HOUSTON – A year ago, the Houston Rockets had Jeremy Lin and not much else in terms of star power or even recognizable names on a young and inexperienced team.
Things are much different entering the 2013 season.
Houston traded for James Harden just before the start of last season and he helped the Rockets return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Their offseason acquisition of prized free agent Dwight Howard, combined with Harden's development, has catapulted the Rockets from an afterthought in the Western Conference to a contender quicker than most anyone expected.
The challenge, of course, is for the Rockets to live up to expectations.
"We're definitely not going to be the favorite nor should we be, we're proven nothing," general manager Daryl Morey said. "We've got players that if we get them to gel and go the right way we give ourselves a shot to make some noise."
Houston signed Howard to a four-year contract worth about $88 million after one season with the Lakers. They're hoping a change of scenery will help Howard re-establish himself as the top center in the NBA.
"I'm excited to be here and I just want to win," Howard said.
He becomes the latest big-name center to play in Houston following Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming. His signing gives the Rockets legitimate championship aspirations for the first time since Yao teamed with Tracy McGrady.
Harden had to adjust on the fly last season after his last-minute trade from Oklahoma City and is grateful to his teammates and coaching for making his transition easier. He and the rest of the Rockets aim to do the same thing for Howard this year.
"We feel the same way about Dwight, making sure he's good and making sure he's in the best situations to be successful," Harden said. "And once we get him going everything will work itself out."
Five things to know about the 2013 Rockets:
HOWARD'S HEALTHY: Howard played in 76 games last season, but admitted that he didn't feel right after offseason back surgery. His 17.1 points a game were the lowest he's had since he averaged 15.8 in his second season and the 12.4 rebounds were his fewest since 2006. The Rockets staff put him on a new training regimen and believe he's back to his old self.
"For me, being healthy, I think it's going to bring back a lot of the things that I've done in the past," Howard said. "I'm very excited about it."
HARDEN'S COMFY: Harden didn't have much time to get to know his new teammates after arriving from Oklahoma City three days before the first game. It didn't seem to bother him much: He settled in nicely as the star of Houston's offense, averaging 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists — all career-highs — in 78 games. He's looking to do more this season after a full offseason to develop chemistry with the Rockets. That didn't include Howard, but Harden and several other Rockets got to know their new center with offseason workouts in Vail, Colo.
"I feel settled in," Harden said. "Our core is back from last year, so we have a year under our belt and then we added Dwight and he fits in easy and makes things easier for us."
THEY'LL GO BIG: It shouldn't come as a surprise that Houston coach Kevin McHale enjoys going big with his lineup. The 6-foot-10 Hall of Famer has tinkered with Houston's starting five in the preseason in order to get Howard and last year's starting center, 7-footer Omer Asik, on the court at the same time. He moved the 6-11 Howard to power forward and started Asik at center on Monday night in a preseason game and plans to use that lineup in the regular season.
"It's going to go well," McHale said. "It's just a matter of how well it goes."
Howard loves the plan and said that he thinks it will be most beneficial on defense.
"Me and him playing together will give me a chance to roam around, block a lot of shots and just be who I am," Howard said.
LIN OUT OF LIMELIGHT: Lin had enough of the spotlight during "Linsanity" two years ago with the New York Knicks. He's happy to be on a team where the focus is on other players. Lin played in each game last season for the Rockets after playing in 64 games combined in his first two NBA seasons. Though he wasn't as flashy as he was during that span, the Harvard graduate averaged 13.4 points and 6.1 rebounds in his first full season as a starter.
"There's a lot less pressure this season," Lin said. "I've had such a wide spectrum of literally no expectations to having every expectation. Now it's kind of going back down to some lower expectations."
Howard agreed and said: "This year, the pressure will be off of him and he can just play."
PROGRESS OF PARSONS: Rounding out Houston's starting lineup is forward Chandler Parsons. A second-round pick in 2011, Parsons made marked improvement from Year 1 to his second season. He scored 15.5 points a game after averaging fewer than 10 a year ago. He was even better in the playoffs, when he averaged 18.2 points with 6.5 rebounds.