When it comes to star pursuits, Rockets fans have grown accustomed to disappointment the past several years.
There was the Chris Bosh IPad delivery, the bronze medal finish for Carmelo Anthony, Dwightmares I and II and the Chris Paul trade… without getting Chris Paul. And let’s just agree not to talk about Nene, which would be like trying to justify the fashion sense you showed in 6th grade.
But James Harden changed everything. The Rockets are no longer the pimple-faced dweeb desperately asking any mildly popular female out for a date — they now are the hot chick. They can afford to be picky.
‘You need a star to get a star’ and nothing illustrates this better than seeing how the attitude of one Dwight Howard has changed about Houston in less than a year. Last June, David Aldridge reported that there was “not a chance” Dwight would re-sign with Houston if traded here. Today, numerous reports suggest the Laker free agent is strongly considering coming here of his own free will.
And justifiably so. This could be a very good marriage as it looks like a perfect fit for both the Rockets and the 27-year old center.
Why it makes perfect sense for the Rockets
- Defense wins championships. This can’t be stressed enough. The NBA’s “Final Four” this year were ranked 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 9th in defensive ranking. Oklahoma City, which probably would have been there without a key injury, was ranked 4th. We can talk stretch fours and three-point efficiency all day, but if the Rockets are to make a true leap forward, they have to do it defensively. There’s no better defensive anchor than Dwight Howard.
- Instant Contenders. Forget all this “youngest team in the league” talk. If the Rockets sign Dwight Howard, they catapult from young upstarts to expected contender, being discussed with the likes of Miami, Indiana, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
- Asik flexibility. The Rockets were pretty good defensively in the halfcourt when Omer Asik was in the game. When he was out, they dropped like a rock. Howard and Asik would assure the Rockets of 48 minutes of top-flight paint patrol, OR, if they can fill the backup center spot in other ways and instead eye an improvement at the four, they now have a prized trade asset in Asik. Simple example to illustrate it: Omer Asik for Kevin Garnett — who says no? I doubt KG or the Celtics would.
- The pick-and-roll. The Rockets have a pick-and roll lead ace in Harden and another pretty good one in Jeremy Lin. Howard was one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the league last year, and the best in 2011-12, his final year in Orlando. Howard sets strong screens, has good hands and goes hard to the basket. He can finish in traffic or on the lob. A Harden-Howard pick-and-roll would be lethal — you’ll see a lot of buckets and trips to the line between those two.
- A dagger in the heart. Howard signing with Houston would do serious damage to two key rivals — the Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks. It would be a lost 2013-14 season in Los Angeles, and their future draft pick situation is a mess from past trades for Steve Nash and Howard. Their hopes would hang on a LeBron James signing in 2014 or an Andrew Wiggins miracle, and the same might be said about the Mavs, who had kept the Rockets a distant third in the Texas Triangle for years. They were the Texas team that had the most interest from free agents. Not anymore.
- Poetic justice. With the Rockets’ run as a title hopeful ending with Yao Ming’s injury in 2009, the Lakers picked up Houston free agent Ron Artest and won a championship the following year. Now the roles have reversed. Kobe Bryant’s injury (and age) puts Los Angeles in limbo and the Rockets are on the upswing to contention.
Why it makes perfect sense for Dwight Howard
- Winning. It’s that simple. The Rockets provide the best chance at the ring, this season and beyond. They have a not-yet 24 year old guard who scores and passes like a star, a blossoming wing player in Chandler Parsons and a general manager in Daryl Morey who has proven to be masterful at filling the roster with capable role players. The Lakers have a 35-year old grumpy star trying to recover from a serious Achilles tear (and, oh by the way, he doesn’t like you) and a point guard old enough to have played with George Mikan. Not a tough call from a winning standpoint.
- Money. While the parroted line is that the Lakers can offer “$30 million more” to Howard than any other team, that’s primarily because they are the only team that can offer a fifth year on the contract, a year that Howard would likely opt out of to become a free agent. Tony Nitti of Forbes did a terrific job breaking down how state taxes in California make it so the Rockets’ offer is actually more lucrative for Howard than the Lakers’ package over the first four years. After weighing in state taxes, the Lakers deal is worth around $79 million over the first four years compared to $86 million from the Rockets. Throw in the fact that the Collective Bargaining Agreement between players and owners expires in 2017 and Howard may want to opt out after three years, signing a new deal before the new CBA comes into play. When you consider that Howard will likely want to cash in on one more major deal while in his prime (in three or four years), it’s Houston — not Los Angeles — that offers the better deal.
- Coach McHale. You want a coach who knows and understands the role of the big man? That’s Kevin McHale. McHale, a 6-foot-10 power forward, was a 7-time All-Star and 3-time NBA Champion. In Houston under McHale, the strengths of Howard’s game won’t be ignored.
- Strong, stable ownership. Rockets’ owner Les Alexander has owned the team for 20 years and has multiple championships. Alexander was ahead of the curve in hiring Morey and utilizing basketball analytics to aid in making decisions. He has proven to be an owner willing to spend to contend and, more importantly, spends wisely and efficiently. The players needed to complement Harden and Howard will be there.
- Connection in China. Dwight Howard is a superstar, but blowing up in China could further establish his global brand. Since drafting Yao Ming in 2002, the Rockets have built lasting business relationships in China. Current Rocket Jeremy Lin is largely responsible for the NBA’s growth in China and Taiwan the last two years.
- Chemistry. This isn’t the Lakers — there’s no internal bickering as these guys genuinely like each other. Houston fans would welcome and adore Howard.
Howard’s Twitter bio says one simple thing: “After the ring!”
The Lakers and Mavericks will try to sell him on what they can eventually add in 2014 and beyond to help him in that pursuit. The Rockets are way ahead of them, locked and loaded right now and for years to come. If winning is truly Howard’s goal in free agency — to set himself up right now for legitimate shots at the ring — there is only one logical choice.