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Dwight Howard Has Rockets Looking Like Title Contenders

With a 106-103 victory over the Miami Heat on Tuesday, the Houston Rockets moved into a tie for third place out West. Winners of 8 of their last 10, Houston has found a groove - every man in their 9-man rotation has settled into a role. With a 41-19 record and a +4.5 point differential, they are on pace to win 55 games in a stacked conference. The 13-14 Rockets are the best team Dwight Howard has been on since the 08-09 Orlando Magic, whom he lead to the NBA Finals.

At 28 and in the prime of his career, Howard has become a somewhat forgotten man in the NBA. After burning bridges on his way out of town in Orlando and Los Angeles, his Q rating has fallen off a cliff. At the same time, a lengthy recovery from back surgery had many questioning whether he was already peaked as a player. This season, almost two years removed from the procedure, Howard has reestablished himself as the best center in the NBA.

At 6’10 260 with a 7’4 wingspan, Howard is one of the most physically imposing players in the league. Even though he gives up height to a lot of centers, his broad shoulders carve out a tremendous amount of space in the paint. He’s a force of gravity - he has tremendous mass, very long arms and he still has the ability to play high above the rim. When he gets the ball inside, help defenders are naturally drawn to him. On defense, few can move him out of position.

Howard is the anchor of the 12th rated defense in the NBA, an impressive number when you consider the youth of the players in front of him. Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons, James Harden and Terrence Jones are all 25 or younger and Beverley is the only one with much of a defensive reputation. Parsons, Harden and Jones are more focused on the offensive end of the floor, particularly Harden, whose defensive effort is lacking at best, if not outright egregious.

And while he’s no longer leading the league in rebounding, Howard is still grabbing 12.5 bounds a game. His ability to clean the defensive glass allows the Rockets perimeter players to leak out in transition, where they are particularly deadly. Once he gets the rebound, Howard can get down the floor quickly, drawing defensive attention and opening up shooters on the perimeter. You can count the number of centers who can bang and run with Howard on one hand.

Where Howard differs from guys like DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond is his effectiveness in the halfcourt. He may never have the refined post moves of Kevin McHale, the Rockets coach, but he’s light years ahead of most modern centers who can’t play with their back to the basket. Howard commands a double team on the block; he gives his team the versatility to play either out of the post or the pick-and-roll. Few teams have the personnel to defend both.

Add it all up and you have a very impressive package of skills at the center position - an elite defender who averages 20 points a game on 59 percent shooting and is also a Top-5 rebounder. When guys play with Howard, they benefit from the attention he draws on offense and his ability to cover up their mistakes on defense. The centerpiece of Houston’s offense and defense, he makes his teammates better on both sides of the ball, the mark of a true superstar.

To understand his importance, all you have to do is look at his former teams. The Magic turned Howard into some quality young players, yet they still have a 19-43 record and are years away from respectability. The Lakers, meanwhile, are already selling their fans on the 2015 and 2016 free agent classes. There’s just no way to replace the canyon-sized hole Howard’s absence creates. When Dwight leaves town, turn off the lights, because the party is over.

Howard has made only one NBA Finals appearance in his 10-year career, but that’s mostly a testament to how shallow his supporting casts have been. Who was the best player he played with in Orlando - Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu or Jameer Nelson? He was certainly not in a situation like LeBron James in Miami, playing with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, or Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, when he was teamed up with Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Who knows what would have happened if the Magic had a perimeter player like Harden, instead of relying on Nelson and Turkoglu as their primary playmakers. The combination of Harden and Howard shifts the balance of power in the West, not only this season, but well into the next decade. In 2020, Howard will be 35 and Harden will be 31, younger than what Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are now. The Rockets aren’t going anywhere for a very long time.

When you project Howard’s career going forward, it’s hard not to see him as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In his first 10 seasons in the NBA, Howard has made the All-Star team eight times, the All-NBA team seven times and the All-Defensive team five times. He has won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards, scored over 13,000 points and grabbed over 9,000 rebounds. Keep in mind, he did all of this while he was too “immature” to be a championship-caliber player.

Just like LeBron in Cleveland, Howard has been psychoanalyzed to death by a culture that can’t accept the fact that basketball is a team game. Over the course of his career, Howard has done more than enough to put his teams in championship contention. The reality is that no one was winning a title with Howard’s supporting cast in either Orlando or Los Angeles. He’s in a better situation in Houston, with a shrewd front office and a talented young core around him.

This summer, the Rockets can either make a run at Kevin Love or count on internal improvement and Howard’s ability to lure free agents. Other players may not like his personality, but they respect his game. There are only three players who can swing the balance of power in the NBA - one is in South Beach, one is in OKC and one is in Houston. My guess is the team that knocks off LeBron James will have either Dwight Howard or Kevin Durant on it.

The Western Conference At The Deadline

When the clock hit 3 PM EST on Thursday, basketball fans around the globe groaned as another NBA trade deadline passed without the epic blockbusters that fill the RealGM Forums. Although the deadline lacked a true blockbuster, the trades that were made (and the ones that were left on the table) will undoubtedly shift the landscape of the Western Conference playoff picture and possibly the team that will be facing the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals (It’s a lock, nobody is seriously questioning it).

The four most notable trades in the West came from the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.

The Warriors, who picked up Steve Blake from the Los Angeles Lakers, will look for him to provide the steady hand off the bench that they have been pursuing since Jarrett Jack left in the offseason. Blake’s addition isn’t going to drastically improve the team, but he is able to give the team quality backup point guard minutes behind Stephen Curry, given Jordan Crawford’s inability to play without Brad Stevens as his coach.

The Rockets moved little used backup point guard, Aaron Brooks, to the Denver Nuggets for Jordan Hamilton. After refusing to lower their insane asking price on Omer Asik, the Rockets decided to fill their lack of a stretch four with Hamilton. Despite Hamilton blatantly not being a power forward or an elite shooter (39 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3), the Rockets apparently believe he can become one when freed up as Dwight Howard draws attention in the post. The more important aspect to this trade is that it likely allows the Rockets to call-up D-League star, Isaiah Canaan.

The Spurs traded little used point guard Nando de Colo for Austin Daye. In one of the day’s most intriguing moves, the Spurs took on another reclamation project in the form of a 6’11 shooter who was once a top prospect coming out of high school. While Daye has struggled to earn minutes outside of his second season in the NBA (when he shot 40 percent from 3), he has tremendous length, can guard multiple positions, and San Antonio has shown interest in him. If that isn’t a sign of someone that will be playing meaningful playoff minutes in May, I am not sure what is.

The last deals of any consequence in the West were by the Clippers. They traded both Antawn Jamison and BJ Mullens for the rights to a Turkish player that probably is unaware he was traded, and a conditional second round draft pick that will likely never happen. These deals, while not interesting beyond the salary implications for the Clippers, do allow open roster spots on the team for buyout candidates. Look for Glen “Big Baby” Davis to join his old coach, Doc Rivers.

While each team above made a move – albeit small – at the trade deadline, the other five teams in contention, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies all stood pat.

Although several teams are in desperate need of a big man (OKC, PDX, PHX), no one budged on Philly’s offer of two second round draft picks for Spencer Hawes.

Portland, who is without a second round draft pick until 2019, had a tremendous need for Hawes with Joel Freeland out for two months and LaMarcus Aldridge banged up.

The Thunder flirted with a deal for Knicks embattled shooting guard, Iman Shumpert, but backed off at the last moment.

As for the remaining needs, the slew of veterans that will likely be bought out this upcoming week will have to suffice. Fortunately for these teams, Glen Davis, Caron Butler, Danny Granger, Jason Terry, Emeka Okafor, Chris Kaman, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Antawn Jamison are all buyout candidates.

Many NBA teams believe it is better to trade during the offseason so that players can get familiar with a system and their teammates, while others utilize the short second half of the season as a tryout for recently acquired players to see if they’re long-term fits. It appears that teams trading in the offseason are better off. For any fan grumbling over their team not making a blockbuster yesterday, here’s a stat you need to know: one; as in the number of Championship teams during the last 25 years to trade for a starter at the trade deadline (Rasheed Wallace to the Pistons in 2004). So while fans of the Rockets clamored for Rajon Rondo and Warriors' fans hoped for Kevin Love, just know that the odds of you winning the title with those guys was slim to none.

Happy Trade Deadline everyone! Only 124 more days until the NBA Draft!

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

Eastern Conference 

Atlanta Hawks: Are the Hawks going to try to bottom out and if not, what is their plan for the future?

Boston Celtics: What’s going to happen with Rajon Rondo's return from a torn ACL and how will the Celtics' front office go about their rebuilding process?

Brooklyn Nets: How will Jason Kidd lead a veteran roster filled with players he competed against for the last 15-20 years?

Charlotte Bobcats: Are Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller legitimate young players to build around?

Chicago Bulls: Do the Bulls need another source of offense to prevent defenses from dialing in on Derrick Rose?

Cleveland Cavaliers: Who will emerge as Kyrie Irving’s sidekick if Andrew Bynum doesn’t return to full health?

Detroit Pistons: Will the Pistons be able to manage a functional offense with three non-shooting big men?

Indiana Pacers: How will the Pacers divide playing time between Danny Granger and Lance Stephenson, and who will be more effective with the starting group?

Miami Heat: Will Shane Battier and Ray Allen be able to remain productive as the key three-point threats in the Heat offense?

Milwaukee Bucks: Can the Bucks trade some of their young promising players for an All-Star?

New York Knicks: Will Andrea Bargnani provide another element to an offense that became stagnant in the postseason?

Orlando Magic: Will the Magic be active in trying to trade some of its young pieces, or will they be patient and hope for another high lottery pick?

Philadelphia 76ers: To what lengths will the 76ers go to make sure they have the worst record in the league?

