In three straight drafts, the former Seattle Sonics and eventual Oklahoma City Thunder completely altered the trajectory of their franchise and became the envy of the entire NBA, save perhaps Miami. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, taken in three consecutive NBA drafts, became the core of a team that would go to the NBA Finals last year and fall an injury to Westbrook short this year of advancing deeper into the playoffs. Tack on Serge Ibaka. taken in 2008 with Westbrook, and Thabo Sefolosha in 2006, and that's a pretty formidable lineup. Harden, of course, was dealt to the Rockets last year as a cap-space clearing move, but the Thunder still won 60 games and finished at the top of the conference.
As the NBA Finals showcase two very different franchises built in decidedly different ways, it is worth noting that the key for both -- and for OKC -- is the success of their best players. This is not news to anyone who follows the NBA. This is a league driven by stars. Looking over the winners of titles the past 30 years, it is arguable that with only a couple exceptions, the team with one of the best players in the league at that time was the winning squad. In many cases, he was surrounded by at least one if not two other all-stars.
Kobe and Shaq, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, Jordan and Pippen, Magic, Kareem and Worthy, Bird, McHale and Parrish, LaBron, Wade and Bosh. These are the pairings (and threesomes) that have dominated the game since the '80s. They are the most famous and the most well remembered.
Make no mistake, the Rockets are on the right path now. They have a young nucleus of Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parson, Omer Asik and a crop of power forwards to build around. Just their internal growth as a team and individual improvement will make them better. Harden, as good as he was last year, was still a mediocre defender. The team struggled as a whole defensively when Asik went to the bench. With even modest improvements, there is no reason to think they won't be a significantly better team next year.
But is that enough? The NBA Draft is ten days away, but there's no reason to think the Rockets will be a significant player in it. They have spent the past handful of drafts trying to get to where they are now, in position to actually not need the draft to improve. But that doesn't mean they are standing pat.
When July 1 rolls around and the floodgates of free agency are opened, it is no secret the Rockets will be in hot pursuit of Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and perhaps others. They have virtually no chance of getting Howard and Paul together on a team and there has been no indication that Paul is interested in a move out of LA, let alone to the Rockets. But Howard is a different story. You can't know what the enigmatic big man is thinking one day to the next, but all signs out of the Howard camp are that he views Houston as a serious possibility for his landing spot this summer.
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Between now and then, the Rockets will need to make a move or two to clear the requisite cap room, but none should have to come from their core of talent, nor should they have to dip too far into their young second line of players like Terrence Jones or Patrick Beverley.
In short, they are in an enviable position. Now they just have to go out and reel in the big fish, something they have wanted to do for years but weren't in position for until they traded for Harden and signed Lin and Asik last year. If that weren't enough, there is every reason to believe this team doesn't have just good players, but good people. They are easy to root for and have great chemistry on and off the floor. In less than a year, they have become a model franchise with an incredibly bright future. Howard would simply accelerate the speed of the transition from mediocre also-ran to serious title contender.
There is no guarantee they will be able to land Howard. There is also no guarantee he will be the dominant force he was in Orlando and not the injured, disgruntled player he was in LA. But even though I've been on the fence about signing him for the past two years, I now can see the tremendous boost he would bring defensively, particularly given the fact that Asik will still remain on the roster. And the tight-knit bond this team has formed among players and with Coach Kevin McHale makes me think this is the kind of sturdy locker room Howard needs to thrive.
They still have to get him, and even if they don't, the future is bright. They will be left with a ton of cap space and the same team that took OKC to six games in the first round of the playoffs this year. They will no doubt improve with or without Howard on the roster. But the more I think about it, the better he looks in a Rockets uniform.