Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard hasn't shied away from putting a target on his back, but for the Rockets to have any substantial success in the 2014-15 season, he'll have to put the team on his back a well.
Although there were serious questions leading into last year about whether Howard would ever be the same physically or if he was in the midst of a steep decline, a lot of those were put to bed.
Howard recovered nicely from back surgery, and he used the 2013-14 season to slowly climb back to be the player we grew accustomed to seeing during his time with the Orlando Magic.
Although the Rockets ultimately fell in the first round to a Portland Trail Blazers squad, Howard finished the season with an exclamation mark. Over the course of the six-game series, Howard averaged a whopping 26 points, 13.7 boards, 2.8 blocks and a career-high playoff PER of 27.2.
Even though that performance was overshadowed by those of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, Howard's effort quieted most doubters and established that he was back. Maybe he wasn't at prime form defensively, but offensively he was as good as ever.
Perhaps some of that confidence gained during the postseason bled over into the offseason.
After the Rockets whiffed on Chris Bosh and lost Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons in the process, Howard didn't seem to be bothered much. Here's what he told the Associated Press, via ESPN, following the departure of Parsons:
'It won’t affect us at all,' Howard said Friday of Parsons signing a three-year, $45-million deal with the Dallas Mavericks. …
'We have myself and James,' Howard said. 'We have the best center and the best two guard in the game on the same team. It’s on us.'
While Howard is misguided in his original comment, he's not far off the mark in his follow up. The onus is on James Harden and himself to carry the roster, as they're the two highest-paid players and two of the league's biggest stars.
Although their teammates may not love it, at least Howard and Harden are on the same page there.
Here's what Harden told Joaquin Henson of the Philippine Star:
'Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets,' said Harden. 'The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We've lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we'll be fine next season.'
Harden and Howard both should have chosen their words more carefully, but it's clear that they both know what's ahead of them.
From Howard's perspective, you can understand why he feels like losing Parsons might not be too great of a loss. Even though time has passed and a lot has changed (particularly the conference in which Howard plays), in his own mind, he probably remembers carrying an Orlando Magic team to the NBA Finals as the lone star.
With that in mind, the prospect of carrying more responsibility might actually be appealing for him. Fewer stars and more role players around him equals more touches, right? It makes sense that Howard's experiences with Orlando, a team built around him, and the Los Angeles Lakers, a team with too many cooks in the kitchen, would paint his views.
There's some legitimacy to that. There will be no diffusion of responsibility in Houston next year. The Rockets will go as far as Howard and Harden can carry the team.
At least on that front, Howard's dominance last year in the postseason is a great sign. While no one expects him to retain that form for a full season, it's good to know he has that level of play ready in reserve.
The question is whether or not others can step up when Howard inevitably faces double-teams, and if he can get the help defensively that he needs.
The addition of Trevor Ariza should help in both areas, but the depth of the roster was hurt this offseason. Howard lacks a legitimate backup, and it's questionable how much Terrence Jones can help him protect the rim as a full-time starting 4. There are holes to be filled.
Here's Brett Pollakoff at Pro Basketball Talk with his take:
Howard continues to take an unrealistic view about just how much he and Harden can do for the rest of the roster.
A better approach would have been the one taken by Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, who knows the team got worse this offseason, at least on paper. Displaying false bravado in essentially saying, ‘Nah, we’re good’ when losing a player who contributed as much as Parsons without getting anyone to replace him is not only ridiculous, but shows the level of delusion Howard has when it comes to the game of basketball.
As for the Rockets, fans care about winning and getting out of the first round of the playoffs more than they do about acquiring assets like “cap room” and “trade exceptions.” Houston has its two superstars, right Dwight? If that’s enough, then let’s see the team actually win some games in the postseason.
Houston indeed has its two superstars, but it might be foolish to assume it has been maximized up to this point. Howard and Harden have still only played one full season together, and we saw most recently with the Miami Heat that it can take some time and experimentation before a fit can really click.
Both Howard and Harden can easily be better this upcoming year than they were in their first season together, and here's Bleacher Report's John Wilmes with a reason why:
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.
Whether it's fair or not, there's an awful lot of pressure mounted on the shoulders of the big names in Houston.
Harden has to elevate the play of the role players he acknowledged he's surrounded by. Head coach Kevin McHale has to maximize the talent on the floor. Daryl Morey could stand to make a big acquisition at some point.
Ultimately, though, the fate of the Rockets probably boils down to how great Howard can be. He's one of the few players in the league that can truly dominate on both ends of the floor, and after Houston's offseason, it's clear he'll be depended on to do just that.