NBA • Bold offseason decisions turn teams into contenders.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Life at the top of the NBA has become a little more crowded, thanks to an offseason featuring Dwight Howard, Doc Rivers and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.
Howard is the free-agent center who walked away from the storied Los Angeles Lakers to seek his destiny in Houston.
Rivers has already enjoyed a Hall of Fame career, but he bolted Boston for a new coaching challenge with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Prokhorov is the controversial owner of the Brooklyn Nets, whose win-now philosophy and willingness to wheel and deal has turned New York into a two-team town.
The usual suspects, of course, are still around.
Defending champion Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Memphis, Chicago and the Knicks have all done enough roster-tweaking to remain serious candidates for a title in 2014.
No team, however, did more than the Rockets.
Houston, without a championship since the golden years of Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994 and 1995, made the summer's biggest move by bagging Howard. He could have made $118 million with the Lakers but instead signed a four-year, $88 million deal with the Rockets.
Howard's presence could move the Rockets to the top of the Western Conference, even though they were eighth last season and lost to Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs.
At Howard's introductory press conference, Olajuwon said, "He is the missing piece."
Noting that Howard will play alongside All-Star guard James Harden, general manager Daryl Morey said, "It absolutely gives us a chance. ... The way it is in this league, you have to have dominant top players and we have two guys we think that are in the top 10 in the league."
To propel the Rockets to a championship, however, Howard must be more engaged than he was during one disastrous season with the Lakers.
Although he averaged 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds, he didn't dominate. In fact, he often looked like a bored spectator.
Houston owner Les Alexander isn't concerned: "He'll be very happy here. Dwight recognizes that his boyhood dreams will come true as a Rocket."
Said Howard: "It means a lot to me just to have a fresh start and have an opportunity to write my own story. ... This is the place where I chose and I'm happy about it."
With Rivers as their coach and senior vice president of basketball operations, the Clippers are happy, too.
The third-winningest coach in Celtic history behind Red Auerbach and Tommy Heinshon, Rivers guided Boston to a championship in 2008 its first in 22 years.
With the Celtics rebuilding, however, Rivers moved to L.A. The Clippers got him out of his contract by giving Boston a first-round draft choice in 2015.
"This is truly one of the biggest moments in Clipper history," team executive Gary Sacks said at Rivers' first press conference.
L.A. won 56 games last season, but flamed out in the first round of the playoffs against Memphis.
It will be Rivers' job to take the Clippers farther a task made possible because All-Star point guard Chris Paul has signed a five-year, $107 million extension and Blake Griffin remains under contract.
In addition, the Clippers acquired sharpshooting guard J.J. Reddick and free agent center-forward Byron Mullens. Both should create space for Paul and Griffin.
"This is an extremely talented basketball team," Rivers said. "... What we have to figure out, with the group we have, is can we do that in the postseason as opposed to just the regular season?"
Like Houston and the Clippers, Brooklyn enjoyed a decent regular season before losing in the first round of the playoffs.
It wasn't nearly good enough to Prokhorov.
The Nets retooled by hiring just-retired Jason Kidd as coach and acquiring veterans Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry from the Celtics.
"Today, the basketball gods smiled on the Nets," Prokhorov said when the trade was announced. "... This team will be dazzling to watch and tough to compete against."
Along with Terry, the Nets bolstered their bench by signing ex-Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko and veteran guard Shaun Livingston.
Brooklyn's starting lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, Garnett and Pierce has played over 168,000 minutes, counting the regular season and the playoffs. Lopez, the youngster of the group, is also coming off the second foot surgery of his career.
Still, the Nets' bold moves assured them a place in the New York City sports pecking order, although the Knicks countered.
After a 54-win season that ended in the second round of the playoffs, New York acquired former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani from Toronto. Then it signed Metta World Peace, who had been amnestied by the Lakers.
If Bargnani and World Peace produce, the Carmelo Anthony-led Knicks might still be better than rebuilt Brooklyn.