Dwight Howard kept everyone waiting. Expectant reporters and camera operators sat patiently inside the Toyota Center on Rockets Media Day, September 27, 2013, while Howard stood within eyeshot. Moments earlier, he and his new teammates had moved quickly from makeshift photo booth to green screen set taking a variety of promo photos. By the time Howard's six-foot-ten-inch frame reached the hallway outside the media room, the process had bogged down.
But instead of glowing light boxes and professional photographers with expensive camera equipment, it was an iPhone and a pair of giggling employees from the catering company who held Howard's attention. He grinned wide and happily posed for every shot they wanted. "Thanks for the great lunch," he said before entering the press room and his next stint in front of the cameras.
Everything about Howard is larger than life, from his size to his outgoing personality to his enormous, pearly-white smile. But when he finally sat down to answer the questions at a jam-packed media center, he was the opposite of gregarious. He spoke barely above a whisper as he laid out the Rockets' plans for the upcoming season.
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"We all have the same goal, which is to win a championship," he said. "We understand it's not going to be easy, but we have an opportunity to do something special if we stay together."
That is the demeanor of Howard and these Rockets. They joke, they laugh and they smile, but when the lights are on, it's all business. "We're goofy," James Harden said of Howard and himself. "We're young. We have to have fun. But when it's time to get serious, when it's time to win, we'll be focused."
Such is the dichotomy of this Rockets team. On one hand, they're a fun-loving, bouncy bunch of kids (Howard is the eldest of the probable rotation players at 27) who are having fun playing together, even if that has thus far consisted only of summer pickup games and a handful of preseason outings. On the other, they are hypercompetitive, with the revved-up intensity of youth spurred on by the knowledge that they have, as Howard put it, "an opportunity to do something special."
They also have a long way to go and a lot to prove. "We're definitely not going to come in as the favorite, nor should we," General Manager Daryl Morey said. "We've proven nothing."
But their unique combination of skill, personality and youth mixed with an up-tempo offense makes them not only one of the most intriguing squads in the NBA, but potentially one of the most popular, something the Rockets and Houston haven't experienced, well, ever.
In 1994, Sports Illustrated ran a cover during the Rockets-Knicks NBA Finals series with the headline "Uglyball," referring to the slow pace of the series and the low-scoring style of both teams. The Rockets may have had the best player in the NBA that year in Hakeem Olajuwon, but they weren't the smiling, up-tempo Lakers of the '80s and they didn't have a high-flying, charismatic competitor like Michael Jordan.
Similarly, the city of Houston wasn't exactly enjoying a golden age. Downtown was crumbling, crime rates were high, it was hot as hell, traffic was brutal and urban sprawl made it worse. The New York Post even called Houston a "Hellhole" in front-page bold type.
The Rockets came away with the title (and one more the following season), but it didn't translate into long-term popularity for the team or the city. On the eve of the 20-year anniversary of that championship season, some things remain eerily similar for the team and its hometown. The Rockets have the same owner, arguably the best center in the league, a hard-nosed former player from the Midwest as a coach and serious title aspirations. Houston is still humid, traffic is still awful and sprawl remains an issue.
But no one would try to argue that this is the same team or the same city. Fortunes have changed dramatically for both in the intervening years. The Rockets are rapidly becoming — judging from the throng of national media crammed into the Toyota Center press room — popular darlings and Houston has been showered with praise over the past few years for everything from our economy to our food scene.
So far, the credit for the team's newfound popularity is owed only to their potential...and to their personalities. Howard's boisterous goofiness, Harden's woolly beard, Chandler Parsons's pop-star looks — Howard's running list of nicknames for teammates that changes daily includes Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke for Parsons — and Jeremy Lin's "Linsanity" (the 28-game streak in New York or the documentary of the same name) create a mix that might put other teams and egos at odds. Maybe it's the youth; maybe it's the particular blend of temperaments; maybe the grind of the season has yet to wear on them. But it is clear these guys genuinely like one another, and they believe that will be an advantage.
"It really makes the team better on the floor when you have that great chemistry off the floor," Howard said, comparing the current Rockets to a team in Orlando he led to the Eastern Conference Finals. Harden agreed. "Whether it is hanging out off the court or playing pickup on the court, it's going to [make the] game a lot easier," he said.
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.
Questions answered, Howard bounded toward the door and teammate Harden, who was about to take his turn behind the mike. "Moses!" Howard shouted, using yet another of his ever-expanding array of nicknames. "The leader of the Red Nation is going to part the Red Sea."
Twenty years ago this month, another Rockets team began its journey toward the NBA promised land. The venue may have changed. The buzz around the team and the city may have ramped up. But the quest is exactly the same. If the Rockets want this season to end with fans dancing in the streets as they did in 1994, they will need every bit of that chemistry and every ounce of talent they can squeeze from the roster.
Who will start at point guard?
When a team claims to have two guys who could start at a position, that doesn't usually mean it has two All-Star-caliber players at the spot, but rather two guys of relatively equal but average ability. The Rockets have had this problem before, most recently with Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks, then with Lowry and Goran Dragic.
Both Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley bring unique skills to the floor. Lin is an excellent distributor and perhaps one of the best pick-and-roll point guards in the NBA, but his shooting has been spotty and he can be a defensive liability. Beverley is an outstanding defender with a high motor, but is he capable of running the offense? Because they are both so inexperienced, it's conceivable one could eventually beat out the other simply through development as a player, but how do McHale and company handle it this season?
Lin is likely to start with Beverley as the team's defensive stopper off the bench, but one solution may be to use both of them at the same time. McHale likes the smaller lineups at times to create mismatches, so don't be surprised if they both get plenty of minutes this year.
Will Asik be a Rocket by the end of the season?
When the Rockets signed Howard, it was reported that Asik was unhappy at once again being relegated to a backup role. Asik rightfully earned starter's minutes last season, particularly on the defensive end. In fact, when Asik was not on the floor last year, the Rockets were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA. With him, they were middle of the pack.
The team has adamantly denied it has plans to trade Asik and even wants to put him on the floor with Howard for stretches this season. Despite Howard's ability to guard power forwards, both guys prefer to play in the lane, and neither is taking a jump shot outside of about eight feet. Having Asik come off the bench would give the Rockets the luxury of a constant defensive presence in the post, but his greatest strength might be in his trade value. At this point, it would be more of a surprise if Asik is still a Rocket by the end of the season than if he isn't.
Is the Rockets' future power forward currently on the roster?
One year ago, the Rockets had a glut of mostly undersize power forwards filling a chunk of roster space. By the beginning of this preseason, they were essentially down to two in Donatas Motiejunas and Jones. Motiejunas would appear to be everything the Rockets want in a power forward. He's tall, he's a good rebounder, he plays with intensity and he's a solid shooter from distance. But he has struggled with consistency and can be a defensive liability.
Jones is the more typical NBA power forward. He's got a lively, athletic body and is big enough to muscle guys on the block. He is developing a three-point shot that's still inconsistent, but he shows some promise in that area. Despite his size and athleticism, Jones is a shaky defender who often finds himself out of position on that end of the floor.
A case could be made for keeping them both and continuing to develop them — Howard called Jones the most intriguing player he worked with in the off-season on the roster — but Morey has said he wants veteran players to complement his core stars, approaching trades with a win-now mentality. As good as either "D-Mo" or Jones might eventually be, the Rockets may not be able to wait.
Will anyone without Comcast be able to watch the Rockets this year?
Since its inception, Comcast SportsNet Houston could be described in two ways: as a great local sports channel with high production value and as invisible to 60 percent of the viewing public. At the heart of the problem was the per-subscriber asking price of the network. Carriers like AT&T U-verse, DirecTV and Dish Network believe it to be too high, and, as a result, the channel has not been available to huge numbers of people in the Houston market. But that might not be a completely fair assessment.
Since CSN filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy papers in court in early October, it has come to light that the impasse is due mainly to Astros owner Jim Crane, as we first reported last spring. The Astros own 46.384 percent of the network and the Rockets 30.923 percent, with the remainder owned by NBC Universal/Comcast. The four representatives of the three parties — two from NBC Universal/Comcast and one each from the Rockets and Astros — must agree unanimously on carriage decisions. Court filings indicate that three of the four are ready to sign off on agreements to get the channel on all the major providers. Crane is the lone holdout.
Crane and the Astros filed a motion claiming the bankruptcy filing was simply a way for the other parties at CSN to take over the network. He might be right, but the move could certainly be justified given his hard-line stance thus far. With the bankruptcy filing, CSN is seeking the appointment of a trustee who would potentially make unilateral decisions in the "best interest" of the network.
The Rockets have remained oddly quiet for their part, but no doubt they are hoping the court will grant CSN's motion and put them on the path to wider coverage. Fans are hoping for the same, but the court system moves slowly and it's hard to know how long something like this will take. For now, if you aren't a Comcast subscriber and refuse to switch, you might be relegated to sports bars and friends' couches for Rockets games. At least they're on national TV a bunch this season.
Is this team, as constructed, a championship contender this season?
There are a lot of things that have to go right to put the Rockets in the position to win a title come June. They must remain healthy — Howard has had some back issues, most notably before last season, that have limited him (remember, the last guy with a back injury on this team was Tracy McGrady). They have to figure out how they're going to play on the floor with one another. The Rockets want to play up-tempo, but it's hard to imagine them leading the league in fast break points yet again with a guy like Howard who can dominate the paint.
But scoring is hardly the biggest issue for this team, which was already at the top of the league in most offensive categories last year. Defense is a different story. Harden and Lin, in particular, must improve as individual defenders. Harden has committed to being a more complete player and the combination of his size and athleticism would seem to indicate that with work and effort, he could be an elite defender. Lin will need to step up that part of his game or risk losing his job to Beverley.
Perhaps the biggest concern is solidifying the Rockets' rotation. Right now, assuming Lin starts, Beverley and Asik are their best bench players. They will have newcomer Omri Casspi and a re-signed Garcia, both of whom can shoot (and Garcia showed some defensive mettle as well in the OKC series), but the Rockets have very little offensive firepower on their second team, which could be an issue as the long season wears on. They are close, but the odds are against them winning it all this year. Next year, however...
Month by Month
Home Games: 10
Away Games: 8
Back to Backs: 5
National TV: vs. Lakers (TNT), at New York (TNT), at Dallas (ESPN)
Key Game/Stretch: Back-to-back games, home for Brooklyn and away for San Antonio
The first month of the season gives the Rockets a chance to both test themselves and get their chemistry together. In addition to Lin's return to Madison Square Garden and Howard's first game against the Lakers, there are some grueling back-to-back stretches, all of which require travel between them. Favorable matchups with Boston and Philadelphia are balanced against two meetings with the Clippers, an away game in Memphis, and the last back-to-back of the month against Brooklyn and the rival Spurs.
Projected Record: 11-7
Home Games: 8
Away Games: 8
Back to Backs: 3
National TV: at Portland (TNT), at Golden State (ESPN), vs. Bulls (ESPN), at Indiana (ESPN), at San Antonio (ESPN), vs. Grizzlies (TNT), at Oklahoma City (NBATV)
Key Game/Stretch: Back-to-back games beginning Christmas Day at San Antonio and home for Memphis
The month of December is when the Rockets take center stage against some of the best teams in the NBA. With only three back-to-backs and plenty of games against the league's also-rans, they could rack up a few wins. But they also face tough games against the Bulls and the Thunder, never mind the biggest two-game stretch of the season to that point when they face the Spurs on Christmas day and the Grizzlies the day after, both on national TV. The Rockets seem like the type of team built to thrive in the spotlight. We'll find out in December.
Projected Record: 10-6
Home Games: 8
Away Games: 6
Back to Backs: 4
National TV: vs. Knicks (NBATV), vs. Lakers (ESPN), vs. Thunder (TNT)
Key Game/Stretch: Home and away against Memphis followed by home for the Spurs and at Dallas.
The end of the first month in 2014 is made up of a brutal stretch of games. Fortunately, the first half of the month includes projected gimmies against Boston, the Wizards and the Hornets along with a couple of home games against Milwaukee and Sacramento in the second half. But beginning January 16, the Rockets play five division games including a home-and-away back-to-back pair against Memphis followed by two days off and another back-to-back set against San Antonio and Dallas.
Projected Record: 9-5
Home Games: 3
Away Games: 7
Back to Backs: 2
National TV: at Minnesota (NBATV), at Los Angeles Lakers (ESPN), at Golden State (TNT), at Los Angeles Clippers (ESPN)
Key Game/Stretch: At L.A. for the return of Dwight Howard the first game following the All-Star break on national TV.
If there's a time for the Rockets to feast on the weak, it's the month of February. Despite playing seven of their ten games on the road, they face only two projected playoff teams and two others that likely will be on the bubble. Dwight Howard returns to L.A. for the first time on February 19 (the start of the longest road trip of the season — eight games), but the pivotal game may come a day later in Oakland against Golden State.
Projected Record: 8-2
Home Games: 8
Away Games: 5
Back to Backs: 2
National TV: vs. Pacers (ESPN), at Chicago (TNT), at Miami (ABC), vs. Clippers (NBATV)
Key Game/Stretch: At Miami on ABC for their first and only network game of the year.
March offers a glimpse of what might be to come as the battle for playoff seeding heats up. Even though there are only five road games, three are at OKC, Chicago and Miami, all of whom should be the cream of the crop in the NBA again this season. The Rockets play the Clippers at home later in the month and the world champs for the second time as Miami brings the LeBron James circus to Toyota Center. The Miami games may be hopeful Finals wishcasting, but the Thunder and Clippers could be actual playoff previews.
Projected Record: 9-5
Home Games: 4
Away Games: 6
Back to Backs: 3
National TV: at Brooklyn (TNT), vs. Thunder (ESPN), at Los Angeles Lakers (TNT), vs. Spurs (NBATV)
Key Game/Stretch: On the road for back-to-back games at the Lakers and at Denver.
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No one knows what Denver will be like after their team was dismantled last year and George Karl was removed as head coach, so playing them twice in four days could be a blessing or a curse. But with games at Brooklyn and home for OKC and San Antonio, Denver will be the least of the Rockets' worries. If they're healthy, they could be rolling toward the playoffs or could still be struggling to find themselves. My money is on the former.
Projected Record: 6-4
Projected Season Record: 54-28
Vegas Rockets Wins Over/Under: 54.5