HOUSTON >> Last offseason, the Houston Rockets were an afterthought, a young team with little star power.
Now, after trading for James Harden just before this past season and adding Dwight Howard on Friday, Houston is suddenly primed to contend sooner than almost anybody expected.
Still, Houston general manager Daryl Morey knows nabbing Howard is only the first step in a long process for his team.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet, but we’re putting something pretty cool together, I think,” Morey said in an interview with Comcast SportsNet Houston.
Howard is the Rockets’ latest superstar center, following Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and eight-time All-Star Yao Ming.
They reached the playoffs for the first time since 2009 this season and battled back from a 3-0 deficit before being eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6.
Their return to the postseason showed they have plenty of speed and long-range scoring power with Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons. Omer Asik was a solid rebounder in the playoff run and averaged 12.3 points in the series, but it was clear that the team needed a more potent scoring threat inside.
The addition of Howard gives them just that, as the 6-foot-11 star has averaged more than 18 points and almost 13 rebounds in his nine-year career.
His one season in Los Angeles was filled with unrest, including what many believed to be a less than positive relationship with Kobe Bryant. Bryant unfollowed Howard on Twitter on Friday night after he announced his decision to join the Rockets with a tweet.
It was the end of a short tenure with the Lakers in which Howard averaged 17 points and almost 11 rebounds in the playoffs, where the injury-riddled team was swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
Morey believes his team offers many benefits to the 27-year-old center, but one thing sealed the deal.
“I think Dwight’s in a great place in his career,” Morey said in the television interview. “He’s focused on winning and we gave him the best chance to win. It’s that simple.”
Howard can’t officially sign until July 10 when next season’s salary cap has been set. The Rockets can pay him $88 million over a four-year contract — $30 million less than what Los Angeles could have given him.
But in Houston, Howard saw the chance to join Harden and boost this up-and-coming team. Harden blossomed in his first year with the Rockets, going from stellar sixth man with the Thunder to Houston’s top player. He averaged 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.8 steals, setting career highs in each category.
After Howard made his decision Friday night, Harden tweeted: “Houston we have lift off!!,” and posted a photo to Instagram of him and his newest teammate together.
“No matter how you look at it we thought it was a pretty straightforward choice,” Morey said on Comcast. “To Dwight’s credit he did turn down a pretty significant amount of money to come to the Rockets. It shows his mindset that he’s really ready to take that next step. If you look at best players, James Harden is the best player out there that he could join.”
But Harden certainly isn’t Houston’s only weapon. The Rockets signed Lin last season to run their offense and they were also buoyed by the development of Parsons, a second-round pick in 2011.
Parsons averaged 15.5 points last season and was even better in the playoffs when Lin was ailing, averaging 18.2 points against the Thunder.
Morey believes the move puts the Rockets among the top teams in the Western Conference and definitely positions them to contend for a title. He pointed to the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder as the teams he sees as Houston’s biggest competition next season.
“We obviously have our work cut out for us,” he said on Comcast. “We’re going to set ourselves up to be able to compete with them. This move is obviously the most important one. We’ll let the chips fall where they may.”