The Houston Rockets said they were not particularly close to trading star center Dwight Howard at Thursday’s trade deadline, instead framing their talks involving the probable free agent in terms of due diligence.
Nonetheless, it is abundantly clear that general manager Daryl Morey did at least explore the idea. As Houston entered the All-Star break at 27-28 and out of the playoff picture as the West’s No. 9 seed, the Rockets were open to a massive reconstruction of their roster — including the possibility of breaking up the partnership of Howard and James Harden that began when Howard chose the Rockets as a free agent in July 2013.
Many in the media questioned the fit of Harden and Howard, both on the court and away from it.
But other than a minor trade of Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton for Detroit’s first-round draft pick, the Rockets largely stayed the course — thus giving their two stars one more chance to right the ship. After all, Houston’s current roster remains remarkably similar to the one that advanced to the Western finals just nine months ago.
So far, so good.
The Rockets (28-28) romped past the free-falling Phoenix Suns, 116-100, in their first game after the deadline, with Harden and Howard posting a combined 42 points and 16 rebounds on 11-of-24 shooting. High-fives and positive communication between the star duo flowed throughout, perhaps in response to the wave of skepticism they heard throughout the week regarding their chemistry.
And another — Harden reads Howard perfectly on this alleyoop. https://t.co/7tXJ4mLYYh
— ClutchFans (@clutchfans) February 20, 2016
But the good vibes didn’t stop on the floor. Early Saturday morning, veteran teammate Trevor Ariza went to social media to show fans that Howard and Harden also appear to be in sync off it.
A photo posted by Trevor Ariza (@tariza1) on
As of today, the Rockets are back in the West’s playoff picture as the No. 8 seed. Furthermore, they are only one game back of Dallas for the No. 6 seed — which would allow them to avoid the prospect of playing Golden State or San Antonio in the first round.
But it must be remembered that this latest sense of togetherness in Houston comes after a game against the woeful Suns (14-41). The challenge gets much tougher for the Rockets next week, with their next two games on the road against the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers — two teams they remain in direct competition with for the West’s final playoff spots.
While Howard and Harden passed their first “chemistry test” with flying colors, tougher exams await in the near future. Those will likely reveal whether a corner has truly been turned in Houston.
Ben DuBose is a veteran sports reporter who has followed the Houston Rockets and the NBA since Hakeem Olajuwon was Akeem Olajuwon. He writes for both SheridanHoops and ClutchFans, an independent Rockets blog. You can follow him on Twitter.