- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- If this Dwight Howard addition goes according to coach Kevin McHale's plan, the Houston Rockets will be competing for championships well before the NBA's top center has a chance to hit free agency again.
Howard on Friday agreed to a four-year, $88 million contract with the Rockets that includes an option to become a free agent again after three seasons in Houston.
Although Howard can't officially sign his new deal until the league's moratorium ends Wednesday, McHale is already counting on Howard to help the Rockets make the leap from budding playoff contenders to prominent title threat.
That means the clock is already ticking on Howard and Houston to close ground on likely Western Conference front-runners San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers, among others.
"We'll see. Let's get everybody together," McHale said Sunday of pairing Howard with superstar shooting guard James Harden next season. "I'm looking forward to getting together with the team and putting everything together. I feel really comfortable we can compete with anybody."
McHale was in Orlando on Sunday to watch the Rockets' summer league team of young prospects and aspiring free agents play their debut in the weeklong tournament.
The primary focus, though, was on the team's prospects when the training camps open in less than three months.
"Everybody knows he's the premier big man in the league," Beverley said. "I'm glad [his decision] wasn't prolonged. The inside-out [dynamic] with him and James, I think, is going to be perfect. It's going to be fun. If you add Dwight, it's going to be a big boost. But no one has a crystal ball. Everything takes preparation and hard work and dedication, and that's what we're going to have to do."
After spending the bulk of last season recovering from offseason back surgery and playing through a shoulder injury, Howard told McHale he's as healthy as he's been in years and is ready for a fresh start. Despite those ailments, Howard averaged 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 76 games last season for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Despite some of Howard's indecisive moments in previous stints in Los Angeles and Orlando, McHale said he never doubted Houston would land the league's most coveted free agent and potentially shift the power structure in the west.
"I had a pretty good feeling on it," McHale said. "But you never really know until everything is done. We had a great meeting July 1. I really thought positively. We could help each other. He's just got to get out there and play."
Howard came to his decision to sign with the Rockets after meeting last week with Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Golden State and the Los Angeles Lakers.
After spending one injury-riddled season in Los Angeles, Howard turned down a more lucrative five-year offer from the Lakers that would have been worth $30 million more than what Houston was allowed to pay under the league's collective bargaining agreement. Apparently, none of the Lakers' perceived advantages were a serious threat.
Howard spent the days leading to his decision camped out in a Colorado resort. Howard called McHale to refute reports that surfaced late Friday night that suggested he was second-guessing his decision to sign with the Rockets.
"The crazy thing was Dwight was flying from Colorado and the 50-50 [speculation] and all this other stuff, he was a little bit upset about that," McHale said. "He said, 'I didn't change my mind.' I had a pretty good feeling, but when it's finally done, you're really happy and looking forward to working with him after you sign him."
McHale, a Hall of Fame player from his career with the Boston Celtics, said Howard is still developing as a player despite his dominant play as a seven-time NBA All-Star.
"I think Dwight is in the process of evolving and changing," McHale said. "He says he feels way better and healthier now than he has been. His back is healthy. I anticipate him coming in and doing what he did for years: Being the best, most dominant center in the league."
McHale said Howard's game "fits well with us" and pointed to how the Rockets were already a team built on ball-movement, perimeter shooting and Harden's creativity.
"When Dwight is right, physically right, he dominates the game in a lot of different ways," McHale said. "He's a unique guy. He can score 10 points and totally dominate the game. There are very few players in the NBA that can do that. He can bolt down the paint, block six or seven shots, get 20 rebounds, roll hard and get people shots without touching the ball. It's a good situation."
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann