The Rockets are the big winners of this summer. But will they be the NBA's biggest winners next spring? Or in the years to come?
With Dwight Howard's agreement to come to Houston, the Rockets now have two of the NBA's top 10 players. In the last nine months, they've gone from a franchise that was seeking one star to a contender built around two who are approaching their peak.
But they aren't done yet, as Rockets general manager Daryl Morey understands. Morey's next goal is to trade Omer Asik for a third star, per the reported request of Howard himself. It was a request well-taken, when you consider the contenders who are ranked ahead of the Rockets. It would be a huge mistake to assume that Houston is going to be able to overcome all of these formidable opponents next season:
• The two-time champion Heat, who feature LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a deep cast of role players headlined by future Hall of Famer Ray Allen.
• The four-time champion Spurs of Tim Duncan, with MVP candidate Tony Parker at point guard and emerging star Kawhi Leonard enabling Manu Ginobili to take a lesser role for the final two years of his career.
• Kevin Durant's Thunder, who should continue to improve as their young players mature and who may have returned to the NBA Finals if not for Russell Westbrook's knee injury.
• Chris Paul and the Clippers, who promise to be a more serious contender thanks to the coaching of Doc Rivers and the ensuing enhancements of their roster.
• Derrick Rose, Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls, who have reason to believe they'll be better than ever.
• The Pacers, with Paul George and David West, have filled out their rotation and hope to bring back All-Star small forward Danny Granger.
It is a sobering list, and it doesn't even include the Lakers, who still have three stars of their own, and the Nets, who will be starting five All-Stars next season. As far as the Rockets have come in the last year, they still have a long way to go.
Harden has been a superstar in the NBA for one season, and Howard hasn't met his own high standard in the four years since he carried Orlando to the NBA Finals. Kevin McHale has been coaching NBA teams -- first in Minnesota, and now in Houston -- for fewer than four full seasons, and he has never coached a team to a win in a playoff series.
The Rockets are currently built around Howard, Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin. In the moments after the news broke of their agreement with Howard, they were linked to potential trades for power forwards Ryan Anderson or Josh Smith, a potential All-Star also approaching his best years.
The addition of another go-to contributor like Smith would appear to put Houston within range of challenging the league's best. But many refinements must still be made, and the most important of them are going to have to happen internally.
The Rockets must fill out their roster with players who make all the difference during extended playoff runs. More significantly, those role players must benefit from the leadership of their stars -- and in the Rockets' case, that leadership is going to be the most demanding aspect of Houston's ultimate fulfillment.
Consider the franchises that have won the last nine championships: the Heat, Mavericks, Lakers, Celtics and Spurs. Every one of those titlists was a highly-disciplined, serious team. All of them were defined by the crises they overcame, and all of them signal that a championship is going to be no easy thing for Howard and Harden to win.
The example of James is especially relevant to Howard. James appeared to hope that moving to Miami and playing with stars would bring him the championship he needed. He was wrong. He didn't win until -- as he has now proudly admitted -- he renewed his own focus and made changes in his own life to become the leader that his team needed him to be.
As talented as Howard and Harden are, they have yet to prove they have the leadership skills and resilience necessary to win the championship that James has called the hardest thing he has ever accomplished. (If Smith were to come to Houston, then the same point could be made in triplicate.) This is not to say the new stars of the Rockets are incapable of winning. The point is that they're now each going to be expected to play a leading role of the highest rank -- a role that Harden has never performed, and one that Howard hasn't been able to attain in recent years.
By pairing together in Houston, Howard and Harden have given each other a chance to be champions. How they're going to accomplish that goal, and who their teammates will be, are issues that have yet to be resolved. Every leader of an NBA title team looks back on his first title and admits that the mission was more difficult and complicated than he ever imagined. Their experiences show there can be no guarantee that two prodigious talents like Howard and Harden can instantly achieve their championship goal. There are other teams out there with comparable talent and hunger.