The arrival of Howard last summer gave Rockets fans hope that their team will be back in the NBA title picture. After all, pairing the league's best center with arguably the game's best shooting guard in Harden should've elevated Houston to elite status, right?
However, last season ended the same way as the year before: with a first-round exit. Making matters worse, Houston failed to land a third superstar and lost a few key players in the offseason. Former third wheel Chandler Parsons is now a Dallas Maverick.
Role players such as center Omer Asik and point guard Jeremy Lin now play for the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers, respectively. A once-promising unit has now morphed into a two-man show. In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, that's not going to cut it.
While the overall talent of the team took a hit this summer, the expectations haven't changed. The goal of bringing a title back to H-Town still remains. For that to happen, Howard and Harden must evolve into leaders on and off the court. They must take a more serious approach to winning instead of relying on gaudy stats and bold boasts.
Here are a few reasons why the pressure to win now falls squarely on the shoulders of Houston's dynamic duo.
They Have To Put Action Behind Their Words
Howard and Harden's public comments made their share of headlines this summer. Both men downplayed the departure of Parsons, a rising star who was influential in bringing Howard to Houston.
Howard told The Associated Press (via ESPN) that losing Parsons "won't affect us at all," while Harden believes the team will be "fine" next season. The Beard even took it a step further with a rather demeaning take on the team he's tasked with leading, per Joaquin Henson of The Phillipine Star:
"Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets," Harden said. "The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team."
While it is true that Howard and Harden are Houston's alpha dogs, it's a bit harsh to downplay the rest of the team as "role players." New addition Trevor Ariza may not be a household name, but his ability to produce on both ends of the court makes him a bit more than just a "role player."
Harden's comments drew the ire of Parsons, who called the statement "pretty ridiculous" in an appearance on Jay Mohr Sports (h/t ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon). To Harden's credit, none of the Rockets' current "role players" came out publicly to dismiss the superstar's claim.
Still, you don't see these kind of quotes coming from the more well-knit teams in the NBA. You don't see Tim Duncan or Tony Parker refusing to see the rest of the San Antonio Spurs as equals. Regardless of how accurate the statement may seem on paper, it's not something you say publicly, and it makes you wonder about the perception of Houston's dynamic duo around the league.
Despite boasting two of the 10 best players in the league and playing in an area with no state tax, Houston failed to compel any of the summer's marquee free agents to come to town. Carmelo Anthony decided to spend his days rebuilding the Knicks in New York. Chris Bosh, a native Texan, opted to stay with a Miami Heat team sans LeBron James.
For all of the recruiting that Howard, Harden and the team's officials did this summer, the best they were able to do was sign Ariza away from the Washington Wizards. Over the last decade or so, how many teams with two superstars in their prime have failed to land topnotch free agents?
Houston's inability to bring in someone like Bosh or Anthony or James led Bleacher Report's own Ric Bucher to weigh in on why no one wants to play with the likes of Harden and Howard:
Whether it be with San Antonio or Miami or any of the title-contending teams, it's important that your best players, are not only your hardest workers, but that they find a way to appreciate the talent around them and make it better. Right now, with where the Rockets are, particularly with Harden and the issues with his defense that were a big factor in the first-round loss to Portland, looking at the other teammates and saying 'Yeah, they're a bunch of role players' is not the way to get everybody motivated to take the next step.
For now, there doesn't appear to be any issues within the team deriving from Harden or Howard's comments. Potential breakout candidate Donatas Motiejunas, who initially quipped that Houston's talented twosome eat separately from the rest of the team, recanted his comments and said everything's all good, per Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen.
"I never had a problem. We hang out all the time. I never got in a fight with anyone. I never got in a word fight with anyone," Motiejunas said.
The "cornerstone" comment wasn't the only thing Harden has said this summer that's raised a few eyebrows. During an event to promote the new "NBA 2K15" video game, Harden proclaimed himself "the best all-around basketball player in the NBA," per Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine. Harden reiterated that claim in an interview with ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson.
