With Dwight in tow, are they title contenders? Houston Rockets Season Preview

Starting Five: PG Jeremy Lin, SG James Harden, SF Chandler Parsons, PF Omer Asik, C Dwight Howard
Key bench players: PF Donatas Montiejunas, PG Patrick Beverley, PF Terrence Jones, SF Omri Casspi, SG Ronnie Brewer, G/F Francisco Garcia, PG Aaron Brooks
Offseason additions: C Dwight Howard, SF Omri Casspi, PG Isaiah Canaan (34th overall pick), C Marcus Camby
Offseason subtractions: SF Carlos Delfino, PF Thomas Robinson, SF Royce White
FACT OR FICTION: Dwight Howard makes this team into a title contender.
FICTION. But he gets them a hell of a lot closer.
After years and years of collecting assets and waiting, GM Daryl Morey finally assembled the super team he always seemed right on the precipice of creating. With defensive specialist wrecking ball in Howard joining a James Harden-led 45-37 8th seed team with defensive shortcomings, it almost seemed like too perfect of a formula.
The problem is that as we’ve seen year after year, the NBA isn’t a plug and play league. As perfect of an addition as Dwight may seem on the surface, there’s several problems that he simply doesn’t address. And one of them isn’t “Aren’t you just a relentless Lakers homer?”
I might be. I am. But that doesn’t mean I’m not right.

Dwight’s defensive acumen is well documented: a healthy version of that guy took a group of lackluster defenders in Orlando that could be just as underwhelming as this group of Rockets. Though a shell of himself for most of the year, Howard seemed to have pulled himself together in April, propelling the Lakers all the way to 9th in defensive efficiency for those final weeks of the season. On that end, if he’s healed from the back surgery that he never tired of talking about, he should be able to help form an impenetrable interior with Omer Asik.

However, all of that is only if Howard’s up-and-down performance last season was merely a symptom of a seemingly endless recovery, rather than his athleticism vaporizing in front of our eyes. The only real certainty from the Rockets is James Harden’s continued excellence. Can a title contender have that many questions? Let’s rattle them off:

Is Jeremy Lin a NBA starting point guard?

Are five career starts and half a season of decent games enough to prove that Patrick Beverley is a rotation-caliber player?

Can Asik and Howard, who both can’t make a shot past 3 feet, play at the same time?

Can Montiejunas, Jones or Greg Smith take a step forward and provide enough backup for the two starting bigs?

Can Lin, Beverley, Garcia, et al. provide enough shooting to make Houston’s offensive system work?

Are Casspi, Brewer or Francisco Garcia good enough to give the team some much needed minutes behind Harden and Parsons?

Forget if Kevin McHale is a championship-worthy coach–is he even a good coach?

Simply put, there are too many questions in such key areas for anyone to consider Houston a title contender to begin the season. Of all those issues, the three most disconcerting problem areas have to be the point guards, their coach and their starting big sharing the paint. There is a solid chance that the team has no NBA starting PGs on the team, which includes rookie Canaan and returnee Aaron Brooks. With a system in place that prides itself on ball movement and pushing the pace, not having a suitable floor general besides James Harden would make life extremely difficult for the Rockets.

Same goes for Asik and Howard playing together. Aside from the fact that they look like the good Lord made them look as opposite as humanly (or in Asik’s case, inhumanly) possible, these two are largely the same type of player: little range offensively, massive game changers defensively, monster rebounders and poor shooting in almost every facet. How will the Rockets be able to play these two players together when both of their asses need to be nailed to the paint?

None of these problems are immediately solvable, or even solvable without a massive trade or personnel move. The coach in question (who has never won a playoff series as a coach, keep in mind) will have to make all of this work and hope that some of the young, inexpensive players on the team will be able to make a difference.

Still, teams with two All-NBA-caliber stars can carry their teams far, as I suspect Harden and Howard will. They will win on sheer talent alone, but I suspect that their first season will be a much rockier one than they’d like. Title contender? Not yet. But soon.

Best case scenario: The team has a real, legit starting point guard, excellent reserve swing men and a coach whose lack of prior success has to do more with his lack of great players than anything else. Howard is healthy and dominant, Harden barks in the air a lot and this team wins 65 games en route to a #1 seed. And I throw up. Everywhere.

Absolute apocalypse: All of those above questions? They have answers that no Rockets fan will appreciate. The team has a point guard crisis, a faulty bench full of undeveloped blue chippers, Howard’s poor play last season was more than just an injury problem and yes, Kevin McHale is just a bad coach. They go all 2012-2013 Lakers on us, as Los Angeles beams despite a 31-51 season from the Show.

Expected outcome: 1st in the Southwest, 3rd in the Western Conference

Do you smell what MAMBINO is cooking? Check out the rest (so far) of our 2013-2014 NBA Season Preview series:

Central Division

Chicago Bulls
Cleveland Cavaliers
Detroit Pistons
Indiana Pacers
Milwaukee Bucks

Southeast Division

Atlanta Hawks
Charlotte Bobcats

Miami Heat
Orlando Magic
Washington Wizards

Northwest Division

Denver Nuggets
Minnesota Timberwolves
Oklahoma City Thunder
Portland Trailblazers
Utah Jazz

Northwest Division

Dallas Mavericks


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