The Houston Rockets play their first exhibition game tomorrow. In a few short weeks, the safe harbor of the pre-season will be behind the Rockets, and the vicious storm of the Western Conference will be upon them. After three years of low expectations, Houston has to prove that they can weather the lofty expectations they’ve piled upon themselves. Now we look at the challenges the Northwest Division poses, and how the Rockets can overcome them.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the scariest team in the Western Conference. The San Antonio Spurs are the cagiest, most dependably dangerous team. The Los Angeles Clippers are the deepest, and maybe hardest to gameplan for. The Rockets are in the elite as well, now, with their efficiency-first style and pair of elite talents. None of those teams are as immediately intimidating as this Thunder team. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are two of the ten best players in the league, and LeBron James is the only player living who’s better than Durant. They have continuity, chemistry, youth, experience, talent and skill. Their offense has everything but a post up threat, and the past half decade of NBA play has shown that post play is no longer a necessity. Their defense has gone from good to great in recent years, and defensive stalwarts like Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison work alongside the continuously improving skills of Kevin Durant to create a consistently high level team defense. This team is the favorite to come out of the west, and there’s little argument to be made there.
That little argument to be made comes in the form of a loose suture in Russell Westbrook’s ailing knee, resulting in him missing at least a month of regular season basketball. This is a complication of the meniscus tear he suffered while bumping into Patrick Beverley, an incident that occurred in the first round Rockets-Thunder series of last year’s playoffs. That injury nearly cost the Thunder that series, and it certainly cost them their second round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Now that injury might cost them some regular season losses this season, and those losses may very well cause them to drop in the rankings of a brutal Western Conference. The only major change in the Thunder roster is the loss of Kevin Martin, who happily moved to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason. Martin did a good job of replacing Harden’s scoring input, so that load will now have to be spread to a few other players, possibly including sophomore Jeremy Lamb.
While the Westbrook injury means that the Thunder may struggle in the early part of the season, the Rockets have no realistic opportunities to capitalize on Oklahoma City’s misfortune. The Thunder and Rockets meet in Oklahoma City on December 29th, but there’s little chance that Westbrook is still out. Even should he be at less than 100%, the newfound rivalry between these teams, subdued as it may be, should push the Thunder to use any available resource, including a recovering Westbrook.Instead, this situation slightly increases the Rockets’ chances of sneaking into a high seed in the West. If the Thunder and Rockets are near each other in the standings, those four games they play against each other will be particularly meaningful for seeding going into the playoffs. Winning the season series would mean not only holding the tiebreaker, but at least a two game swing between the winning and losing teams. It’s absolutely critical that the Rockets leave it all on the court in those games, and they surely know that.
The strategy that brought the Rockets back from losing three in a row to force a sixth game will surely be the first option. The Thunder have a penchant for small ball, but the Rockets are just as staffed to run that scheme. Lineups with Harden at the forward looked dangerous, but turned out to be critical to slowing the Thunder. Ibaka looked like he might be too much for Harden to handle, but in the end, Ibaka’s offensive game is predicated in large part on pick and pops and cleaning the glass, both of which Houston was ready for. Harden is tall enough to at least get a hand in Ibaka’s face, and having an elite rebounder in Ömer Aşık helped lessen the impact of Ibaka’s putbacks. Dwight Howard is an even better rebounder than Ömer Aşık. meaning that the same plan should be viable. The biggest concern is that Westbrook will simply overpower Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley if the guard the shot, or shoot over their heads with no warning should they guard the drive. Westbrook is a dangerous passer, a deadly midrange shooter and a fearless slasher, giving the Thunder a much-needed triple threat. Guarding against Westbrook will take actual, coordinated team defensive schemes, but thankfully Dwight Howard is as able a rim protector as exists in the league.
