Houston Rockets’ summer assignment list: Part 3, Dwight Howard

Many of you were very upset by my characterization of James Harden in my last installment of this series.  There, I said that in Harden, “I [saw] a player who is selfish and not as committed to the team and winning as he is to himself.”  I stand by those comments and by that opinion. Dwight Howard is another matter altogether. To begin, Howard put any doubts to rest last season over whether he was worth the maximum contract to which he was signed.  More than just his dominance in the playoffs, he exhibited a newfound sense of maturity that would seem to bode well for the future. But for purposes of this series, what is Dwight Howard’s summer assignment?By some measures, as was chronicled on this very blog by Richard Li, Dwight Howard post-ups were the Rockets’ most inefficient play last season.  At the same time, the stretch of games where the Rockets’ center looked closer to his mentor than not was undeniable.  Howard also basically ate Robin Lopez for lunch in the postseason.  I’m not sure what to think.

Many have said they hope Howard carries the momentum of his playoff performance into next season.  I’ve countered, asserting that predication of an overall ability assessment of Howard upon the Portland series would be flawed – they were the single best matchup for him out of the seven other playoff teams.  As a representative sample of the opposite extreme, I’d point to his play against the Thunder and Clippers.  The argument then usually goes that those teams’ success against Howard is more an indictment of Terrence Jones (in those teams’ strategy to shift full attention to Howard, off of Jones).  I’d then counter that those two teams are the only opponents who really matter, for the long haul, and for now, it doesn’t look like a power forward upgrade is on the way.

Howard is what he is, at this point.  I can’t expect him to drop 35 and 15 on those conference rivals.  But as I mentioned, the development we saw last season was staggering.  He looked like Olajuwon at times, and I mean that seriously.  The footwork rapidly improved and the touch even softened.  Can he keep molding his post-game and sustaining his dominance for longer stretches of the year?  That would be miraculous, and would lengthen the team’s window.  But it’s house money, and I’m not holding my breath.

What Howard gives us right now is more than enough and it puts us in the conversation.  Further skill development would be great, but its not really a priority or something this team needs to win.  All I hope, regarding Dwight Howard, is that he continues recovering from the back surgery and maintains a high level of health.  Without him, there’s no chance.

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Taking a look at the schedule

The one interesting thing in August has happened: the NBA schedule was released last week. Now that we all have the full schedule at our fingertips, it’s time to take a look at Houston’s slate of games and check for items of note. There are always peculiarities to the schedule each year, and this one is no different. Back to backs are back, the Mavs are in for a nasty surprise, and there’s a surprise that’s not so surprising.

How many back to backs are there in this schedule? That’s a good question and it’s one of the first ones people ask. This year there are twenty sets of them for Houston, a fairly unremarkable number. They have nineteen games against teams on the second night of a back to back, so it’s not a huge factor. There are two instances of four games in five nights, one right before the All-Star Break (with another back to back immediately after the break) with another four in five spanning the end of March and the beginning of April.

What this means for Houston is that they won’t be particularly fatigued. The first year of Harden, the 2012-2013 season, contained a horrifying gauntlet of back to back and four in fives, something that really put a damper on the team at the end of the calendar year. This year, like the 2013-2014 season, is lighter on the endurance trials, something the Rockets should be relatively thankful for.

The Dallas Mavericks, however, are getting the opposite of a Christmas present from Houston. As division rivals, the two teams square off four times. The new and improved Mavs get four shots to exact revenge for Chandler Parsons against his old team… except that they’re on the tail end of a back to back every time. The Rockets are also on the second night of a back to back… the last time. The previous three, Houston will have the endurance advantage every time. That’s good news for a team that needs every advantage they can get in a brutal division. On a related note, two of Houston’s meetings with San Antonio come on the second day of a back to back for the Spurs.

The biggest non surprise is that the Rockets’ schedule starts out nasty, as always. The period before the All-Star Break is noticeably tougher than the period after, which features a lot fewer second-round teams. November may be a smooth start, but December and February in particular look to be unpleasant stretches of road for a Rockets team hoping to prove the world wrong.

Next time we’ll look at what the schedule means for Houston’s win-loss record, and I’ll give the best predictions I can. The numbers might surprise you, just like whatever insane trade Daryl Morey’s lining up will.

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The Red94 Podcast: The most boring episode so far

Today’s was one of the more underwhelming episodes we’ve had in some time, with not much going on, but we did discuss the impact the Team USA experience might have on James Harden.  Also, you know how when the battery in a fire alarm gets close to dying and so the alarm keeps beeping intermittently?  Yeah, that is going on right now in my apartment, where this was recorded.

Download this episode (right click and save)

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On contention

There are about four questions that people ask over the course of the NBA season. “How does he compare to Jordan” is probably number one, asked about seemingly half the league, with “Will this team make the playoffs soon” at a close number two. The last two, in no particular order are “Will this player get traded” and “Is this team a contender.” Well, Houston’s more or less a playoff lock now, nobody on the team is comparable to Jordan, and everyone is always on the trading block, so that leaves the last question to burn in the minds of Rockets fans. But what makes a contender in the first place? What’s the rubric there, and how do we use it to judge Houston?

To jump to the end a bit, the answer is no. The Rockets aren’t a true contender. (They could potentially win it all but it would take a few major things to swing their way. Some people call these teams “sub-contenders.”) They were in the same boat last year, and probably aren’t greatly different in terms of overall team strength. They’ve changed out parts but what they haven’t changed out are the pieces that a team needs to win it all: stars, elite coaching and cohesive, skilled role-players.

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Houston Rockets’ summer assignment list: Part 2, James Harden

Read Part 1 where I discussed Pat Beverley, Donatas Motiejunas, and Trevor Ariza.

James Harden:  First, the obvious – Harden needs to show commitment on the defensive end.  It’s simple, really.  This team doesn’t have a chance until its star player brings consistent effort on both sides of the ball, though the Parsons/Ariza swap should mitigate the problem and increase their odds.  As I told a reader last week, when asked my thoughts regarding the reports of Harden’s defense with Team USA, it’s not an issue of ability with The Beard.  It’s the same “too cool for school” mentality that you see so prevalently in any pickup game amongst amateurs.  Certain people think they’re just too cool, or too good to try defensively, and that they can just get the points back on the other end.  Odd considering how much the defensive greatness of Michael Jordan and Lebron James, the two best players of the last thirty years, is lauded and pointed out.

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