Any team that aspires to contend for a title needs multiple All-Star-caliber players competing on its behalf.
This season, the Houston Rockets are set with two such talents. Dwight Howard and James Harden are both All-NBA forces, arguably the very best at their respective positions. They're elite and still developing. On paper, in their first season as teammates, Howard and Harden should also be able to complement one another on both ends of the floor.
In order to win a championship as early as this season, both need to play the best basketball of their careers. History says Howard’s incoming impact as an elite two-way center might be more important than Harden’s effortless ability to score the ball and live at the free-throw line.
But is that the case here?
Whose night-to-night excellence will be more crucial? Let’s take a look at both players and what impact a career-best season from each will have on Houston's chance at winning a title in its first post-Hakeem Olajuwon season as realistic contenders.
Coming off the first "down" year of his Hall of Fame career last season, Dwight Howard heads to Houston as a motivated 27-year-old force of nature. Let's start with his defense. When at his very best, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year single-handedly fences off the paint, allowing limited entrance into the one area offenses love to attack the most.
He's quick on his feet, has incredible leaping ability and is rarely caught out of position.
According to SynergySports, Howard was the 10th-best defender in the league defending pick-and-roll screeners in 2010, forcing opponents to 32.6 percent shooting and a paltry 0.69 points per possession.
Here are a few examples that highlight just how devastating Howard can be deterring opponents from the paint.
Very few centers are able to corral speedy point guards in open space—like Howard does to Brandon Jennings in the clip above—then slide over and stop a baseline drive (by Ersan Ilyasova) on the opposite side seconds later. Howard is the reason Milwaukee settles for the jumper, which definitely wasn't their first option.
Here he is doing much of the same against the Grizzlies and Mike Conley Jr.
That season was the last time Howard played a full 82-game slate, and if he's able to replicate that production on both ends (61.2 percent shooting from the field, 24.0 PER, 13.2 rebounds per game) next year with the Rockets, no team will look forward to meeting them in the playoffs.
Offensively, the then-24-year-old Howard showed how monstrous he can be in the pick-and-roll (something he unfortunately shied away from last year with the Los Angeles Lakers), averaging 1.49 points per possession in 122 chances. Howard also drew a shooting foul 20.5 percent of the time.
When healthy, he's a nightmare rolling to the hoop, and words like "unstoppable" and "dominant" hardly do his impact justice.
In the clip below (also from 2010), Howard is matched up against the Boston Celtics—at the time one of basketball's premier defenders of the pick-and-roll—and even after executing their scheme fairly well, all Magic point guard Jameer Nelson does is toss the ball up in the air and watch Howard finish with a dunk.
It's an indomitable sequence.
Elite big men are also capable of influencing the game—and helping teammates get better—outside the stat sheet. As a screen setter, few in the league are more lethal than Howard. Here he is giving Nelson an extra step on his way to the basket.
Howard's so effective in these situations because all five defenders need to know where he is at all times. Once he sets a screen, the mere threat of him rolling to the hoop keeps everyone else's attention momentarily diverted.
Expect to see a lot of this next season with Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley and, of course, James Harden, taking advantage of Howard's high and side screens on their way to the basket. This is just one of the dozens of ways Howard makes teammates better, which is the supreme characteristic separating great players from very good ones.
In his fourth year in the league, and his first as a starter, James Harden was arguably one of the best shooting guards. He made his first All-Star team, was named to the All-NBA third team, finished fifth in scoring, led the league in free-throw attempts and was far and away the best player on a team that qualified for the playoffs.
This year, the 24-year-old Harden will need to be even better.
Already an incredibly efficient threat with the ball, Harden will only see his life as a scorer get easier as defenses bunker down in preparation for all the destruction Howard is capable of delivering.
Courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, here's Harden's heat map from last season. Notice how he almost strictly attacks defenses from the three-point line and at the rim, two of the court's most efficient locations.
Harden’s ability to score in transition defined Houston’s philosophy last season, and even though he might not be asked to run as often in what should be a slower offense, his threat as a one-man fast break is something opposing teams will still have to recognize and prepare for.
A still underrated component of Harden's game is his passing. A lot of players in the NBA can put the ball in the basket, but few have the instinctual feel and willingness to help teammates succeed.
Unfortunately, Harden has been prone to forcing the issue (a good chunk of Harden's league-high 295 turnovers last season came after he charged into a defender), but he possesses the talent and vision to throw skintight pocket-passes only a handful of other players in the world can pull off.
Harden reads the defense, waits for the help defender to enter no man's land, then hits Omer Asik in stride with a beautiful bounce pass. It's mesmerizing and perfectly timed.
At the end of the day, Houston can not afford either Harden or Howard to have relatively average (but still very good) campaigns in 2014 if they're to win it all. Both need to be the best they can be given the locked and reloaded Western Conference and its insanely high level of competition.
Even if they manage to survive out west, Houston would still need to take down whichever team comes through in the Eastern Conference. Battling the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets or Indiana Pacers won’t be a walk in the park.
Both players are critical components, but Howard's overall impact on the game is too high to ignore. With potential to be the league's third-best player next season, his ceiling stands at a level few players ever reach.
The first thing Houston absolutely has to have happen, if they want to win a title this season, is for Howard to be the best center in basketball.
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