Dwight Howard proves he's worth every penny, shoving those LA doubts aside to prove Houston's ascendant
Dwight Howard had exhausted so much time and expended so many words discussing the process of the Houston Rockets' maturation and cohesion that an examination of their development is in order, particularly given the probability that their season will come to a close short of the franchise's third NBA championship.
When the Rockets do fall, whether to the Portland Trail Blazers or the San Antonio Spurs, or if their season reaches its conclusion in the Western Conference Finals or, improbably, the NBA Finals, the time for rehashing the accomplishments that netted the fourth seed in the West will have ceased. Heartache (or jubilation) will render the progress made between November and April moot, and while past is prologue, memories of winning streaks and debilitating injuries and trade demands will have ceded ground to postseason heroics or failures.
Few will focus on how the Rockets got here then.
That doesn't mean the story should be summarily forgotten. Not when the Rockets opened the 2013-14 season eyeing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and then went out and earned it. Not when many questioned whether Howard and All-Star guard James Harden could coexist in the same superstar stratosphere only for both to immediately showcase a sincere willingness to share the basketball on the court and leadership duties off of it.
"That's all our coaching staff said, all Daryl Morey said, all we've said all year long is we need to get home court. Anything can happen from there."
The Rockets were too young and too new to make waves this soon, and while this postseason run will serve as the ultimate referendum on the Harden/Howard tandem, on Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and his tireless quest to anchor his roster with a pair of superstars, and on the coaching acumen of Kevin McHale, the Rockets took a major step forward as a franchise.
Postseason results, even if they are unsightly, cannot undermine that truth.
"We still have a lot of room for growth so we can't come into these playoffs thinking that we've arrived," Howard said in advance of the Rockets opening their playoff run against the Trail Blazers on Sunday night at Toyota Center. "This is our first year together and we still have a very young team. We have opportunities to grow but we have to always understand that in order for us to be a great team we have to stay humble and always be able to get coached.
"We thought for our first year together it was great. We accomplished a lot of great things. We thought that we gave some games away that we should have won early in the season, but everything happens for a reason. I would think that being in the fourth seed is bad for our team; we wanted to be first (overall).
"But we have a great opportunity to do something special. The season for us has been great but we hope that we have a better playoff run."
"Great" is relative, but only four times in franchise history have the Rockets recorded a winning percentage superior that their .659 clip this season. And while Howard entertained lofty goals of claiming the top seed in the West, managing that feat would have required some catastrophic turns in San Antonio and Oklahoma City and Los Angeles, where the offseason arrival of Doc Rivers stamped the Clippers as legitimate conference championship contenders (opening playoff game loss to Golden State aside).
The Rockets Rebound
In truth, managing a fourth-place finish in the West amounted to a reasonable goal for a franchise that had finished better than third in its division just once since the turn of the century. Howard was maligned leaving the Los Angeles Lakers and, in the eyes of some, physically damaged goods unworthy of the $88 million investment the Rockets made for his services. Harden was ascendant, garnering praise as the best shooting guard in the league, therefore the concern over wedging Howard into his developmental path was a legitimate one. There was just cause to ponder how (if?) the two could excel in unison.
"We thought for our first year together it was great. We accomplished a lot of great things."
Those worries were unfounded. Harden proved to be a better player this season than last, recording a superior Player Efficiency Rating (23.5 to 23.0) while producing an improved effective field goal percentage (52.9 to 50.4 percent). His rate stats were essentially unchanged: 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists last season compared to 25.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists this season. What resonated was how much more efficient Harden was.
Also of significance: Harden had a greater positive impact on the Rockets both offensively and defensively. With Harden on the court, the Rockets improved in offensive rating (110.7 PPP this season compared to 107.1 last season), defensive rating (103.1 to 104.4) and, accordingly, net rating (7.6 to 2.7). Those macro stats are irrefutable, yet it was a smaller post-All-Star Game sample that cemented Harden as a true superstar: 27.7 points (on .471/.419/.875 shooting), 4.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.9 steals as the Rockets secured the fourth seed and corresponding home-court advantage in the first round.
As for Howard, his first year in Houston netted per-36-minutes numbers that compare favorably with his prime in Orlando: 19.5 points (on 59.1 percent shooting), 13.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. With the Magic, Howard averaged 18.3 points (on 57.7 percent shooting), 12.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks, numbers that should render the narrative of his demise irrelevant. Regardless, the Rockets are elated with his production and, as critically, his selflessness.
In Howard the Rockets discovered a means to fortify their offensive foundation built on rim attacks, free throws and 3-pointers. They made more baskets in the restricted area this season (1,638 to 1,617), improved from fourth to first in free-throw rate (30.8 to 38.6 percent) and moved from second to first in 3-pointers made per game, supplanting the New York Knicks atop that heap. They did so averaging 108.6 points per 100 possessions, nearly two full points more than last season, and with a rotation ravaged by injuries. Their achievement wasn't miraculous, but it was impressive given the circumstances.
While Harden, Howard and forward Chandler Parsons only missed a combined 28 games this season, the Rockets were without point guard Patrick Beverley and center Omer Asik for 26 and 34 games, respectively. The Rockets' starting five (Beverley, Harden, Howard, Parsons and Terrence Jones) finished fifth in the NBA in net rating but logged 753 fewer minutes that the Trail Blazers' five-man unit.
The Rockets faced adversity and overcame it despite their relative youth and inexperience working together. When they fended off the hard-charging Blazers for home court, it was an act worth noting.
"That was huge," Rockets forward Chandler Parsons said. "That's all our coaching staff said, all Daryl Morey said, all we've said all year long is we need to get home court. Anything can happen from there."
That door of possibility remains wide open. The Rockets claimed the season series from the Blazers and, baring the unforeseen, should win just their second playoff series since the 1996-97 campaign. And while regular season series should be tossed out the window come April and May, the Rockets did sweep the season series from the Spurs and present San Antonio all sorts of matchup fits.
Probability and possibility are two different words, but the Rockets could possibly make a push into the third round of the postseason. Such a surge would be landmark for a team in its first season playing together.
But before the Rockets take their next step, they should celebrate the ones recently completed. The first bricks of something special have already been laid.
"Obviously we've got a long way to go but for our first year together we've done a pretty good job," Harden said.