All of this would be manageable were it not for the fact that the Thunder also include Kevin Durant, the deadliest scorer in the NBA. Without Westbrook, Durant had to do it all, and it eventually proved to be too much burden. Now, when Westbrook returns, Durant will be able to delegate the chaotic, unpredictable shots to Russell while taking his preferred, hyper efficient shots himself. The only fly in the ointment is that the Thunder lost Kevin Martin, a deadly marksman from three point range and a crafty seeker of foul calls. Jeremy Lamb may be able to spot up from the perimeter, but he hasn’t shown the ability to full take on the role Martin held. Reggie Jackson is a capable three point shooter, Sefolosha is a master of corner daggers, and Ibaka has been working on his three point shot, but losing Martin changes the shape of OKC’s perimeter threat. Durant is a threat from anywhere on the court, but Westbrook’s three point shot and shot choices leave something to be desired. Without Martin stretching out the defense as much, Houston can be quicker to rotate, trusting in closeouts more often. Seeing exactly how small they can play and how much rotating they can get away with will be critical for Houston.
If a Howard, Harden, Parsons, Lin and Beverley lineup is viable on defense, that crew will more than hold their own on offense. More than last year, the Thunder will pay heavily any time Kendrick Perkins takes the floor against Houston. Ibaka’s greatest skill is as a shot blocker, but his effectiveness drops the farther from the basket he has to play. With Perkins on the floor, presumably to slow Howard, Ibaka would be forced to guard James Harden, Chandler Parsons or perhaps someone like Francisco Garcia. Whoever he faces off against will be three point catch and shoot threat at the least or a superstar level talent in James Harden at the most. Given Perkins’ almost total lack of offense, the Thunder have little option but to run Ibaka or Collison against Dwight Howard, and settle on a one big man lineup. In either scenario, Dwight Howard will do his best to body into the paint and draw help defenders in. As deadly as the Thunder’s offense is, this should prove to be an equally deadly attack for Houston, as every other Rocket on the floor is willing and able to sink three point shots the second they see daylight. This matchup should prove not only as a true test for the new Rockets, but as some of the most enjoyable basketball of the season. Highlight these dates, because all of them might be instant classics.
The Denver Nuggets finished third in the Western Conference last season, had the best record in franchise history and looked poised to ride their high octane offense and lockdown defense all the way to the conference finals. Then Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors detonated on them, finishing not only the season, but the tenure of their head coach (George Karl), general manager (Masai Ujiri) and biggest-name player (Andre Iguodala) as well. With new head coach Brian Shaw, nobody’s quite sure what to expect from the Nuggets this season. They may remain good despite all the changes and make the playoffs, or they may flounder and hit the bottom of the standings. The only thing for sure is that losing Iguodala is a huge blow, especially since they lost him to the very team that knocked them out of the playoffs.
The biggest additions for the Nuggets in the summer were J.J. Hickson and Nate Robinson, news which can’t make Denver fans happy. Iguodala was an elite wing defender, a capable player on offense, and a fantastic distributor. Hickson is a workmanlike big man who can shore up a team’s frontcourt depth, and Nate Robinson is energy, streaky shooting, and questionable decisions. Andre Miller remains on the team and he remains one of the craftiest point guards around. His old man game won’t last forever, but it’s still here today. JaVale McGee should now be the starting center with the loss of Kosta Koufos, and this could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on McGee’s development. Kenneth Faried is still a manimal, tearing into rebounds and blocks, but Danilo Gallinari is still out with an ACL injury.
The Nuggets have one of the best home court advantages in the NBA, and some of it is due to the altitude at which they play. Road teams will always be winded by the thin Denver air in the mile high city, and this should help the Nuggets rack up a few wins. Unfortunately, it takes more than altitude to win games, and the Rockets should be able to show them that up close and personal. The Nuggets aren’t the only team with hyper-athletic big men any more, and Dwight HOward should be able to keep up with JaVale all night long. The Rockets are likely to trot out wave after wave of players at the 4, daring Faried to keep up with all of them. Ty Lawson remains one of the top ten point guards, however, and the Rockets will have their hands full with him. The point guard position is probably the position of greatest strength for the Nuggets, and LIn and Beverley will have their hands full trying to contain them. On the other hand, the wings are thin for Denver, leaving WIlson Chandler as the only threatening player in that rotation until Gallinari returns. James Harden should have a field day with Evan Fournier, and Harden’s defense can thankfully be hidden on the shooting guard spot. The Nuggets may pull out a game in Denver, but there’s no reason to believe that the Rockets can’t win this series.
