The NBA is still mostly a crapshoot. Injuries, interpersonal fueds, etc can derail even the most talented team.
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At the center of it all is Howard, literally and metaphorically. After a difficult season last year in Los Angeles, he was criticized for not taking the game seriously enough, an attitude that did not sit well with then-teammate Kobe Bryant. But Howard makes no apologies for smiling too much or laughing a little too loud, and his teammates certainly aren't complaining. "Dwight is hilarious," Lin said. "He's always joking around and having fun. It's been real easy [getting along with him]." Parsons added, "The city is going to love him."
Down the hall from the press room, the Rockets organization was showing off its latest non-human addition, a brand new home locker room complete with LED video boards wrapped around the domed interior built to mimic the inside of the arena. The wood double doors and giant, gleaming logo outside looked like the entrance to a high-end nightclub, so much so I half expected to put my ear to the door and hear the familiar "uhh-ssss-uhh-ssss" of dance music.
It's a far cry from the dingy underbelly of The Summit, where the Rockets got dressed 20 years ago. At that time, the Oilers (yes, the Oilers) and Astros played in the Astrodome, the same building that could be condemned and torn down without a life-saving referendum. There was no light rail or Discovery Green. The only people who lived downtown were homeless or oil and gas employees temporarily quarantined at high-rise hotels.
Now the convenience of cheap housing in far-flung suburbs has given way to an inner-city renaissance. And though it has been nearly two decades since the Rockets last tasted real postseason glory, their most recent ascension has taken significantly less time than that of the city.
Morey has assembled a team of top-tier NBA talent through the draft (Parsons, Terrence Jones), trades (Harden, Francisco Garcia), free-agent signings (Howard, Lin, Omer Asik) and savvy scouting (Patrick Beverley) in barely more than two years. Perhaps the Rockets' greatest challenge will be figuring out how to use the talent they have. But as Morey has said, if they do struggle, "It won't be for lack of preparation."
After Howard agreed to a four-year deal with the Rockets in July, the biggest free-agent signing of the offseason in the NBA, the core of the team gathered to play pickup games in L.A. and Aspen. Parsons, who is responsible for much of Howard's recruitment to the team, and Harden arranged much of it through group text messages.
"It's a close-knit team," Howard said. "The chemistry is already there. All summer, we've been texting, talking about ways we can improve as a team."
Not only did they want to establish chemistry with one another on the court, they wanted to get to know each other off of it. By the time training camp opened, the team's two marquee players, Howard and Harden, had entrenched themselves as its unquestioned leaders.
"I have another guy who's been through the experience, who knows what it takes to get to the Finals right next to me," Harden said. "It's for both of us to make sure the team is on the same page at all times."
They will need strong leadership to help corral young players just beginning to realize their potential both on and off the floor. Harden's star, in particular, is rising rapidly. He's gone from sixth man in Oklahoma City to one of the league's two best guards. His now-famous beard and dry sense of humor have led to opportunities in national commercials for brands like Foot Locker. Parsons has been the subject of Jimmy Fallon skits, and Howard is already a veteran of talk shows and a credited voice-over actor.
Then there is Lin, whose meteoric rise in New York and Asian heritage have kept the Rockets wildly popular throughout Asia, a fandom generated during the career of Yao Ming. Just as former Rockets players found that Yao's rising tide lifted all boats — little-known American players enjoyed big-time endorsement success in China thanks to Yao's popularity — the current Rockets realize Lin's assists off the court could be as lucrative as the ones he dishes out on it.
But none of that will matter if the team falters. No matter how charismatic these guys might be, they are still professional athletes who must prove it on the floor. Still, even head coach Kevin McHale, the former Boston Celtics power forward who understands the rough ride a long season can be, seems genuinely pumped about the upcoming season.
"Their enthusiasm and optimism excite me," he said. "I think that they believe that together they'll find a way to get it done. [Having a] belief in each other is a huge thing. When you believe that you can get it done, usually good things happen."
Back in front of the assembled media, Howard answered multiple questions about his workouts with Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon, who has returned to the team as a special consultant. Howard has spent several summers in Houston working with Olajuwon, honing his skills. With Olajuwon now part of the organization, Howard will have his almost daily guidance as well.