Anytime an elite player in the NBA changes teams during the summer, the organization that acquires him is almost by default going to be the winner of the offseason. So it is that by signing Dwight Howard away from the Los Angeles Lakers, the Houston Rockets are the champions of summer 2013.
The "most improved" team in any given season, in terms of raw win total, is usually going to be a struggling team that has nowhere to go but up. The real feat is to move from the middle to the top, a trick that Houston might be able to pull off. The Rockets were a good team last season, with 45 wins and a point differential typical of a 50-win club. Their four most productive players -- Harden, Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin -- were all 26 or younger. That starting point is what made the Rockets so attractive to Howard; they're a team in the middle that has all of the traits of a rapid riser.
As of Wednesday morning, the Rockets' outlook has brightened to about 54 wins, the third-best forecast in the West and fifth-best in the league. Likewise, the playoff projection, which is based on weighing the winning percentages of the team's top eight rotation players, also ranks fifth in the league. As a result, my most recent run of simulations -- using the 2012-13 schedule -- gives Houston an 8 percent chance at next season's title. The only teams ahead of the Rockets are the ones you'd expect: the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder. It's been a tremendous week for the Rockets by any standard.
So what's next?