Toronto Raptors: When will the Raptors trade Rudy Gay and what will they get in return?

Washington Wizards: Do the Wizards need to add a frontcourt offensive threat in order to score consistently?

Western Conference

Dallas Mavericks: If it becomes clear that the Mavericks aren’t going to be a contender, what will they do about Dirk Nowitzki?

Denver Nuggets: What will the Nuggets do about the highly paid trio of Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee if they do not make the playoffs?

Golden State Warriors: Will Andre Iguodala hurt the Warriors’ three-point attack that was so vital to their success in the postseason?

Houston Rockets: Will the Rockets keep Omer Asik and have the best backup center in the league while experimenting with coexisting with Dwight Howard, or will they trade him to bolster their rotation elsewhere?

Los Angeles Clippers: Do the Clippers need to make a move for an effective third big man in order to become a legitimate contender?

Los Angeles Lakers: How angry will Kobe Bryant be if the Lakers find themselves on the verge of missing the playoffs?

Memphis Grizzlies: How will the Grizzlies maintain a good balance between shooting and perimeter defense at their wing positions?

Minnesota Timberwolves: Will Derrick Williams have an opportunity to live up to his potential as a former second overall pick despite not being an offensive priority?

New Orleans Pelicans: How will Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon mesh in the backcourt?

Oklahoma City Thunder: Who will emerge as the new third scoring option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?

Phoenix Suns: Is Eric Bledsoe capable of being the Suns’ point guard of the future?

Portland Trail Blazers: If the Trail Blazers struggle, will LaMarcus Aldridge’s name reemerge in trade rumors again?

Sacramento Kings: Is DeMarcus Cousins good enough for the Kings to put up with his immaturity?

San Antonio Spurs: Will Tiago Splitter develop enough to become a factor on both ends in the playoffs?

Utah Jazz: Will Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter work together in the frontcourt?

The Anti-Tank

The Rockets acquired all of their assets without “tanking,” as they never finished below 9th in the conference. By constantly acquiring/retaining valuable assets, Daryl Morey avoided the risky paths of relying on a rookie to become a franchise player or relying on a superstar free agent signing despite not having a superstar teammate to play with.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

Star By Star

If the owners want to make it harder for superstars to switch teams, they have to increase the financial incentives for them to stay. Otherwise, franchises with one All-Star will forever be looking over their shoulder. To paraphrase Sean Parker, having two stars isn’t cool. Having three is.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

False Positives In Scouting For The NBA Draft

For all they told us, Thomas Robinson's college stats might as well have been his high school ones. Even the most advanced statistics depend on the underlying data and the data coming out of college is fairly flawed.

Options Aplenty For Rockets

In the sea of organizations dealing with the NBA's new rules and fitting them in with their financial and personnel constraints, the Rockets stand out as being the most interestingly situated heading forward.

2013 NBA Amnesty Primer

One fun component of the Amnesty rule is that we know exactly which players are eligible for it and that number can only decrease over time since the players had to have been under contract with the same team before the new CBA.

How Many Players Teams Acquire At Each Trade Deadline On Average

The Kings, Knicks, Rockets, Thunder and Cavaliers have been the most active teams at the deadline over the past decade, while the Spurs, Pistons, Heat, Lakers and Pacers have made the fewest deals.

What James Harden Needs

James Harden may be the best shooting guard in the NBA within the next two seasons, but as Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant's careers have shown, he’ll still need a lot of help to make the Rockets a legitimate championship contender.

Leroux's 2012-13 NBA Tier Predcitions

While the drop-off from the Heat to the rest of the Eastern Conference is severe, the Lakers, Spurs and Thunder have quick company in the second and third tiers.

Jeremy Lin Ready To Move Past 'Linsanity'

Jeremy Lin won't be distracted by the enormous amount of attention he's sure to get. Nobody knows how good Lin really is, but there is a feeling that his popularity, not his game, is the biggest reason the Rockets gave him a three-year, $25.1 million dollar contract.

Leroux's 30-Team Offseason Review

The Nuggets, Lakers, Heat, 76ers and Nets were amongst the teams with great offseasons, while the Bucks, Magic, Suns, Knicks, Cavaliers and Bulls were in the bad column. Here's how all 30 teams have fared in the 2012 offseason.

Team-By-Team Gold Medal Winners

The Jazz and Thunder have had the most Gold Medalists since the USA began bringing NBA players in 1992, while Duke leads amongst colleges. How do the other 29 NBA teams rank?

The Center Depth Of The 2008 Draft Class

The centers of the 2008 Draft class figure prominently in the 2012 free agency and comprise six of the 30 starters at the game’s most valuable position.

Team-By-Team Top Position Needs

Center represents the position of greatest need for nearly half the NBA, while power forward isn't the top priority for a single team.

Notes From 2012 NBA Draft Media Day

Polling the Green Room candidates to determine who they think will be the second best player of the class, the rise of skinny guys, a new Harrison Barnes and which team workout was the toughest.

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