(SportsNetwork.com) - The Houston Rockets landed the biggest prize in the offseason: a seven-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and Superman in training, Dwight Howard.
The most attractive free agent this summer, Howard signed with the Rockets, spurning his incumbent Los Angeles Lakers and the upstart Golden State Warriors.
"This is very special. Words really can't explain how I feel about being here," Howard said. "It is a fresh start, a clean slate. I am looking forward to doing it in Houston with these beautiful fans behind me. I think it is going to be great. I am looking forward to embracing this city and giving them everything I got."
Howard's one season in Hollywood was not glamorous. The Lakers played well below expectations, squeaked into the playoffs and disbanded, due in large part, to Howard's departure.
Through the disappointment of the 2012-13 campaign, Howard's numbers dipped, but were still extraordinary. He averaged 17.1 ppg (down almost 3.0 ppg from the previous season), but led the NBA in rebounding with 12.4 per game and finished fifth in the league in blocked shots at 2.45 a contest.
The numbers and the underachieving weren't the truly alarming facets of Howard's season with the Lakers. It was that Howard continued to appear like a malcontent and a problem. He clashed with Kobe Bryant about his role in the offense and within the team.
But Howard gets a fresh start with one of last season's most surprising teams. Just before the regular season, the Rockets acquired James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder for peanuts. He turned into an All-Star, one of the top- five best scorers in the league and one of its top players.
Houston made the postseason with relative ease and even took a few games from the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. (It helped that Russell Westbrook wasn't there, but let's not rain on parades.)
The Rockets were the NBA's second-highest scoring team and one of the most storied three-point shooting teams in history.
Defensively, Houston finished 28th in a 30-team league in opponents' scoring.
Howard can change that stat and quickly.
Now, the Rockets are being discussed as legitimate NBA Championship contenders. That's not pundits or guys in studios claiming it, that comes from the top of the Houston brass.
"Dwight is the biggest free agent acquisition in the history of the Rockets," said owner Leslie Alexander. "His addition puts us in contention."
We shall see.
2012-13 Results: 45-37, 3rd in Southwest; Lost in West quarterfinals to Oklahoma City
ADDITIONS: C Dwight Howard, C Marcus Camby, F Omri Casspi, G Ronnie Brewer, G Isaiah Canaan
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Jeremy Lin SG- James Haren SF- Chandler Parsons PF- Omer Asik C- Dwight Howard
KEY RESERVES: C Marcus Camby, G Ronnie Brewer, F Omri Casspi, G Patrick Beverley, G Aaron Brooks, G Francisco Garcia, F Donatas Motiejunas, F Terrance Jones, C Greg Smith
FRONTCOURT: Howard immediately makes this unit awesome. Defensively, he'll improve this group immeasurably considering he is probably the league's best rim protector. The up-tempo style the Rockets play doesn't seem to suit Howard's game, but he can run the floor for cheap baskets and when they slow down, Howard can kick to open shooters, which makes Houston incredibly difficult to defend.
Parsons is a great choice for Most Improved Player. Last season, only his second in the NBA, Parsons' scoring numbers jumped from 9.5 ppg to 15.5 ppg. He shot 48 percent from the field and 38 percent from long range. With Howard demanding double-teams, Parsons will get plenty of open looks.
Asik is a much trickier subject, assuming head coach Kevin McHale decides to start him alongside Howard. Asik, who signed as a free agent last season, averaged 10.1 ppg and 11.7 rpg. Those numbers are beyond serviceable, but Asik didn't love the signing of another center, and, a better one. Asik reportedly requested a trade, but Houston declined. Asik and Howard could work together and be the best rebounding duo in the league, but quicker power forwards might force McHale to go with a more traditional four like Motiejunas or Jones.
"We're going to give it every opportunity to work," McHale said at media day. "If it sucks, I'm surely not going to continue to do it. If it plays well, I'll try and do it more.
"They've got to make it work. I can't make it work. My expectation is to give them every opportunity to make it work."
BACKCOURT: Harden is spectacular. He averaged 25.9 ppg, 5.8 apg and 4.9 rpg, all career highs. (His minutes also were a career-best 38.3 per game.) Harden is not just a great scorer and shooter (37 percent from 3-point range), but a great facilitator. Those assist numbers are high for an off guard.
Harden had to post those assist totals because Jeremy Lin wasn't quite the superstar he was for two weeks in New York City two years ago. His numbers weren't drastically in decline, but he was not as dynamic as he was with the Knicks.
BENCH: This group wasn't a source of strength for the Rockets last season. Carlos Delfino and Beverley were the only real impact second-stringers. Delfino was released in a cost-cutting measure, but Camby and Brewer will bring immediate help.
Beverley is a big key. He could supplant Lin if Lin struggles. Beverley is a big-time energy guy.
Garcia emerged in the postseason, both offensively and defensively. McHale will count on him.
Jones and Smith are athletic, tough guys. Casspi will take Delfino's role, but he's not as good at it.
Motiejunas has a ton of upside and McHale gave him a shot at the starting job last season. He didn't keep it very long, but he has the most potential in the crop of bench forwards.
COACHING: McHale made six All-Defensive teams in his Hall of Fame career. There's a part of him that has to hate this team is so deficient in that aspect.
But, give McHale credit for adapting his personnel last season to their strength. This team can shoot and score and with Howard around, defense will improve.
Coaching Howard has taken years off Stan Van Gundy's and Mike D'Antoni's lives. Howard can be moody and difficult, but neither of those fine gentlemen have McHale's pedigree. He should be alright, although getting Howard his touches in the flow of their offensive structure, coupled with making sure Harden is taken care of, might be the biggest source of stress for McHale.
OUTLOOK: This team is certainly playoff bound, but are they contenders?
With no natural power forward and some question marks on the bench, probably not.
The Rockets are relying on Howard to change their defense and he's capable, but, despite the nickname, he's not Superman. The on-the-ball defense needs to improve drastically.
Expect Houston to still be in the top five offensively. They are loaded on offense. Don't expect much of a decline from Harden and Parsons' numbers could grow.
The NBA is a superstar-driven league and with Harden and Howard, the Rockets have two. They are closer than ever and give General Manager Daryl Morey credit for turning a dreadful roster into a top-10 in the league.
The Rockets could host a first-round playoff series, but they're just not quite at the championship door.