Jul Jessup: Now entering Dwight Howard's second season with the Rockets, do you see him as the guy who will get the team over the hump and into the Finals, and ultimately to a title? Does he have to be that guy in order for Houston to win?
Matt Rothstein: I think this season so far has begun to crystallize that while Dwight can definitely be a key cog on a championship contender, he doesn't have to be the guy on this team. That's James Harden. In addition to being an elite scorer, he's become an elite distributor this year, averaging over 6 assists and 1.5 secondary (hockey) assists per game (according to NBA.com's player tracking database), both top-20 numbers. He can be counted on with the ball in his hands in the most crucial moments, for a number of reasons. His offensive game is built for the playoffs.
Dwight can be an even-better version of Tyson Chandler for the 2011 Mavericks -- a defensive anchor and an elite pick-and-roll scorer. Everything he gives us in the post is (delicious, wonderful) gravy. If his free throw shooting were competent, maybe he'd be The Guy, but we'll probably never know.
JJ: What moves, if any, do you see the Rockets making to bolster the roster? Where is the team lacking?
MR: This is a painfully easy question - frontcourt depth. With Terrence Jones dealing with a serious injury, and Dwight also hurt right now, our best big man is Donatas Motiejunas (shudder). He's improving, but he's a power forward. Behind Dwight is undrafted rookie Tarik Black, who is listed at 6'11", to which I say HA. He's a nothing on offense, and while he's slightly better on defense, he is not a rim protector at all (see: HA). Behind him is Joey Dorsey, who is like Black, only older, slower and with the worst set of hands you will ever see on an NBA player. I'd say he catches half of the (very few) passes thrown to him. Omer Asik didn't want to be a Rocket this year so we traded him away, but they need someone to fill his void or this team's ceiling drops considerably.
JJ: Should the roster remain healthy, where do you see this team as it stands finishing in the conference and in the playoffs?
MR: The West is damn near impossible to call, but with the head start the Rockets have gotten, and the way they've looked so far, this is definitely a playoff team. That being said, for all the Rockets' improvements, they're not as deep as the Warriors, Spurs or Grizzlies, and who knows what the Thunder's post-injury apocalypse record will be. I'd put them in the same neighborhood where they wound up last year, in a dog fight for home court advantage. I can't even begin to predict how the playoffs will shake out. It's the most wide-open race for a conference title I can remember. Also, we have to get healthy to remain healthy.
JJ: James Harden is infamous for his (lack of) defense, but word around the blogosphere is that he's looking to deprive the world of a little bit of laughter by focusing on improving defensively this season. What improvements have you seen from him so far this season, and do you expect it to last?
MR: In general, the effort level is just better from James this year, but the biggest improvement has been in transition. Aside from the GIF that made Deadspin recently, James has been great at getting back and making smart decisions under the basket. He's also been excellent at closing out shooters - opponents are shooting just 27% from three against him this year. He's still a bit of a ball-watcher, and you can get around him if you're quick, but the improvement's there. Although, I would argue that the addition of Trevor Ariza has been huge for this team's defense, which now has three great defenders in its starting lineup. The Rockets aren't rigid with their assignments, but Harden will never have to guard a team's best player for long stretches. Less responsibility means fewer screwups.
JJ: Since you guys hit me with the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin vs. James Harden/Dwight Howard question--right back atcha. Who makes for the better duo?
MR: Well, none of them play the same positions, so it's apples to oranges to some degree. All four of them are great scorers and great passers (seriously, Harden is a severely underrated passer and I'm a big fan of Dwight's kickout passes from the post), and defense is close, with Dwight being the best of the bunch and James still the worst. In 2-on-2, I'd probably take CP3 and Griffin Force because of how much quicker they are than their counterparts, but as far as the best duo around which to build a starting five, I'd say it's Hardoward by a nose because of the total rebounding edge, Dwight's defensive prowess and the fact that they could outscore your boys.