You can't knock The Beard for having a tremendous amount of confidence, but anyone who has seen Harden's attempt at defense has to laugh at the idea that he's the best. That being said, if you're going to call yourself the best in the world, the spotlight is now on you to show and prove.
Both Harden and Howard can lay claim to being the best at their position. However, over the years, that standing has led to winning championships. Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, two men who have once held the title of "best shooting guard in the game" (and are still very much in the conversation), have won their share of championships.
The same goes for those who have been considered the best centers in the game. Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon have all led their respective franchises to championships. Being the best is about more than just putting up great numbers. In the end, all anyone cares about is "did you win a championship?"
LeBron James has been the league's best player for quite some time, but it wasn't until he won his first title with the Miami Heat that he gained another level of respect from fans and critics alike.
Harden and Howard have spent plenty of time talking the talk. It's time to put some action behind those words.
Houston's Championship Window Won't Stay Open Forever
Nobody stays on top forever in the NBA. Eventually, dynasties end and franchises fall apart. The Los Angeles Lakers went from being a title contender in 2012 to being a lottery team last season. This season, teams such as the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (the East's top two seeds last year) are likely to fall from grace.
The Houston Rockets are a very young team, and they have plenty of good years ahead of them. However, those good years might not be championship years. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs, who have been on top for a decade-and-a-half, are an aberration. You may never see anything like that again.
In a deep Western Conference, a few wrong moves could drop a team from contender to bystander quickly. With all of the losses it suffered this summer, Houston will be lucky to make it back to the fourth seed this season.
It is up to Harden and Howard to not only keep this team competitive, but to keep it in the title picture. That will be tough with teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers retooling every year. You also have teams on the rise such as the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks nipping at Houston's heels.
Now, Harden is a mere 25 years old. Barring any serious injuries, he has plenty of good basketball left in him. However, the team will continue to suffer until its star shooting guard can shore up his matador defense.
Howard will be 29 in December. This year will mark his 11th season in the NBA. Barring a serious back injury a few years ago, he's managed to stay durable. However, big men tend to break down more quickly than their smaller counterparts, and it's only a matter of time before years of hard fouls and rough play inside take its toll on D12's chiseled physique.
Plus, after a decade in the league, Howard isn't going to improve much from what he already is. Could he become more of a leader? Possibly. Could he get better from the free-throw line? Maybe, but expecting him to develop more moves in his low-post game or add a mid-range jumper to his arsenal seems far-fetched.
At this point, he's an elite rebounder/defender who can be a force in the paint when he isn't getting clobbered by defenders.
Additionally, the free-agent market going forward doesn't look very promising. Kevin Love (assuming he doesn't eventually sign an extension with Cleveland) and Rajon Rondo headline next year's class of free agents. Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant will be the top prize a year later.
If Houston learned anything this summer, it's that you can't hitch your wagon to building around incoming free agents. With Asik, Lin and Parsons off the books and Ariza's contract becoming cheaper, the Rockets will have the cap room to find players in free agency, but there isn't much out there to get excited over.
Houston's window to win a title is likely within the next two or three years, if it happens at all. In that time, Harden must become "the guy" in Houston, and the team's young supporting cast must grow into more than just role players. Somebody from the team's slew of prospects (Terrence Jones, Isaiah Canaan, D-Mo, Patrick Beverley) must emerge into a star to keep Houston relevant.
If not, the Rockets will fall apart in an increasingly impatient league. Front offices will start feeling the temperature rise underneath their seats, and coaching changes will be made. Houston would then spend the bulk of Harden and Howard's prime years in a state of flux as it tries to answer why it can't get past the first round.
In his dismissal of the Parsons loss, Howard said that Houston had "the best center and the best 2-guard in the game on the same team." He also admitted, "It's on us."
He's right about the last part (and maybe about the first part too). Harden and Howard have made enough noise with their mouths to last a few summers. It's up to them to legitimize those words with actions.
If they fail, all of their talk about being the best and downplaying teammates (both former and current) becomes nothing but message-board fodder. Those quotes will hang around in infamy, especially if guys like Lin, Parsons or Asik go on to better careers elsewhere.
If they succeed, the only words left for Houston's prolific pair to say are "we told you so."