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The James Harden Conundrum

With Dwight Howard aligned as the Rockets’ No. 1 star, where does last year’s hero fit in?

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden is in one of the most unique situations in basketball history.

Before last season, Harden was already an anomaly. A bench player his whole career, he signed a maximum-salary contract extension without ever having averaged even 32 minutes per game. He grew up around burgeoning superstars, yet seemed content in his niche as the most devastating and explosive sixth man in the world.

Then, the 2012-2013 season happened. Harden became "The Man" on a playoff team, establishing himself as one of the ten best offensive players in the league and showing himself capable of taking up the mantle of the best player on a team and the focal point of an offense, neither of which he had been since his days at Arizona State.

Last year, he got comfortable immediately. Thrust into a starring role just days before the season, he embraced the pressure, he embraced his new teammates and he embraced the city. He became the ideal superstar for GM Daryl Morey to build around. Not only was he otherworldly talented and capable of carrying a team on a night-in-night-out basis, but he had previously shown a willingness to defer stardom onto others.

Enter Dwight Howard.

Howard spent two days in the Rocky Mountains deciding where would be best for him to win a championship, he says. After such careful consideration, he's hitched his wagon to Harden, Chandler Parsons and head coach Kevin McHale. This is the biggest move in Clutch City since Steve Francis went east and Tracy McGrady donned No. 1 for the first time.

Howard, even at below his standards last year, is easily one of the handful of best players in the NBA. He can have outlandish impacts on both ends of the floor, and he just turned 27. Before his back and shoulder injuries the last two years, you couldn't have found a more durable NBA big man.

Morey and Co. have crafted this team to get Howard, and now he's here. It's his team, and that's a good thing. It does leave one interesting question, however: where does James Harden fit into all this?

Harden was a ball-dominator last year, confounding even the stat-heads with his wondrous ability to either get to the rim or shoot three-pointers and doing nothing in-between. Was he a minus on defense? Sure, but he was doing so much on offense that it didn't matter, because his energy was in the right place.

Now? The penetration won't be there as consistently. The help defense won't be as eager without 30 minutes of Omer "Stone Hands" Asik, but the 17.1 field goals attempted per game will surely dip. This isn't a bad thing, but it's an acknowledged reality in the 2013-2014 Rockets.

Dwight Howard has been a legitimate MVP candidate multiple years because he joined four-time Defensive Player of the Year credentials with the ability to be a force on the offensive end. In his last two years with the Magic, he averaged 13.4 FGA a game, but also about 10 FTA. If those numbers return with the Rockets, Harden's role will undoubtedly be diminished.

As much as we generally accept Harden's unselfishness for the ultimate team goal, he also happens to be a human being. He was by far the best player on a team that miraculously made the playoffs last year. The transition from first to second banana has to be harder than the transition from third to first.

It's not hard to envision the Rockets as title contenders in 2013-2014 and the three years beyond in which Harden and Howard are both under contract. What is hard to imagine, at this point, is precisely how those years will play out. Howard is a known quantity, but, much like last year, we must learn and adjust expectations when we see Harden in a different role.

Can Howard bring the Rockets back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1995? He certainly has the talent. The X-Factor will be Harden, how he adjusts, and how the Rockets' complexion will be with a new Man around the Toyota Center.

Editor's Note: Ethan is a contributor for and a die-hard Rockets fan.