A look at the best case and worst case scenarios for the Houston Rockets in 2013-2014.
Best Case Scenario: The Rockets have talent, there's no doubt about that. Dwight Howard, at full strength as he appears to be, is quite simply a monster. He had one of those plays in preseason the other night when he goes up, grabs the offensive board, comes down, and with four guys around him, simply goes up and powers through for the and-one.
That's the key with Howard, he's powerful. Extremely powerful. Hulk powerful. That raw power makes up for so much of his game that critics pick apart, and yet it gets lost because of those other elements. He's working with the best crew of big men development coaches he's ever had in Houston, not just Hakeem Olajuwon, but Kevin McHale and a very good assistant staff.
The big trick with how good they could be is how the rest of the components fit around Howard. There's a symmetry to what Howard provides a team on both sides of the floor. Essentially, he allows them to play four-out, one-in at all times, and that has benefits on both sides of the floor.
Offensively, Howard inside will draw a double-team. If he's healthy, there are honestly maybe five guys who can defend him one-on-one to a point you can live with his production inside. And three of those guys off the top of my head, Al Horford (I know it sounds crazy, trust me it works sometimes), Larry Sanders, and Tyson Chandler are all 50/50 propositions. And when that happens, if he's able to kick to reliable shooters (as he was not last year in LA), the whole floor opens. This is what made him so successful in Orlando.
On the defensive side of the floor, the usual idea about Howard is that he makes up for mistakes. So when a point guard inevitably blows by Jeremy Lin (a very good on-ball defender who doesn't have the physical capacity to keep guys in front of him), Howard can pick up on it. But there's a non-reactive bonus to the effect Howard has in manning the middle.
It allows perimeter defenders to be more aggressive. So Lin, who was 10th last year in steals, can take more gambles and still be successful. And the Rockets can focus on a key component not only in their game, but the burgeoning style of the NBA: three-point volume.
A huge key in the modern NBA, on average (there are always exceptions), is to shoot a high volume of threes and prevent that number. Having Howard in the middle allows your perimeter defense to be more aggressive: close out harder, take a step toward that corner early, concern yourself with preventing those shots. You're not abandoning covering the drive. But you know that if your man gets by you, odds are that Howard will clean it up.
So what does all this mean? The NBA is a star league. The formula for success is "1-3 stars, supporting defender, supporting shooter, guys to give fouls inside." The Rockets possess each of elements. James Harden and Dwight Howard are stars. Francisco Garcia and Patrick Beverly are their perimeter defenders. Chandler Parsons can shoot the lights out. Omer Asik can give the fouls, and the Rockets have a slew of complementary forwards to help out with bonus points.
If the formula remains that simple, the Rockets could realistically win 55-games-plus this season and set themselves up for a title run in their first year together. That's the best case scenario.
Worst Case Scenario: You have to have good supporting players. Star power just isn't enough in this league anymore, not with the superstar teams that ramble about. The Knicks have Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith and were a second-round out last year. It's a tough league.
Just as the acquisition of Dwight Howard was actually the product of years of work by the front office, making the Rockets into a contender is going to take some time as well.
You can talk yourself into this supporting core. Patrick Beverly looked like such a defensive monster last year. Francisco Garcia shot the highest percentage in his time with the Rockets he has since 2010 when he only played 25 games. Terrence Jones looks like the good version of Josh Smith instead of the bad version he was billed as in the draft. Chandler Parsons is arguably the Bosh of this group.
(Every superstar team has a Bosh: Pau Gasol was the Laker's Bosh last season. Brooklyn's was supposed to be Brook Lopez but it turned out to be Joe Johnson, now it's probably Lopez again with Kevin Garnett on board. DeAndre Jordan is the Clippers', Amar'e Stoudemire is the Knicks', and Carlos Boozer is the Bulls'. The Bosh is simultaneously mocked for his deficiencies and imperatively important for the team's success.)
But can you really contend with Terrence Jones as your best power forward? The Rockets can't start the Asik-Howard combo. (Though they're going to try on Monday.) They can use it, but not start it or rely on it. Is Francisco Garcia really ready to be the Shane Battier/Rick Fox of this group? Is Patrick Beverly the real deal, or will a player who has bounced around for years return to being the guy who bounced around for years?
Jeremy Lin's a huge question. He had a horrible start to the year last year, figured out how to play next to Harden and had a great second half of the season, then was banged up and defensively outmatched in the playoffs prompting a demotion. Lin is great in the pick and roll (provided the defenders can't trap, which is going to be hard to do with Howard rolling to the rim), but can he develop chemistry with Howard?
Basically it comes down to this. Can Harden and Howard fit so seamlessly together that they lift a bunch of B-minus-to-B-plus players, even in relative context to their roles, to a high enough level to contend?
The absolute worst-case scenario, not involving injury, means that Harden and Howard have trouble co-existing. Howard bucked at running the pick and roll last season, but that could have been part of his uncomfortable outlookw with LA, or with Mike D'Antoni, or with Kobe Bryant. He talked about wanting to have the ball in the post. But that's not where he's at his best, and if he resists that approach, it could be problematic. Harden doesn't want to defer, he wants to star next to Howard. There's still a lot of ego there, and once situations go bad, well... you saw what happened in LA last year.
If the role players aren't ready, the stars can't coexist, and Lin gets lost in the shuffle, the Rockets could go from potentially dominant to just another team: a sixth-seed one-and-done trying to find their identity on both sides of the ball.
The Heat discovered after their first season together with the Triad that it takes sacrifice to win. The Celtics won the title in 2008 built on that premise. The Lakers grew to understand that in 2009 and moreso in 2010. How quickly the Rockets are able to grasp that concept could determine if they're contenders or just another team with flashy names on the marquee.