The Blueprint

How patience, planning and faith helped the Rockets land Dwight Howard and become a contender again

Dwight Howard

HOUSTON - True story: Exactly one year ago to the day, I walked across the Cox Pavilion court in Las Vegas to have a word with Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey. Houston was just about to play its first summer league game of 2012 and, as is usually the case during that particular portion of the NBA calendar, Sin City was awash with NBA executives from every team leaving countless rumors and whispers in their wake. Par for the course, Morey and the Rockets seemed to be in the middle of half of them.

Our conversation didn’t last long – conversations with Daryl rarely do during that time of year given the incessant buzzing of his Blackberry. One particular exchange, however, still stands out to this day: Toward the end of our breezy chat about the latest NBA gossip, Morey lightheartedly made a comment about my lackluster track record for breaking big stories. My (rather foolhardy) retort:  My resume in that area had proven to be about as robust as his ability to bring big names to Houston.

One year later, I still suck at breaking news (as the publication date on this article will attest to. Far more noteworthy is that I still have a job and wasn’t immediately fired on the spot regardless of the fact my attempt at a witty comeback was made merely in jest), and absolutely no one is questioning Morey’s ability to reel in the biggest of fish. Not after landing James Harden last October. And most definitely not after the latest prized catch which has brought Dwight Howard to Houston.

Gone are the barbs, good-natured or otherwise, about being a singles hitter unable to launch home runs. No longer are myths perpetuated regarding NBA superstars’ alleged reluctance to plying their trade in Houston. Those jokes have been silenced, as has the muffled, mocking laughter and talk of treadmills. Now all that stands amid the tattered remains of so many straw men is the stark, frank reality of a franchise dead serious about winning at the highest possible level – and one that is now well-positioned to do so.

But this isn’t the story of Morey’s vindication. It is instead the tale of an organizational vision that began at the very top with Rockets owner Leslie Alexander. By now you have no doubt read all about the remarkable path the Rockets traveled to reach this point. Through years of patience, meticulous planning and painstaking attention to detail, Houston’s brain trust pulled out every stop in its attempt to put itself in position to be predatory when the right moment(s) arose. What has not been discussed enough and what cannot be quantified is the amount of trust – and let’s face it, occasional blind faith – the Rockets had to invest in their rather brazen teambuilding blueprint; a plan of action Morey detailed last August during an interview that took place, coincidentally enough, immediately after Houston had come up short in its attempt to acquire Howard via trade.

“The direction of our team is very straightforward,” he said. “It’s formulaic. It’s not even complicated. Every move fits this model: Goal A is to win championships and a one hundred million percent requirement to win championships is to have All-Star level players. Every single move we do is targeted toward that. There are three ways you can get an All-Star level player: the draft – usually with a very high pick – trades, or free agency.

“So let’s tackle free agency first. At all times we will sign players only if we think they are worth their money or better because otherwise you’ll end up with not enough room to sign somebody. So I can’t imagine a scenario for us in the future, until we get our next star, that we won’t have max cap room or greater at every single moment.

“For trades, to make a trade you have to have things to trade so we will be constantly trying to either add or have things that are good in trades so we can deal for a star. You can’t name a move that we’ve made since Yao was gone that I can’t paint into that structure.

“Then draft-wise, we’re always going to try to maximize that option by moving up when we can, accumulating draft picks and trying to trade for other people’s high draft picks.

“So that’s pretty much our direction in a nutshell. Every single move we make fits into that criteria. I can point to every single move and how it fits into that structure. Forecasting correctly within that structure is the hard part, but every single move fits that approach. Not a single move since Yao’s been gone can I not explain by that model.”

In retrospect, that teambuilding template seems so intuitive and stacked with “no duh” sensibilities that it almost comes across as simplistic. And perhaps on the surface it is. But it’s one thing to draw up a plan; quite another to actually execute it, of course. That’s where one’s faith is truly tested, especially amid the omnipresent temptation of quick fixes that surely crooned their siren song in the wake of a three-year playoff drought that brought with it an annual placard bearing the Rockets’ logo right next to the 14th overall pick in the draft.

Those trying times were no joke, though they certainly gave birth to enough of them. Frustration grew. After a summer of massive turnover and transition last year, there were whispers that the Rockets had finally conceded that bottoming out might be a necessary and unavoidable part of their rebuild. No amount of planning and preparation could circumvent the fact that Houston’s strategy required the same thing every success story needs – luck. Then Harden happened. And everything changed.    

