Last summer, the Houston Rockets roster consisted of some quality talent but even more confusion.
The biggest moves for Houston in the 2012 offseason consisted of signing Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, while also bringing in rookies Jeremy Lamb, Royce White and Terrence Jones through the draft. Even with these new acquisitions, it appeared to be another season in the middle of the road for the Rockets.
Fast forward to July 2013 and things are a lot different in Houston. One blockbuster trade and one blockbuster free agent signing later and the Rockets have made the jump from just another playoff team to legitimate contender in less than a year.
Just before the start of last season, Houston completed a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder that was centered around a sixth man wanting to spread his wings, James Harden. In OKC, Harden was a crucial player but knew that he would never overtake Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook as the best player on the team. In Houston, Harden was given the chance to be the go-to guy and delivered this past season.
Harden had a breakout season where he averaged 25.9 points, 5.8 assists with 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 steals, leading the Rockets to 45 wins and a playoff berth.
Things were looking up for Houston going into this summer, but Rockets GM Daryl Morey still had bigger plans in store.
Those big plans involved the pursuit of a big man, free agent Dwight Howard. After a turbulent and controversial season as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard became the hottest commodity on the free agent market and the Rockets were looking to pull out all of the stops to reel him in.
After some weeks of deliberating and meeting with several other teams, Howard eventually chose to sign with the Houston Rockets, instantly creating one of the better superstar pairs with him and Harden.
Even with the stars aligned in Houston, do the Rockets have a strong enough team to contend for an NBA title?
Just as the Lakers proved last season, even the best teams on paper can encounter a lot of unforeseen problems with injuries and chemistry, so it may not always be best to talk championships this early. However, it is definitely fair to say that the Rockets will definitely be a much better team next season.
The pieces on the roster speak for themselves. Besides the two superstars in Harden and Howard, there are other supporting pieces that will be contributing as well. Leading this pack is Chandler Parsons, who has proven himself a quality all-around player who will stuff the stat sheets. Last season, Parsons was the Rockets' second-leading scorer with 15.5 points per game to go with his 3.5 assists, 5.3 rebounds and a field goal percentage of 48 percent. Not to mention some clutch shooting as well.
Besides Parsons, there are guys like Lin, Asik, Francisco Garcia and Patrick Beverly, who give the Rockets the kind of depth needed for a successful season.
Even more important than the supporting cast, though, is the relationship dynamics between Harden and Howard which will be the biggest deciding factor in how far Houston goes this season. Some guys are able to mesh right away with compatible playing styles and personalities, but we saw Howard struggle with that last season when being paired with another superstar in Kobe Bryant.
However, there are worlds of differences between Harden and Bryant and even more differences between playing in Los Angeles and Houston. Part of Howard's struggles last season could be attributed to the high pressure and expectations of being in LA, while also having to play alongside the ultra-competitive and very intimidating Bryant.
In Houston, the expectations are high but are not bearing down on Howard like they were in LA. The smaller market and different culture of the Rockets benefits Howard, who found most of his success in a similar situation while playing in Orlando for the Magic. Unlike his time there, however, Howard will be playing alongside a true superstar.
Harden has shown that he's capable of creating plenty of his own offense with his shooting or driving inside off the dribble. Now that he has a teammate that's also capable of taking over a game in Howard, that may take some focus off of Harden, allowing his game to expand even more.
Last season, Houston had no problem scoring the ball, averaging 106 points per game (good for second-best in the NBA). However, the Rockets did have much more trouble on defense where they allowed 102.5 points per game, ranking them 28th in the league.
Fortunately, Howard's game also features a lot of strong post defense that will give the whole team a much-needed boost. On top of that, the Rockets could also insert a defensive-minded Asik into the lineup at power forward next to Howard in order to really shut down the paint for opposing teams. This could especially come in handy against talented front courts in the West, like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in Memphis.
Besides just on the individual player level, this Houston team as a whole looks to be much improved next season thanks to the strong team chemistry as well as the increased fan support coming in thanks to the big move of signing Howard.
There are teams that take longer to gel with the new talent, but a change of scenery and a sense of relief should make blending in with his new teammates both easy and enjoyable. Even so, the competition amongst contending teams in the NBA is still fierce enough where it's still early to tell if this Rockets team can actually hang around with the big boys.
However, it's still very clear that the Rockets got a lot better this offseason and that they have a bright future ahead of them if they can keep building around their newfound superstars.