By Kristie Rieken ,AP
HOUSTON — A year ago, the Houston Rockets had Jeremy Lin and not much else in terms of star power or even recognizable names on a young and inexperienced team.
Things are much different entering the 2013 season.
Houston traded for James Harden just before the start of last season and he helped the Rockets return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Their offseason acquisition of prized free agent Dwight Howard, combined with Harden’s development, has catapulted the Rockets from an afterthought in the Western Conference to a contender quicker than most anyone expected.
The challenge, of course, is for the Rockets to live up to expectations.
“We’re definitely not going to be the favorite nor should we be, we’ve proven nothing,” general manager Daryl Morey said. “We’ve got players that if we get them to gel and go the right way we give ourselves a shot to make some noise.”
Houston signed Howard to a four-year contract worth about US$88 million after one season with the Lakers. They’re hoping a change of scenery will help Howard re-establish himself as the top center in the NBA.
“I’m excited to be here and I just want to win,” Howard said.
He becomes the latest big-name center to play in Houston following Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming. His signing gives the Rockets legitimate championship aspirations for the first time since Yao teamed with Tracy McGrady.
Harden had to adjust on the fly last season after his last-minute trade from Oklahoma City and is grateful to his teammates and coaching for making his transition easier. He and the rest of the Rockets aim to do the same thing for Howard this year.
“We feel the same way about Dwight, making sure he’s good and making sure he’s in the best situations to be successful,” Harden said. “And once we get him going everything will work itself out.”
Howard played in 76 games last season, but admitted that he didn’t feel right after offseason back surgery. His 17.1 points a game were the lowest he’s had since he averaged 15.8 in his second season and the 12.4 rebounds were his fewest since 2006. The Rockets staff put him on a new training regimen and believe he’s back to his old self.
“For me, being healthy, I think it’s going to bring back a lot of the things that I’ve done in the past,” Howard said. “I’m very excited about it.”
And now Lin is happy to be on a team where the focus is on other players. He had enough of the spotlight during “Linsanity” two years ago with the New York Knicks.
Lin played in each game last season for the Rockets after playing in 64 games combined in his first two NBA seasons. Though he wasn’t as flashy as he was during that span, the Harvard graduate averaged 13.4 points and 6.1 rebounds in his first full season as a starter.
“There’s a lot less pressure this season,” Lin said. “I’ve had such a wide spectrum of literally no expectations to having every expectation. Now it’s kind of going back down to some lower expectations.”