Besides the flowing beard, Rockets shooting guard James Harden's distinguishing characteristic is his fearlessness. He displays it while probing defenses with his stop-and-go game, keeping one eye open for a quick-trigger three while keeping the other on a route to the rim. The same insistence that helped him get to the free throw line 792 times last season, tops in the NBA, also has him openly pining for a place among the league's elite. Why slow down when the help defense slides over? Why wait until the game's current greats fade to make a run at the throne?
If Harden spent 2012--13 successfully justifying his decision to hold out for a max deal, a decision that sent him from Oklahoma City to Houston, this season he must accomplish a task that's entirely different—teaming with center Dwight Howard. Gauging their partnership will take some time, but the two All-Stars have one important personality trait in common: They don't take themselves too seriously. Unlike Kobe Bryant, Harden won't be inclined to demand that Howard conform or defer. They begin as equals, and their games mesh. The 6'5" Harden is one of the game's most efficient ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll (he was fifth in points per possession last year), while Howard is an elite roll man (ninth in PPP). Conventional wisdom holds that it takes more than one season for star partnerships to click, but Harden isn't big on waiting his turn.
COACH KEVIN MCHALE (3RD SEASON WITH THE ROCKETS)
2012--13 RECORD 45--37 (3RD IN SOUTHWEST)
WHAT'S NEW Oh, just the best big man in the game, Dwight Howard. And Marcus Camby. But mostly Howard.
PROJECTED LINEUP (2012--13 STATS)
PG JEREMY LIN
13.4 PPG; 6.1 APG; 44.1 FG%; 33.9 3FG%
SG JAMES HARDEN
25.9 PPG; 5.8 APG; 43.8 FG%; 36.8 3FG%
SF CHANDLER PARSONS
15.5 PPG; 5.3 APG; 48.6 FG%; 38.5 3FG%
PF OMER ASIK
10.1 PPG; 11.7 RPG; 1.1 BPG; 54.1 FG%
C DWIGHT HOWARD
17.1 PPG; 12.4 RPG; 2.4 BPG; 57.8 FG%
PG PATRICK BEVERLEY
5.6 PPG; 2.9 APG; 41.8 FG%; 37.5 3FG%
CONSECUTIVE SEASONS in which Rockets center Dwight Howard has led the NBA in defensive rebounds, the longest run since the league started keeping track of offensive and defensive boards in 1973.
A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE ROCKETS
They're one of the most overrated teams in the league. I don't think they're a contender. I was hoping Dwight Howard would mature, but it just keeps getting worse for him. It's not like they're going to regret signing him, but the way they play isn't ideal for him. They're going to run, especially with Chandler Parsons playing the four a lot, and unless Howard is busting his butt—which he's not known to do—he's not going to be involved in their offense.... I'd want Parsons on my team because his skill level is great and he plays hard. But it's also true that he scored because of their system, and he got a lot of baskets off cuts. Howard might affect him the most in a negative way; it's going to be more clogged up for him because of Howard.... James Harden attacks the basket like few players. A couple of hard dribbles and when he's about to get to the basket, he lifts the ball over his head, and you can't stop it. You send him to his right whenever you can. You can also try to make him settle for the jump shot—but the thing about him is that he doesn't settle. You can't back off him either because he's a decent three-point shooter.... On a good team Jeremy Lin can't be a starter. He's not a great shooter and he's not even a great playmaker—people think he's this Steve Nash point guard, but he's not. He does everything O.K.... I would imagine they're going to try to trade Omer Asik. There is no way they can play Howard and Asik together. They'll have two big guys who will invite everybody to zone up, and Harden and Lin won't be able to go anywhere.
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
ANXIOUS STAR HARDEN
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED