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The Perfect Fit

James Harden and Dwight Howard forming a formidable partnership in Houston

NEW ORLEANS - On paper, James Harden and Dwight Howard appeared to be a perfect fit. Pairing a dominant big man with a preeminent perimeter player has long been a proven formula for NBA success, so it only seemed natural to expect that the Rockets’ new dynamic duo would seamlessly follow suit.

Still, it’s one thing to anticipate fit; quite another to make such a seemingly ideal meshing of talent become a reality. So many variables enter into the equation that fearlessly forecasting favorable outcomes in these hypothetical scenarios still entails a significant amount of risk.

It was a risk, however, that the Houston Rockets were only too happy to take. And 53 games into Harden and Howard’s first season together, the results have proven that their partnership looks even better on the hardwood than it does on paper. During the 1,413 minutes the two All-Stars have shared the floor this season, the Rockets have rung up a robust offensive rating of 109.6 and a defensive efficiency mark of 100.8 – the former number, by the way, would lead the league; the latter would fall just outside the top-5.

Little wonder, then, that Houston has taken several strong initial steps toward establishing its title-contending credentials. The Rockets hit the All-Star break riding a seven-game win streak that has helped them climb to third in the jam-packed Western Conference standings and they’re one of only four teams (the Thunder, Clippers and Spurs are the others) owning both a top-10 offense and defense.

Do they have much more to prove? Of course they do. To a large extent, Houston won’t be able to answer many of the heaviest questions facing the team until the playoffs roll around. But this truth looms large as well: As good as Harden and Howard (and the entire Rockets team, for that mater) have looked up to this point in the season, they are the first to admit that they still have so much to learn and so much room to improve. Translation: There’s every reason to expect that they’ll only get better from here.

“I really hadn’t had a chance to play with a dominant big man like Dwight (before),” Harden said Friday during the media day session kicking off All-Star weekend. “So just to be alongside him and to get a feel for what he likes to do and where he likes the ball, it’s not going to take 50 games – it’s going to take more time.”

Howard then echoed that sentiment, adding that the two players plan to dedicate even more of their time going forward toward ensuring they milk every ounce of potential from their partnership.

“We’re still learning ways we can make each other better,” he said. “Once we do that, it’s going to be easier for the rest of the team. We talk a lot, we watch film together and the second half of the season we will be working out together, just me and him. We’re looking forward to doing that kind of stuff.”

Both players have spoken at length about all the things they still must hone and perfect in order to make the most of the other’s immense talent. For Harden, that means increasing his comfort and confidence level with getting Howard the ball at the right time and the right spot. Howard, meanwhile, is focused on finding new ways, or simply mastering old ones, to free up even more space for Harden to unleash his unique brand of havoc upon opposing defenses.

“James is one of the best downhill players that we have in the league,” Howard says matter of factly. “Coming up the floor, I need to make sure I hit him with an early screen so that way he can attack the basket without having his man in his face. On pick-and-rolls, I need to make sure I get him open by setting good screens. On outlet (passes), make sure I push the pace so he can get out in the open floor and do what he does best.

“He gets to the basket with ease, gets to the free throw line and my job is to make his life easy. On the defensive end, it’s the same thing. On the offensive end, I get in the post and make sure I find him in his sweet spots so he can just catch it and shoot. We’re learning all that stuff.”

They’re still figuring things out off the floor as well. But there, too, the early results have been nothing but positive.

“We’re at that point now where he feels like he’s family and we’re brothers,” says Harden.

Indeed, Howard has made no secret that he feels right at home in Houston. The joy he repeatedly mentioned during his introductory press conference last July has been made manifest inside a rollicking Rockets’ locker room that relishes working hard and playing hard – and having ample amounts of fun while doing both.

The fit that always looked good on paper is now prospering in a big way both on court and off. But the best news of all: There’s every reason to believe that the best is still yet to come.