Thinking big is all the Houston Rockets do.
Staging an early-season acquisition of a superstar like James Harden would have satisfied most rebuilding efforts, just not Houston's. Fresh off inking Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to a pair of fat deals as well, the Rockets dreamed of more.
Chasing Dwight Howard in free agency certainly qualifies as more. Pairing the NBA's most revered center with an emerging top-10 superstar in Harden would make for quite the offseason. The Rockets would become instant contenders, positioning themselves as one of the Western Conference's primary powers.
Two superstars weren't enough to quench the thirst of the Miami Heat in 2010, though, and that's not enough for the parched Rockets now.
According to two people with knowledge of the situation, the Rockets' Monday meeting with free agent forward Josh Smith in Los Angeles included a discussion about a possible partnership with him and his childhood friend from Atlanta in Howard.
Smith has long been known to be on the Rockets' radar, but he is not viewed solely as a backup plan to Howard should he decide to sign elsewhere, and the possibility remains of another superteam being created with Howard and Smith joining franchise centerpiece James Harden.
Smith has always been considered the Rockets' Plan B. Failure to sign Howard would leave them to take on J-Smoove outright in hopes that he could take Houston to the next level alongside Harden.
What the Rockets are talking about now is making them a package deal, so to speak. Signing Howard wouldn't end their pursuit of Smith; it'd merely tweak it a bit.
Houston doesn't have the cap space to ink both, but it can acquire Smith via a sign-and-trade with the Hawks. But just because it's possible doesn't mean it isn't difficult.
In order to sign Howard, the Rockets have to cut ties with a number of players who would have otherwise been valuable trade assets, leaving them to dangle Asik and Lin.
Conveniently enough, the Hawks are said to have an interest in Asik if Howard chooses Houston as his next destination.
A proposed salary dump with a third team would help push any deal through should the Rockets want no part of Lin, but that's not our concern right now. The intricacies and obstacles of any such proposal can be ironed out by the men behind the curtains themselves. We're here to talk about this hypothetical trio and their potential ceiling.
On paper, a starting lineup comprising Howard, Harden and Smith is scary. Scarier than what most other teams have to offer. But together, these three still wouldn't make up the most terrifying triumvirate in the NBA.
Now's about the time I would insert a "not even close" to emphasize how true it is, but that seems disrespectful to Harden, Howard, Smith and Harden's beard.
Their collective skill sets create a beguiling fit. For starters, Harden's ability to run the offense while serving as the featured scorer wasn't fully realized until he made the jump from the Oklahoma City Thunder to Houston. His pick-and-roll initiation is also, perhaps, the most underrated aspect of his game.
Placing him alongside a pick-and-roll authority like Howard opens up offensive realms of possibility the ever-clumsy Asik can't touch with a 10-, 20- or 50-foot pole. And that's despite the fact that "Superman" tends to downplay his role as a, well, roll man. He doesn't want to be known as strictly a pick-and-roll big, often preferring to post up instead.
But the numbers say Dwight is kidding himself and anyone he plays with. Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), Howard ranked ninth in points scored per possession as the roll man in pick-and-rolls (1.29) this past season. And that was considered an off campaign.
Next to Harden, he'd have to embrace the pick-and-roll. Given how much he excels when slashing toward the basket, that shouldn't be a problem, especially when you consider that Houston would likely run a floor-spacing, heavy offense that affords Dwight more post-ups than he was receiving in Los Angeles.
The key to that spread-happy starting lineup will be Smith. He has all the tools to be a strong stretch forward—he's athletic and quick on his feet and dishes out of double-teams well—except a consistent outside shot. His 30.3 percent clip from downtown last year was regrettable, as is his 28.3 percent mark for his career.
Improving upon his ugly-looking shot will need to be an area of focus should he join Houston so that he and Chandler Parsons can be interchangeable at the 3 and 4 positions. His willingness to shoot in the first place (2.6 treys per game last season) suggests he should at least be open to working it.
Defense is where Smith really makes his money, though. Howard, too. They block shots in half-court sets and transition and hoard rebounds as well as anyone at their respective positions.
Only three players in the NBA averaged at least 15 points, eight rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game last season, and Howard and Smith account for two of them. Tim Duncan was the other.
The previous tangent brings us to the following conclusion: This triad could do some serious damage together. But the best? In the league? Come on now.
History tells us Wade will come back strong for (part of) next season, and Bosh can't slosh around in inadequacy forever. And, you know, there's always that guy LeBron James to consider. Housing the best player on the planet has that kind of benefit.
I'm not entirely sure Houston's Big Three would have the San Antonio Spurs' beat either. Their core three is as old as anything, but with Manu Ginobili announcing he'll return for two more years, you can't remove them from the equation.
San Antonio's trio all have a two-way air of dominance about them that Houston's wouldn't. Harden isn't the defender Ginobili is, and neither Smith nor Howard are the scorers Duncan is.
The potential for the Rockets to topple the Spurs is there, but with all the moving parts involved (who guards Tony Parker?), there's no guarantee they overcome San Antonio's fundamental superiority.
Oklahoma City deserves a mention too. Bidding adieu to both Harden and Kevin Martin in less than a year has left them with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. At full strength, that may be the second-best threesome in the league.
Outside of those three, there really aren't many three-star heavy squads that could contend with what the Rockets could assemble.
The Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors seem on the cusp of housing a definitive Big Three; they're just not there yet. There's much to like about the new-look Brooklyn Nets, who will essentially be fielding a Big Five, but you could take any three members of their conceptual starting five—Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez—and they're not better than what may be awaiting in Houston.
Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers will look like a disaster waiting to happen if Howard leaves for the Rockets. He, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash won't be enough to compete with Houston's trilogy of studs.
Chris Paul's Los Angeles Clippers deserve a mention, though their Big Three isn't concrete, nor does it necessarily exist. Blake Griffin and Paul are quite the duo, but whether you sell their third as DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick or even Jamal Crawford, you've got to like the Rockets there.
A healthy Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls would be pretty amazing. A healthy Bulls team also borders on whimsical at this point. Luol Deng and Joakim Noah are always banged up, and even if they're not, one can make the case Rose is the only advantage they would have.
Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol may fancy themselves a Big Three, because they are. They'd pose a challenge for the Rockets, and I look forward to the boxing matches that would ensue between J-Smoove and Z-Bo.
Must I even mention the New York Knicks at this point? Carmelo Anthony is their only superstar. Some would still consider him, Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire a Big Three, but the state of STAT's knees puts New York in a hole against most, if not all, of the preeminent trios.
Until further notice, the Denver Nuggets don't really have that kind of setup. Retaining Andre Iguodala wouldn't clear that up either. Ty Lawson is an obvious member, but the third could be any one of JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried or Danilo Gallinari, all of whom are a stretch as stars.
It's a Big Three-eat-Big Three world out there in today's NBA. Varying compositions made up of talents that complement their fellow starlets in different ways makes for some compelling competition.
Procuring both Howard and Smith would put the Rockets right in the thick of the Big Three fray, close to the top, even. Atop that combative pyramid is where the Heat would still sit. Next to them, there would be the Spurs or Thunder. Then the Rockets.
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