Dwight Howard’s exodus (or cowardly flight, depending on who you ask) to Houston has instantly made the Rockets a playoff staple for the next few years. Houston’s assembly of stars starting with James Harden and most recently D12, has turned a scrappy feel-good squad into a Western Conference title contender.
Yes, I said title contender. I believe that the Western Conference is a realistic ceiling for this team. It’s not just the arrival of Howard, as we’ll see, there are a number of other factors that give Houston an edge on their Western conference foes.
A Healthy Dwight Howard
It’s not just Dwight, it’s a healthy Dwight that’s arrived in Space City. An injured Dwight averaged 17 and 12 last year with the Lakers, often looking sluggish and certainly out of place in Mike D’Antoni’s cobbled together offense. It was clear that he and All Star Pau Gasol didn’t fit well together and that not even the Canadian Maestro (Steve Nash, I just made that nickname up) couldn’t even work things out between them.
Now though? Dwight’s back is clearly 100% or close enough that it no longer matters. Not only that, he’s got a chip on his shoulder, deferential young teammates and an organization that is clearly committed to his comfort and happiness, as well as a coaching staff that includes two of the craftiest big men to ever play the game in Hakeem and Kevin McHale
Talent, Depth and Flexibility
Houston has turned their trade chips into superstars, and they’ve done it without sacrificing their depth. Led by their big three, Howard, Harden and Chandler…oh, did you think I was going to say Lin? Nope. I’m not even sure that Jeremy Lin will be a Rocket by the end of the year, but we’ll cover that in the next section. For now, the drastic improvement of forward Chandler Parsons as a shooter, distributor and scorer is going to make him a very dangerous third option for that squad. His raw numbers tell the story: 15pts a game, 48% shooting, 38% three. Throw in his sparkling personality and you’ve got yourself a third option
Secondly, Houston has great depth at almost every position. Their only real shallow spot is at the 2 guard, where Harden plays, and Harden is young and durable. At every other position they’ve got solid, competent depth. I especially like the addition of Omri Casspi in their second unit, an active forward with the ability to get his own shot or distribute. With a projected second unit of Patrick Beverley (especially THIS Patrick Beverely, Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi, Greg Smith and Omer Asik is certainly a squad that can keep a lead and keep from falling behind with most teams.
There’s no question that the competence of a front office deeply affects the outcome of the team on the floor and in the last 18 months Daryl Morey has proven himself to be one of the best. The long game that Morey’s played by stockpiling draft picks and young, cheap talent, plus the acquisition of James Harden from OKC and the signing of Dwight Howard put Morey in the same class as Spurs’ GM RC Buford, Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri (whose fleecing of the New York Knicks in the Carmello Anthony trade is legendary) and OKC’s Sam Presti. In his 7 year tenure as Houston’s GM Morey has guided them through the loss of Yao Ming and Tracy MacGrady and has restored them to glory.
But don’t think Dork Elvis is done, not by a long shot. He’s still got a significant trade chip in his pocket in the form of starting-calibre center Omer Asik. It’s clear that Asik is the ONLY person in Houston who’s not happy about Howard’s arrival in Houston, since he’s taken Asik’s job. My suspicion is that Morey will package Asik’s contract with Jeremy Lin’s for more financial flexibility. Don’t get me wrong, Jeremy Lin is a good point guard, but given the nature of his “poison pill” contract it makes more sense to trade Lin before they have to eat the back end of that contract. Whether they can get equal talent more cheaply by trading Asik and Lin or build in some financial flexibility for the next few years, trading Asik seems almost inevitable.
Younger Than Deep Teams, Deeper Than Young Teams
In my mind, the only real threat to Houston this year is the Clippers, another young deep team with an even better coach. But the rest of the west is wide open. San Antonio is always a threat, but they’re a year older and Tim Duncan is evidently not sharing his youth potion with Manu Ginobli. The same questions have to be asked of the Memphis Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph, who are neither young nor deep (you’ve got to be worried when your second unit is being run by Jerryd Bayless), and let us say that the addition of Mike Miller has not made them a more robust team.
As for the young teams in Oklahoma City and Golden State, they’re just not as deep as Houston. OKC’s lack of depth was clearly highlighted by the loss of their All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook during last season’s playoffs. Because of their salary cap concerns they’ll have to continue to find cheap veteran and rookie talent to populate their bench. That leaves Golden State, whose success is only as robust as Stephen Curry’s ankles, any part of Andrew Bogut’s body and possibly David Lee’s defense. If it’s not clear, I think the Warriors are overrated and overachieved in last year’s playoffs, and I certainly don’t expect them to repeat their performance next spring.
That leaves just Houston and the Clippers, my picks for this year’s Western Conference Finals, and I think Houston has a real chance to emerge as the victor. But there are a lot of questions to be answered before that can happen. Can the Rockets gel as a team quickly, and hit the ground running? Can Dwight Howard share the ball with James Harden? Can Houston keep Howard happy? For the Clippers, can Doc Rivers turn Lob City into a cohesive defensive unit? Can DeAndre Jordan make the leap from talented but inconsistent to dependable late-game performer? Can Blake Griffin develop a consistent midrange game?
All these questions lead us to one definitive answer: The race for the Western Conference champ is going to be really fun to watch.