In June of 2004, the Houston Rockets traded for Tracy McGrady to team with 2002 first overall draft pick, Yao Ming. It was the dawn of a new era. The next Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant had arrived in southeast Texas. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
With the signing of Dwight Howard to partner with last summer’s acquisition James Harden, Rocket fans may be feeling a sense of déjà vu. That’s not the only reason. If you look closely, that 2004-05 Rockets teams bears a striking resemblance to this current core.
It’s like tracing your ancestry. A dominate center (Ming/Howard), an MVP-caliber, multi-faceted shooting guard (McGrady/Harden), a long-range 3-and-D (three pointer and defense) specialist at small forward (Chandler Parsons/Jim Jackson), an inconsistent combo guard playing point guard (Bob Sura/Jeremy Lin), a platoon at the power forward position (Mo Taylor, Juwan Howard, Clarence Weatherspoon/Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones), and a key defensive big man that could start on almost any other team (Dikembe Mutombo/Omer Asik).
That’s where the similarities end. Where that Rockets team had only two players under 26 years of age, this Rockets team is brimming with young talent. Expectations are nothing less than a championship. With GM Daryl Morey’s masterful front-office positioning, Houston has their best shot at an NBA championship since the McGrady-Yao era. This time, Houston is hoping they don’t experience a bout of déjà vu.
In all, twenty players passed through the halls of the Toyota Center via trade, D-League call-up, or free agency. Roster turnover seemed to be worse than a job in sales. Morey’s registered trades with Boston, Portland (x2), New York, Toronto, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Phoenix, Philadelphia, the New England Patriots, Seattle Sounders FC, and Real Madrid. Wait, I think I missed a team.
I could list every transaction, but you have a life, so I won’t waste it. Howard being the coup de grâce (brushing up on my French today) of the summer, adding shooting from Garcia, Casspi, and Williams for minimal deals was icing on the cake.
With a new bench, new starters, and an unsettled rotation, establishing chemistry is going to be key in a brutal western conference. Excluding Howard, Garcia is the only reliable cog from this group that can be trusted to consistently be what you signed him for. Casspi hasn’t been the same since his rookie year, Williams hasn’t been the same since his D-League ascension in Golden State, and Brewer is on the downside of his athletic abilities at age 30.
If this group alongside Jones/Motiejunas/Asik isn’t effective, be assured "Quick-Trigger" Morey will have a deal on the table to bring in more assets. The only concern should be, will they ever gel?
Key Player(s): James Harden, Dwight Howard
Last season was more of the same James Harden we saw in previous seasons, just in a greater capacity. Bringing his trademark euro-stepping efficiency to Houston, the increase in minutes cultivated what we suspected all along – the man is superstar. A year later, Harden is primed for an MVP season, if he can improve on the defensive end. His numbers will be similar offensively, but if he doesn't improve defensively, then it’s all for naught.
True champions (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce) made it a requirement. Harden has to improve from the incessant ball-watching, reaching, and defensive haze (defined as that blank look and body language where he’s clearly not involved in the play) he lapses into frequently enough to hurt his team. He has to be above–average on that end given the help he now has.
Howard is now out of the limelight of the big city and back into a second-tier (size, not status, calm down Houstonians) city, he can get back to focusing on basketball. Right? No more excuses, no more complaining. It’s time Howard pays the piper. He’s in an offense that gives him shots on the block, shots in the pick-and-roll, another star to take off some of the pressure, a backup that can relieve him without the team defense falling apart, and a city that has embraced him like family.
Howard’s put up or shut up season means he’s expected to be back to a three-time Defensive Player of the Year level (somewhat doable). That means turning Houston into a top-ten ranked defense (doable). That means delivering the Rockets a Western Conference Finals trip (also doable). That means winning a championship starting this year (not so easy). For Dwight, the time is now.
X-Factor(s): Chandler Parsons, Power Forward Rotation
Parsons might be the truest definition of an x-factor. He can turn in a better version of 2007-08 Hedo Türkoğlu and take this team to unforeseen heights. He’s that good. The Rocket’s six most efficient units all listed Parsons among them. His growth at both ends is the line between a good Rockets team and a championship one. As a matter of fact he might even solve the power forward conundrum that Houston is faced with.
Jones and Motiejunas. The reality is that whatever this role gives is extra. Ideally you want a stretch four to play next to Dwight, Jeremy Lin, and Harden. Space is a premium in today’s game. Donatas can do that, but Jones is more skilled, and better at everything else. One of them becoming consistent stabilizes the rotation and chemistry making them a stronger team.
Worst Case Scenario: Dwight never regains that DPOY form. Due to the pouting that turns Asik into a trade piece, Marcus Camby gets too much playing time. Jeremy Lin still can’t shoot. Harden regresses at the defensive end trying to carry the load and the Rockets stumble to win 48 games. Shades of the McGrady-Yao era creep in as the Rockets get bounced in the first round.
Best Case Scenario: Dwight is DPOY. Harden is a top three MVP candidate. Parsons shows his Hedo game, Lin gains a consistent jumper, and the Houston bench solidifies into a shooters gallery. Winning 60 games and the number one overall seed, the Rockets, rocket into the Finals where they dispatch a worn down Heat team in six games.
Curveball (Possible event that could alter the course of the season): Trading Asik for Ryan Anderson. Let’s just make it happen. Anderson thrived in Orlando. A frontcourt of Asik and Davis? We can dream, can’t we?
Prediction: 53-29, 3rd in the Western Conference
Houston is going to be good. Regular season good. Just like the Indiana Pacers. I think they need one good season to jell, with one more piece on the bench and some internal development, this is a clear-cut championship contender.
For more Houston Rockets coverage check out the folks over at The Dream Shake.
Atlanta Hawks: Peachtree Hoops
Charlotte Bobcats: Rufus on Fire
Miami Heat: Hot Hot Hoops | Sports Agent Blog
Orlando Magic: Orlando Pinstriped Post | Orlando Magic Daily
Washington Wizards: Bullets Forever