VIDEO: Ahmad Rashad goes one-on-one with Rockets superstar Dwight Howard
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Kevin McHale has been at this long enough to know that “title talk” in July, even when you have all the ingredients seemingly in place, is delusional.
So many things can happen between winning the free-agent sweepstakes and winning a Larry O’Brien trophy that banking your season on winning the NBA’s summer title (last summer it was wooing the top free agent on the market, Dwight Howard, to Houston) means next to nothing to the Rockets’ coach. A Hall of Famer and champion during his playing days with the Boston Celtics, McHale that once the reality of the regular season sets in, none of that summer hubbub matters.
And make no mistake, the Rockets are in the midst of adjusting to that new reality. The expectations haven’t changed, the ultimate goal is still trying to get on par with the rest of the best in the Western Conference. They’re still aiming for that No. 1 spot and a chance to play for that title trophy … but it just may not be as soon as many Rockets fans hoped.
Injuries to key players (it’s not an excuse, it’s a fact), growing pains, significant off-court drama (Omer Asik) and general inconsistency throughout the season’s first two months have the Rockets sitting outside of the top four in the Western Conference standings in advance of tonight’s matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
“I think we’re still in the searching mode,” McHale said recently. “We had so many injuries that it’s hard to get any symmetry. We’ve had two or three main eight or nine guys out for stretches. So where are we at? We’re still searching, trying to find ourselves. And at a certain point, if you never do find it, it’s called lost. But I assume we’re going to find it at a certain point. We’re in that phase where I think we’re getting a lot better in some areas, but it just seems like it’s the two steps forward-one step back phase right now.”
James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin and Asik have all missed games with injuries since the start of training camp, squashing any chance the Rockets had of developing the chemistry McHale knew Houston would need in order to try and live up to its summer and preseason hype.
Howard is the only Rocket to have played in all 39 games this season, which is an impressive bounce back from the tumultuous season he had alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol with the Los Angeles Lakers last season.
In fact, Howard is the one certainty the Rockets have been able to count on this season.
His work ethic, attitude and spirits are at all-time highs. The petty chatter and foolishness that marked his lone season playing alongside Bryant in the L.A. fish bowl have dissipated with the change of scenery.
“From what I understand he’s been fantastic in every way imaginable,” said a former Eastern Conference executive now working as a scout. “He’s back to the Dwight he was before the past two years changed so many people’s perspective on him. He’s back to working without all that added stress and it shows. He’s playing with that energy we used to see from him in Orlando.”
McHale confirmed as much about Howard’s transition and fit with the Rockets.
“That’s the positive,” McHale said. “Dwight’s playing a lot better. I think we’re figuring out how to get Dwight the ball a lot better. We’re not missing him as much. We’re starting to figure out the angles we have to get at to get him involved more and to get easy baskets and stuff. We put in some different stuff offensively and defensively that works, because I don’t know if you knew this or not but everything works on paper. So I just think everybody, the staff and this entire group, is getting more accustomed to each other and how we’re going to have to operate. You know, hopefully, in the future you can bring back the entire core group healthy and then you can know what works and what doesn’t work.”
The dynamic inside-out duo of Howard and Harden definitely works. It is the Rockets’ answer to what the Oklahoma City Thunder (with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – when healthy), Los Angeles Clippers (Chris Paul — when healthy — and Blake Griffin) and San Antonio Spurs (Tony Parker and Tim Duncan) boast. The Rockets’ stars have found a way to thrive without either star having to subjugate their game for the other to flourish.
Harden is the league’s fifth-leading scorer (24.6 points) and Howard is a walking double-double with his customary perches among the best rebounders (4th in the league, 12.7) and field goal percentage leaders (5th in the league, 58.0 percent). But they’re also still in the midst of getting comfortable playing off of one another.
“It takes time,” Harden said. “We knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight. But we’ve got a good team. When you get new faces, though, you have to give it time, you have to adjust.”
That’s not a problem for Howard. No transition could be tougher than the one he tried to make in Los Angeles last season. He never fully embraced the change of working in coach Mike D’Antoni‘s system and the Lakers’ faithful never seemed to fully embrace him as the future of the franchise. That made for a messy breakup totally understandable to anyone paying attention to the details of what went down.
Whatever hiccups he had playing with Kobe, Howard is working hard to avoid with Harden. They’re developing some synergy and continuing to explore the boundaries of what they can do.
“It’s getting better,” Howard said. “We talk every day. We try to find ways to get better between me and him, pick and roll situations, where he likes the ball and where I like the ball and stuff like that. It takes a while. This is our first games together. But we should have it by the time the end of the [regular] season comes.”
Whether or not that’s in time to pave the way for a deep playoff run remains to be seen.
Then again, those plans have been adjusted, right along with the Rockets’ championship expectations.