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Can James Harden and Dwight Howard Overcome Weakened Houston Rockets Roster?

Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard, left, and guard James Harden reacts after Howard was called for a technical foul 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
John WilmesContributor IJuly 24, 2014

The Houston Rockets’ offseason has seen their roster undergo some serious changes and loss of depth, and no one will feel this more in 2014-15 than their two superstars.

Dwight Howard and James Harden must step up this season.

Both will be helped by the arrival of Trevor Ariza, whose energetic perimeter defense will make both of their jobs easier on that end. However, Ariza can’t make up for Chandler Parsons’ lost offensive creation—that duty will fall squarely on Harden and Howard.

In order to do this, the duo will have to build upon the pick-and-roll chemistry it established last season. Strangely absent in the postseason, the play almost always led to something good when the two ran it in their first year together.

"This pick and roll is something Houston has not run nearly enough, for whatever reason. As [ABC commentator Jeff] Van Gundy explained ... it puts your two best players in the direct line of action," wrote Rahat Huq of Red94.

Howard’s reticence in being a roll man predates his time in Houston.

“[Howard] didn't seem like he really wanted to do a pick-and-roll offense,” former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Steve Nash told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “Maybe because he had run one in Orlando for so long and he wanted to get in the post more.”

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Howard showed a doctoral prowess in the post against the Portland Trail Blazers during the playoffs, finally exhibiting the deft footwork he’d been learning from Hakeem Olajuwon. He soared to a 27.25 player efficiency rating, while averaging 26 points and 13.6 rebounds per game over the course of the series.

It’s hard to argue against a one-man show like that.

Nevertheless, the Rockets still would have been better off with more Harden-Howard action. As good as Howard can be on the block, their offense will breathe more easily if the Rockets can directly engage their two best players in tandem.

Expect to see a hefty dose of this action as they look to make up for the loss of Parsons and also Jeremy Lin, now with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The onus is not just on Howard to be a more enthusiastic as a roll man. Harden too often languished in isolation last year, dribbling his team into half-court offensive despair.

Despite his impressive numbers and numerous offensive highlight reels, Harden could have done more for his team. A de facto point guard who brings the ball up more often than Patrick Beverley, he needs to be more of a playmaker and distributor.

GREG WAHL-STEPHENS/Associated Press

This, again, is especially the case without Parsons and Lin on board. Beverley, Ariza and Terrence Jones are not reliable creators like those two were, and it will fall on Harden to find them their shots.

This might even be a more important aspect of Harden’s growth than his defense, which clearly also needs to improve. A well-documented sieve last season, Harden’s defensive real plus/minus was minus-2.84. That ranked 75th in the league among shooting guards.

Howard did everything he could on defense last year—an anchor to one of the most porous perimeters in the league. His rim protection was invaluable.

Ariza’s presence should help to lessen his workload there, but Howard will also be without backup in the paint. Omer Asik has left in a trade to the New Orleans Pelicans, and Donatas Motiejunas is next in line.

Motiejunas is a talented player who could realize his potential as soon as this season, but there’s no reason to believe he can replace Asik. “D-Mo” is shaped more in the mold of a floor-stretching center like former Utah Jazz standout Mehmet Okur, with his passing intuition and deep shooting stroke.

He’s never been able to get position in the post against fellow big men.

Shoring up the paint will thus require more minutes from Howard, but also a demonstrable defensive upgrade from Harden and the rest of Houston’s defenders.

The Rockets lost some pieces this summer, and it will be hard for them to reproduce last year’s 54-win pace.

However, they’ve also got a full season with two of the game’s most dynamic players in Harden and Howard under their belt. With any luck, that continuity will roll over into a more focused and self-realized team that doesn’t skip a beat.

 

Advanced statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.

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