The 2013-2014 NBA season is just a month away, and few teams have higher expectations than the Houston Rockets. When the club signed Dwight Howard in the summer, they became one of the favorites to win the title, trailing only the Oklahoma City Thunder as the top team in the Western Conference.
Pairing Howard with James Harden has given the Rockets two of among the best players in basketball. While both are expected to remain at their All-Star level, the Rockets have some question marks with their supporting cast. Jeremy Lin came in as a free agent in the summer of 2012, but failed to produce the numbers that he put up with the New York Knicks. However, he should have less pressure on him this season with both Howard and Harden on the team.
In his one year with the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard appeared to have taken a step back from his days with the Orlando Magic. With more time to recover from his back surgery, though, the center could be ready to return to his previous form. Even in a disappointing season by his standards, Howard still made the All-NBA Third Team.
"I think Dwight Howard himself is already pretty deadly of a player," Lin told ESPN’s Ian O’Connor in a recent interview. "For us, it's just a matter of getting on the same page and buying into the system, and I think adding [Howard] as a piece to the puzzle, it's incredible. I think we're all extremely excited and we know what we have, and he looks healthy, he looks explosive, and he's looking better and better in terms of recovering from his [back] surgery."
In the upcoming season, the Rockets are looking to improve upon their first-round playoff exit. They squeaked into the postseason as the eighth seed and narrowly avoided getting swept by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Howard brings a lot of playoff experience to Houston, something the club lacked a season ago. His last six years with the Magic included six playoff appearances and one trip to the NBA Finals.
"We don't have the [postseason] experience," Lin said, "so we're going to have to make up for that somehow, some way. And we don't really want to wait around and wait three years down the line to be able to compete for a championship; we want to do that now. ... If everything jells together in an ideal situation, I think we can be a championship contender for sure. But that's a big 'if,' and we understand that, and our coaching staff understands that.”
Lin’s team has made the postseason in each of the last two years, but he hasn’t had much of a chance to prove his worth in big games. He missed the Knicks entire series with the Miami Heat because of a torn meniscus. In April, an injury kept him sidelined for two of Houston’s six games with Oklahoma City. He underperformed in his time on the floor, averaging four points, two rebounds and two assists on 25 percent field goal shooting. He only played more than 20 minutes in the elimination game, when the Rockets lost by 29 points.
The 25-year-old knows he has to improve in his second year with the Rockets, admitting he has “a lot of holes” in his game. He averaged 6.1 assists per game, a number that may go up with Howard in the lineup. However, 40 point guards in 2013 had a better assist-to-turnover ratio, something he’ll have to improve upon.
At this point in his career, though, Lin realizes that he has a lot of time to get better. He received a great deal of attention in his first season in New York, and to some critics the undrafted Harvard grad was more hype than substance.
"One thing I have to remind myself is I just turned 25 years old, and to be honest I really have only been playing consistent basketball in the NBA for a season and a half, if that, and so I'm very young in my career. And because the expectations of Linsanity are so big and the shadow is so large, sometimes I have to take a step back and remind myself the journey has just begun.”
The Rockets begin the regular season on Oct.30 when they host the Charlotte Bobcats. There first preseason contest is set for Oct.5.