, technically, you should probably be considered a title threat.
That being said, something just feels off about Houston. Despite Howard's presence in the middle, the Rockets are still just 21st in defensive rebounding rate, 26th in turnover percentage and 12th in overall defensive efficiency. While just about every other title contender has proven capable of defending at an elite level, at least for stretches, the Rockets haven't done that.
So who gets the blame? Is it Howard for not helping the Rockets make a huge leap on that end? Is it Harden for being one of the worst perimeter defenders in basketball? Is it the pieces around them, guys like Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, who aren't holding up their end of the bargain? Is it head coach Kevin McHale's fault?
Here's Rahat Huq of Red 94 with his take:
There are certain matchups where Howard simply does not have it. Watching that reality is chilling. In theory, Dwight should be able to dominate the likes of Steven Adams or DeAndre Jordan, but he hasn’t. Without said dominance, Houston in its current construct just simply does not have a chance. What’s the solution? There aren’t really any other internal avenues from which the team can garner the production it will need. Will the natural growth process be enough? Sadly, after watching this team face the Clippers and Thunder this season, I am of the thinking that it cannot win the West as currently constructed (ie: without the acquisition of another third star “major piece.”)
It's important to keep some perspective. This is year one. Howard is one of the best centers in the game, and he's capable of playing at a level on both ends that no other big man can touch. The Rockets haven't vaulted into a dominant force quite yet, and Howard hasn't been as consistent, but this isn't a failure of a team we're talking about here. The Rockets are most certainly in the mix.
When the Miami Heat didn't win the title in their first year with three stars, there was at least some reason for panic. The Heat had limited means to make other improvements, and the primary hope was that time and chemistry would do the job. We know how that turned out.
Now consider what the Rockets have working for them. There is plenty of room to improve the roster via trade or free agency, and with Howard and Harden both on long-term deals with plenty of basketball years left in them, there's no real rush other than the desire to see potential fulfilled.
Besides, sometimes being in the mix is all that's needed. The Memphis Grizzlies went to the Western Conference Finals last year when no one expected it. The Dallas Mavericks weren't pegged as a favorite when they won the title in 2011. Are the odds currently against Houston? Of course, but it's still impressive that it has a chance to compete at this current stage.
That's a testament to the core talent, and in a lot of ways, probably what general manager Daryl Morey expected when he signed Howard. Here's what Morey told Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated earlier this year:
"We feel very comfortable that our two top players are what we need to be a championship team," said Morey. "And we do need someone to step into that third role. We don't have our third-best player on a championship team yet, and we need one of younger guys to develop into that -- or potentially make an addition, whether it be this year or in free agency this offseason."
There are plenty of candidates to develop into that third role. Chandler Parsons would seem like the most obvious choice, as he's the furthest along skill and production-wise and also next in line to be paid. Terrence Jones has had his moments at the 4 this year. Patrick Beverley isn't a star by any means, but he's a perfect fit next to Harden and exactly what the team needs (defense, three-point shooting).
The two names missing from that group, of course, are Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. It's easy to forget this, but the Rockets currently have about $16.7 million combined tied into a backup center who barely plays and an easily replaceable sixth man who isn't a great fit with the rest of the roster. If that $16.7 million is going to, say, Chris Bosh? We're having a whole different discussion.
Both Asik and Lin will be on expiring deals next year, and both represent pieces that could be used for future improvement. Asik in particular should be able to bring back some serious value, even if his bloated actual salary of $15 million next year might scare a few owners off.
Even if Lin and Asik don't bring back a third star, the cap space they'll clear could help bring one on. While you would assume a lot of that money will go to Parsons, that will depend on whether Houston utilizes his team option and his development as a consistent force, as Morey explained to Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated:
"He's [Parsons] definitely got the ability to be the third-best player on a championship team," said Morey. "He's played like that many times. The tough transition is whether you bring that level every night."
Who is Houston's third best player?
While we usually think of Houston hoarding draft picks, remember that the Rockets own all of their future first-round picks, as well as a nice smattering of other teams' second-round choices in the upcoming years. Those are assets that haven't even been touched yet.
Point being, the Rockets haven't reached their final form by any stretch of the imagination yet. There's room for internal and external improvement everywhere, and time is on their side.
As for the core? It hasn't shown anything we didn't already know. Harden and Howard are great enough to make an imperfect, far from maximized roster a fringe contender. To be considered a favorite for the title, they'll need a little more, but it's nothing that's unattainable.
As currently constructed, this team probably won't win a championship. That being said, you're fooling yourself if you think this is as good as it will get in Houston.