HANG TIME, Texas — The potential of youth and talk of a bright future were definitely served in the dinnertime pitch to Dwight Howard upon the opening of free agency.
But the Rockets are also delivering the message that they can be immediate championship contenders if the seven-time NBA All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year makes the move to Texas.
While the Houston contingent included Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and a long-distance Skype call from Yao Ming as links to the franchise’s past, the emphasis was placed on how quickly Howard could return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2009 (when he led the Magic in a five-game series loss to the Lakers).
That’s where all of the horse-trading and maneuvering done by general manager Daryl Morey over the past several years could pay off with the biggest dividend. Even after the Rockets dealt second-year forward Thomas Robinson to Portland to clear the necessary salary cap space to make Howard a four-year, $87 million maximum contract offer, Morey has positioned the Rockets to add more than just Howard to next season’s roster.
Through salary cap exceptions and future Draft picks they hold, the Rockets can build around the core of a young lineup of Howard, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik with the kind of experienced, veteran talent that could solidify the team in the playoffs.
Chances are, none of the other contenders in the Fight for Dwight could look Howard in the eye and tell him that he’d have a real shot at squaring off against LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Heat next June.
The Hawks do not possess the second elite-level player the Rockets have in Harden. The Warriors would have to work a sign-and-trade agreement with the Lakers to offer Howard a max contract and, in doing so, would probably have to shed the kind of teammates that would attract Howard.
Even in Dallas, owner Mark Cuban is admitting that his plan to get back into championship contention would likely take two years. With the aging Lakers, well, the clock just keeps ticking and they have virtually no cap room to boost the roster significantly immediately.
The Rockets are coming off a 45-win season and a first-round playoff series when they pushed No. 1 seed Oklahoma City to six games.
“They’re building something great in Houston,” Thunder star Kevin Durant said after that series.
The key is the bricks are in place to do it right now with Howard.