Last summer, the team had no true stars and looked destined for misery. How did Houston build such a formidable lineup and put itself in the championship discussion?
Let's take a look at how it all came together for the Rockets.
Summer 2012: Trades and Free-Agent Shuffling
McHale finished his first campaign as head coach (in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season) with a 34-32 record and missed the playoffs. The team's future was unclear, and it looked like the Rockets would face an uphill climb for the next several years.
Leading up to the 2012 draft, general manager Daryl Morey decided to move some pieces and acquire draft assets in order to make a play for Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard.
June 26-28, 2012
On June 26, 2012, Houston traded Chase Budinger to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the 18th pick in the upcoming draft, as the club stockpiled picks to make a run at D12.
The next day, Morey traded Samuel Dalembert and the 14th pick in exchange for Shaun Livingston, John Brockman, Jon Leuer and the 12th pick.
On draft night, Houston selected Jeremy Lamb with the 12th pick, Royce White with the 16th and Terrence Jones with the 18th selection. Lamb would eventually serve as a trade chip come October.
July 5, 2012
A week and a half later, the Rockets continued to unload their roster.
Within 24 hours, Houston said goodbye to both of its point guards, as it let Goran Dragic leave via free agency and dealt Kyle Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for an unprotected first-round pick.
July 13, 2012
The mass exodus concluded (for the time being) with Houston using its amnesty clause to release forward Luis Scola.
July 11-14, 2012
To fill their need at point guard, the Rockets signed New York Knicks restricted free agent Jeremy Lin to a $25.1 million offer sheet.
Three days later, the Knicks opted not to match the offer, and Linsanity arrived in Houston.
July 24, 2012
In a similar restricted free agent situation, Chicago Bulls backup center Omer Asik signed an offer sheet with the Rockets, and Chicago declined to match. Houston now had some size and defense in the frontcourt.
Fall 2012: Blockbuster trade sends James Harden to Houston
Even with the additions of Lin and Asik, the Rockets weren't poised to be anything special in 2012-13. Despite a respectable showing in its preseason games, Houston was set for another mediocre campaign at best.
That all changed when Morey landed the Rockets a top-tier star.
October 27, 2012
The Oklahoma City Thunder were under pressure to make a decision about James Harden, whose contract was set to expire in 2013. Houston was able to accommodate, and the bearded baller was traded to the Rockets just days before the regular season.
It didn't take long for Harden to assert himself as a superstar with his new club.
He began the regular season with a pair of monster games. Harden kicked things off with a 37-point, 12-assist barrage to beat the Detroit Pistons, and followed it up with a 45-point outburst in a win over the Atlanta Hawks.
His season-opening performance set the tone for the rest of the year. The Rockets played an exciting, aggressive, uptempo style en route to 106 points per game, 867 total three-pointers and their first playoff berth in three years.
With Harden in the fold, Houston became a much more dangerous club. He created his own shots, slashed to the rim and helped facilitate the offense with his passing skills.
Most notably, he proved to be an elite player because he could outduel other stars in a winning effort.
February 20, 2013
In a late-winter showdown against his old squad, Harden scored 46 points in the Rockets' triumph over the Thunder. He outscored Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined, and Houston's victory was a foreshadowing of the scare it would give Oklahoma City in the playoffs.
April 21 -May 3, 2013
Houston grabbed the No. 8 seed in the 2013 playoffs and squared off against none other than OKC. Due to Russell Westbrook's Game 2 injury, it turned into a hotly-contested series.
Lin's chest injury revealed Patrick Beverley's abilities, Chandler Parsons had a couple of sensational outings and Harden was his usual lethal self.
The Thunder ultimately won the series, but the Rockets' performance demonstrated that they were a deep squad on the rise.
Summer 2013: Catching the Big Fish
Once the offseason arrived, Houston was immediately a major player in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes.
It was clear the Rockets had a compelling future with Harden as a major building block, and they also had plenty of cash and a big-man head coach in McHale.
Guys like Parsons helped cultivate Howard's interest in signing as they tried to lure him away from Los Angeles, Dallas and other suitors. Financially, there was one more housekeeping item to take care of:
June 30, 2013
July 5, 2013
After a week of meetings, drama, suspense and self-reflection for Howard, the megastar center finally made his decision to join the Rockets.
He quickly confirmed leaked reports by changing his Twitter profile picture:
In his introductory press conference, Howard emphasized his excitement about Houston's young lineup, McHale's mentorship and a chance to lead the franchise back to championship contention.
When we look back on how the Rockets evolved over the past 12-13 months, it's amazing to see how a series of events turned into an avalanche of good fortune.
The acquisition of James Harden was the critical turning point that changed the complexion of the franchise. His presence not only made it more attractive for Howard to commit, but his youth and talent will make Houston a desirable free-agent landing spot for years to come.
We don't know exactly what's in store for the Rockets in the long-term, but we know it will be exciting.
For now, Houston's opponents need to figure out how to deal with these two:
Don't crown them champions just yet, but I'd be shocked if they weren't in the mix.
Follow Dan O'Brien on Twitter: @DanielO_BR