That break unplugged the bottleneck and released the chains that had bound the Rockets within NBA purgatory. Suddenly their Sisyphean boulder was tossed aside and at long last replaced with a newfound perspective on what in retrospect merely appears to have been a serendipitous void of disappointment filled with free agency caravans, failed trades and the like. Harden’s presence alongside Houston’s other ascendant young talents like Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin filled that vacuum quite nicely, thank you very much. And now they’ve been joined by Howard – a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, an elite finisher at the rim and perhaps the most deadly pick-and-roll roll man in existence.

Readers likely need no reintroduction to Howard’s prodigious gifts and production, but here’s a helpful reminder all the same. Beginning with the 2008-09 season, the 27-year-old enjoyed a sparkling five-year run that saw him rank among the five best players on the planet while racking up three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards. He lifted Orlando to an NBA Finals berth in 2009 and anchored a Magic defense that was a top-3 unit for three consecutive years. In 2011 Howard finished second only to Derrick Rose for the title of league MVP. Simply put, he proved himself to be a devastating defensive force, dominating the boards, protecting the rim and singlehandedly blowing up one pick-and-roll after another. He wasn’t too shabby on the other end of the floor, either, where his ability to finish and draw fouls by the bushel allowed Orlando to operate a pick-your-poison offense that surrounded him with shooters as a perpetual dare to any opponents wishing to send a swarm of double-teams his way.  And not only was he the most dominant big man in the league, he was also the most durable, never missing more than 4 games in any season through his first 7 years in the league.

Then came the back injury that derailed the end of his 2011-12 campaign. Then a trade to the Lakers. Then a Hollywood drama of a season that saw him attempt to return to action while still recovering from the back issue, only to have a new ailment (this time a shoulder injury, though he still only missed six games all season) put a dent in his previously remarkable production. His efficiency took a hit and he didn’t exhibit quite the same explosion and otherworldly agility that had previously made him such a one-man wrecking crew on defense. As a result, the Dwight Howard narrative shifted while the NBA world attempted to discern whether or not he could still be Superman.

There are reasons to believe that question ought to ultimately be answered in the affirmative. Despite the circus surrounding him, Howard got better as the season wore on, producing post All-Star break numbers (19.6 points and 14.5 rebounds per 40 minutes) that were not a far cry from the per 40-minute averages he put up during the 2011-12 season when he finished with the sixth highest PER of any player in the league. He still showed himself to be a rebounding and shot-blocking machine who’s an extraordinary finisher at the rim (he’s never had a season in which he’s connected on fewer than 70 percent of his field goal attempts from that area) and nothing short of lethal when serving as the roll man in pick-and-rolls (Howard averaged 1.302 points per possession in such situations, per Synergy – a mark that put him in the league’s 95th percentile in that category). According to Hoopdata.com, Howard ranked third in the league in and-1s last year (James Harden, by the way, finished first overall). And on the other end of the court, he carried a Laker defense that fell apart anytime he was not on the floor: From March 1 through the end of the season, LA’s defensive rating was nearly 11 points better per 100 possessions when Howard played as compared to how the club’s D performed when he sat. Oh, and he’s still just 27-years-old.

Is there risk involved here? Of course – a scant few big money moves arrive with no strings attached. Yes, Howard’s free throw shooting must improve, but it’s worth noting that the Rockets have a demonstrated track record of success in that area as seen by the gains made over the last few seasons by Asik, Parsons and former Rocket Chuck Hayes. Yes, the daily drama of the past 18 months must be left in the rearview mirror. And yes, he has to show that a full offseason of hard work, dedication, rest, rehab and recovery can elevate him back to the force of nature status he flaunted before the back injury struck. That’s what he’s here to do.

Above it all, however, this fact remains: Players of this ilk just don’t become available very often. A fully healthy, fully focused Dwight Howard can still be one of the five best players on the planet and someone capable of nearly singlehandedly elevating his team’s defense to top-5 status. And at the end of the day, that is precisely the type of player teams need in order to perennially compete for championships.

The Rockets are now part of that conversation.  Last season, with an army of young players assuming new roles and more minutes than they ever had before, Houston still found a way to finish with the ninth-best point differential in the league. Howard’s addition has the potential to elevate them into the top-5 in that category; an achievement that ought to place them firmly in the title mix. What’s more, Houston remains armed with a bevy of draft picks and myriad ways to improve going forward.

They are promised nothing of course, but if guarantees are what you’re after, best go grab a front row seat at the Death & Taxes world tour. This is the NBA, where one day you’re making cracks about a team’s dearth of All-Star talent, and just one year later that same club plays host to a pair of players who may very well make up 40 percent of the Western Conference All-Star starting lineup in 2014.

Breaking news: The Rockets are officially back.

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