During the 2013 NBA offseason, the Houston Rockets shook up the postseason landscape by signing three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. Already a playoff team in 2012-13, Houston finally added the defensive anchor desperately needed.
In 2013-14, expect Howard to emerge as a top MVP candidate.
Houston signed Howard to a four-year deal worth $88 million during the 2013 NBA offseason. It marked Howard's third relocation in as many seasons after he took the Orlando Magic to new heights and spent a down year with the Los Angeles Lakers.
By down year, of course, I mean that Howard led the NBA in rebounds per game and ranked in the top five in blocks while battling back and shoulder injuries.
Outside of the reported trade demands that made him public enemy No. 1, Howard is a seven-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He's led the NBA in rebounding in five separate seasons and in blocks twice.
He's also responsible for leading the Magic to one NBA Finals appearance and two Eastern Conference Finals berths.
In other words, Howard has magnificent numbers at which any statistician can marvel and a history of winning that makes a superstar legitimate. There are holes in his game, but when it comes down to it, Howard has dominated like no other center in his generation.
In Houston, you can expect that to continue.
Only Interior Scorer
With all due respect to Omer Asik, Marcus Camby, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Greg Smith, the only only player who should get consistent touches in the post is Howard. Jones has flashed signs of being an offensive force, as has Smith, but the rest are either unproven or offensively inept.
Under head coach Kevin McHale, that adds up to monster offensive numbers for D-12.
James Harden will continue to slash and get to the basket, but the main reason Houston was such a perimeter-oriented team in 2012-13 was the absence of a go-to post scorer. Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris served primarily as jump shooters, while Asik had hands of stone.
Now, the Rockets have one of the most dynamic players in the NBA.
Admittedly, Howard's specialty isn't working out of the post, but between his opportunities to score with his back to the basket and his utilization in the pick-and-roll, big things are ahead. Keep in mind, this is the same player who averaged 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in a "down year."
Superstar is an overused term, but Howard is the definition of one at center.
Not a Complementary Piece
The common mistake in the NBA community has been labeling Howard as a complementary star to Harden. It's easy to see why, as Harden has developed into one of the league's premier scorers after averaging 25.9 points per game in 2012-13.
But don't be so quick to name Harden "the man" in Houston—at least don't call him the only man.
Harden is an extraordinary player, and he will be just as much a part of Houston's success as Howard will be in 2013-14. Not only will he be trusted with the final shot, but he will also likely resume his duties as a primary ball-handler and facilitator to complement his scoring touch.
Those of you who believe the Rockets signed Howard to be a No. 2 have another thing coming, however.
Before the Lakers debacle, Howard led the Orlando Magic to an average of 55.5 wins per season from 2007-08 to 2010-11. The Magic reached the Eastern Conference Finals twice in that time and the NBA Finals once.
It's safe to say Houston has a better supporting cast than Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu.
After carrying an organization to contender status, Howard departed, and the Magic won 20 games with virtually the same core that was around D-12. In other words, Howard isn't the player we saw play second fiddle to Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles.
Howard is a superstar who, at 27 years old, has every reason to want to be the featured player.
Reaching the Next Level
During the 2012-13 NBA regular season, the Rockets finished at 45-37 and earned the eighth seed in the Western Conference. They ranked No. 2 in scoring offense, No. 6 in assists per game and No. 7 in rebounds per contest but also ranked 28th in scoring defense.
If the Rockets reach the next level and become title contenders, it'll be because of Howard's impact on both ends, especially on defense. Isn't that what the Most Valuable Player award is all about?
This is no slight on Harden, but Howard was brought in to turn around one of the worst defensive units in the league. With a power forward (Asik) who hasn't displayed a mid-range game or low-post prowess, that means the interior offensive pressure is also on Howard.
Tony Parker is great, and Kobe Bryant has always been phenomenal, but there's a reason Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal took home the hardware in their respective primes.
D-12 will add an element Houston lacked in 2012-13, and he will make everyone around him better. Instead of playing with a cast of veterans who rightfully want to treat him like the next generation, Howard will remind everyone that he's already in his prime.
Before the off-the-court issues took center stage, it's worth noting that all 30 general managers would've traded an arm and a leg to have Howard as their franchise player. Nothing has changed on the court.
Howard will need to further develop his low-post game, and the addition of a mid-range jumper would be nice, but Houston is a quality postseason team, at best, without him. The key additions Houston made include Ronnie Brewer, the already-injured Camby and Omri Casspi.
Progression and player development would've helped. But take away Howard, and this is a team that would be satisfied with 50 wins.
With D-12 in the mix, Houston can potentially win upward of 55 games in 2013-14. If that proves to be the case, the MVP focus will be on both Harden and Howard, but the rightful winner would be Howard—you know, if LeBron James were to ever be dethroned.
Harden is the future of this team. Much could change over the course of the next few months, but Howard is the most valuable player on the Rockets' title-contending paper roster. That makes him a league-wide favorite too.