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Nothin' but Net: New-look Rockets aren't legit contenders

Dwight Howard made his choice and that was to join the Houston Rockets.

The prize free agent took Houston up on its four-year offer for gigantic money to join James Harden and head coach Kevin McHale in the accelerated rebuilding plan in Texas.

(Before last season, I ranked the Rockets as the 28th best roster in the NBA. Two no-brainer decisions and they've joined the short list of elite teams. That would make this an accelerated rebuilding plan.)

Howard is a lot of things. He's moody, mercurial, a malcontent and unpredictable. He also led the league in rebounding last season and is one of the three best defensive players in the NBA.

That last part will come in handy for a Rockets' team that ranked 28th in opponents' scoring. Howard is an extraordinary rim protector and he'll have to be. The man-to-man defenders in front of him in Houston will be less than average.

Rebounding was not a big problem for Houston last season. They ranked in the top 10 in rebounding, opponents' rebounding and finished 11th in differential.

Omer Asik, who demanded a trade after Howard signed, averaged 11.7 boards per game last season. Howard came in at 12.4 rpg.

Offensively, the Rockets style is predicated on ball movement and 3-point shooting. James Harden is one of the best playmakers in the sport. Chandler Parsons is a top shooter. And Jeremy Lin is adequate at both.

Howard doesn't help either of these strengths. His offensive game has frankly not improved all that much in his decade in the league. Howard is a freak athlete so maybe the plan will be to watch him outrun other bigs.

You can't fault a team for signing a 27-year-old who is the best player at his position. Houston is improving at a massive rate, but the Howard signing just doesn't make the Rockets legitimate title contenders.

The NBA is a superstar-driven league as we know. Howard and Harden are superstars, that is not under question. But they are weird kind of superstars.

Let me explain.

Howard is a superstar with superstar numbers of 18.3 ppg, 12.9 rpg and 2.2 bpg for his career. However, his people skills are shaky at best thanks to recent battles with coaches and his ill-advised comments about his former Orlando Magic teammates he chaperoned to an NBA Finals appearance.

Harden has been a superstar less than a year. Maybe that superstar was always in him, buried under his desire to help his Oklahoma City Thunder team, and buried under his remarkable mane of facial hair.

None the less, Harden has played at that level for exactly a year. Is this who Harden is? Most likely yes, but could the 2012-13 campaign have been a misleading display of Harden's true ability? Perhaps.

Can the two play together? That's a serious question because Howard appeared to hate the secondary role to Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. Difference here could be that Harden is more unselfish and a better distributor, but is that actually true? Bryant averaged more assists per game than Harden last season and seemingly altered his game at times to become a straight facilitator, most likely to try to make Howard happier.

And there's already discontent in Houston. Asik reportedly was told that he won't be traded, despite his requests. It was said the Rockets explored trading Asik and Lin to free up enough cash to sign Josh Smith, one of Howard's closest friends. Smith went to Detroit, and who knows what will happen with Asik.

The Rockets could play both together since they've never addressed their weakness at the power forward spot. Asik won't be able to cover quicker 4s, but they might secure every possible rebound, then chuck it to Harden and Parsons for open shots.

Nothing detailed here resembles earth-shattering trouble for Houston. If you believe, like I do, that Howard and Harden should be alright together, then everything should work out fine. The Rockets and McHale are quick studies and if you need proof, check out last season. They acquired Harden about a half- hour before the start of the regular season, tweaked their style and made the playoffs.

But the reason the Rockets aren't legitimate contenders delves further into a much larger problem for Houston.

Play along at home or at work. Answer truthfully which team you think is better, the Rockets, or the following:

Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors or Memphis Grizzlies.

Did you choose Houston in any of those? Maybe an argument can be made the Rockets are better than the Warriors, who improved with the signing of Andre Iguodala, or the Grizzlies, who stayed pat, which makes them pretty damn good.

Houston is just too far behind the league's upper echelon teams. Truthfully, it was hard leaving the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks off of that list, but the others are just transparently better.

Can the ninth-best team in the league be considered an elite team? Not in my mind, they can't.

Why aren't they higher?

For one, there are fair questions about Howard and Harden together and whether Howard fits totally in the offense.

Lin is still not a top-tier point guard and he's never going to be. Patrick Beverley will probably take a bigger role for the Rockets this season.

Power forward is still a huge question mark. Even if Asik and Howard play together, that's not a real solution, especially if the philosophy is based on high-volume offense.

And, Houston shed a lot of its potential depth to get under the salary cap to afford Howard.

Howard asked the Rockets about adding a third superstar. He was right to ask. The talent level is not as high roster-wide as the above-mentioned teams.

Houston will improve. Howard and Harden are young and will gain immensely from playing together. You have to sign a guy like Howard if you're Houston. He's a 27-year-old athletic mountain of a defender.

The Rockets will be improved by his presence.

That improvement just doesn't translate into title contending status. That comes later.