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Dwight Howard's return is another question, not an answer

Without Pat Beverley for who knows how long, what will the Rockets be?

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard is planning to play tonight against the New Orleans Pelicans. Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones will not be joining him if he does return.

These are strange times.

This last handful of games before the playoffs were supposed to feature a rejuvenated, reloaded Rockets team, with the starting five completely healthy for the first time since early November. These were supposed to be the times for everyone to come together, and for the full roster Daryl Morey dreamed up to be realized.

Now, the Rockets are without their starting power forward through at least the weekend -- and hopefully longer if Jones is not feeling 100 percent after a scary lung injury -- and they won't have their starting point guard for potentially even longer with a left wrist injury.

If Dwight Howard indeed comes back tonight, he is expected to only play 20-25 minutes. That leaves a rotation of 20-25 minutes of both Pablo Prigioni and Jason Terry, with smatterings of Nick Johnson, according to Kevin McHale; the usual 35-40 for James Harden and Trevor Ariza' 25-30 minutes each for Josh Smith and Donatas Motiejunas; and hopefully Joey Dorsey only in foul emergencies.

It's possible this is a situation that won't last very long. Jones is set to be re-evaluated soon, and could come back, bumping Joey Dorsey farther down the bench and pairing with Howard for the Rockets' best possible two-way lineup. Beverley's wrist injury might be minor -- he's in Houston now getting it checked out -- and he could be back soon too.

Even fully healthy, this is not a perfect roster. Beverley was recently ranked the 26th-best point guard in the league by a survey of the NBA's 30 general managers, and it's not really that hard to disagree after his effort this season. The Rockets' lack of reliable depth behind him -- it was pure agony watching Terry/Prigioni make George Hill look like Kevin Johnson Monday night -- is far more concerning.

Trevor Ariza is shooting 33.6 percent from three-pointers this year, and it's officially impossible to think that last year wasn't an aberration from his actual shooting ability. Sure, he's encouraged to shoot more frequently and that leads to lower percentage shots, and James Harden is elite at finding shooters but he's not quite at John Wall's level. But Ariza is not quite the shooter the Rockets hoped they were signing.

Harden has played more minutes than anybody else in the league, and he's been fouled more than anybody else in the league. Dwight Howard's barely played all season, and he's now had back, ankle, and knee injuries in the last three years. Terrence Jones got annihilated by LaMarcus Aldridge in the playoffs last year, although he does look much stronger this year.

This is not the full picture obviously. Beverley and Ariza combine to give the Rockets an elite wing defense. James Harden is clearly in terrific shape and has shown few signs of slowing down. Dwight Howard was still a 16-and-10 guy this year on one knee. Jones has looked terrific since coming back from injury.

Howard's return was supposed to bring the Rockets the answer to their questions this season: the rebounding question, the rim protection question, the depth question and the star power question. He still answers all those questions.

But even more questions have now entered the conversation: who will defend point guards? How often will James Harden and Corey Brewer be the Rockets' backcourt? What happens when Howard, Jones and Motiejunas all want to start? How will the minutes break down with Josh Smith? Will K.J. McDaniels ever play?

The Rockets have 12 games and a little more than three weeks until they start the playoffs, undoubtedly against a very good team. They have to solve any chemistry and fit issues fast -- remember this team as constructed has not played together before -- and hope everyone gets healthy at the right time.

The $64,000 question is: if everything breaks right, how far can this team go?

Can a rotation of Harden-Howard-Jones-Ariza-Beverley-Brewer-Donuts-Smoove-Terry win a championship? get to the Finals? win a series against the Spurs or Clippers?

The Rockets' championship window is not large, and every Howard injury closes it a little more, unless Morey can lure another star to Houston.

I happen to think the answer to that question is "a very slim chance of yes." But I could be wrong. I just want the chance to find out.