How good are the Minnesota Timberwolves? Nobody knows. If you ask them, they’re sure to tell you they have eyes on a playoff berth. When healthy, perhaps they can make it. Unfortunately, they just can’t seem to stay healthy, and last year was almost comically full of injuries. This year, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio are ready to play, and this may just be their first foray into the post season for those two young players.
The main offseason move for Minnesota was the signing of Kevin Martin, a hyper-efficient scorer that Houston knows well. Martin is reunited with head coach Rick Adelman, a duo which has been united and reunited in all three of Sacramento, Houston and Minnesota. Chase Budinger also plays for his old Houston coach, but unfortunately remains sidelined by injury. Never prone to ailment in Houston, Budinger has suffered major injuries both seasons in Minnesota. The Wolves lost Andrei Kirilenko to the Brooklyn Nets in free agency, a loss which will hurt their depth and flexibility. Corey Brewer returns to the fold, however, and Shabazz Muhammad and Ronnie Turiaf look poised to make meaningful contributions.
The Timberwolves have been a thorn in Houston’s side ever since Adelman moved north, winning 3 out of 4 in Adelman’s first year coaching the Wolves. The Rockets fared better last season, winning 2 of 3, but Houston needed big efforts to come back from deficits and win those two games. If the Wolves are healthy at all, expect a surprising amount of challenge yet again as one of the best coaches in the league leverages a pile of talent against a front office he knows well. Kevin Love is a monster on the glass, and Dwight Howard will have his hands full trying to contain him. His three point shot on the other end it top-tier, meaning that an athletic 3 or 4 will have to try to guard love on the perimeter while Howard or Ömer Aşık deal with Nikola Pekovic inside. Pekovic is one of the most powerful forces inside, and seeing him body up with Houston’s centers should be fascinating and potentially painful. Lin and Rubio will make for an intriguing matchup, with Rubio as the better passer but Lin as the better finisher. Both teams will have weapons on the perimeter, but Minnesota will be much more likely to run complex sets and an endless litany of backcuts.
Once again, the Rockets should have an advantage on the wing, with Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin facing off against Chandler Parsons and James Harden. In previous years, Adelman’s coaching and the youth and talent of the Wolves could keep pace with Houston. This year, Houston has a marked advantage in talent, and are if anything just as young as Minnesota. Adelman’s schemes won’t be able to overcome Houston’s advantages as long as McHale’s Rockets continue to play to their strengths and not let Minnesota dictate pace or style. As we’ve already learned, offense isn’t enough to beat top teams.
Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard is extremely good at basketball. The reigning rookie of the year pulled the Blazers from the basement they were expected to live in all they way to the front door of the playoffs. LaMarcus Aldridge might not be quite the franchise savior Portland hoped for, the Trail Blazers look ready to challenge for a playoff spot again, this time with added depth.
The starting lineup of Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews is good if not great. Lopez and Matthews are the weak links there, and those links aren’t bad. The b team behind them, however, is where the most improvements were made. Portland finally has a real backup point guard in Mo Williams, and he’s leading a group consisting of Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, and Meyers Leonard. Victor Claver and C.J. McCollum are the most likely to fill out the ranks after that, giving Portland a solid bench at the least. The only thing standing between them and an improved record this year is the improvement of the rest of the west as well, with only the Lakers and Suns looking to have any real drop off.
Something else might stand between them and a playoff spot later in the year, specifically at the trade deadline. The rumors of LaMarcus Aldridge desiring a trade are still swirling, and they seem in sync with the fact that Aldridge is unlikely to contend for a title while in Portland. Few would be surprised if he were to be moved to a contender at the deadline, and his attempts to add a three point shot to his arsenal don’t hurt his trade value. If he’s on the Portland roster in April, he may be preparing to face the Thunder. If not, he may be preparing to face someone like the Hawks.
In any situation, the Rockets have a number of advantages to attack from. Parsons and Batum should provide an exciting matchup, while Lillard may have his way with Lin. Limiting Portland’s three point looks will prove critical, especially with Aldridge getting in on the fun. Lillard will get past his man, meaning that a center must be at the rim at all times. This means that ALdridge is likely to be guarded by someone smaller than him, leading to a difficult tradeoff between postups and shooting for his defender. As long as Batum can be contained, the Rockets can expect the tandem of Aldridge and Lillard to score the lion’s share of the points but still lose. Adding Batum into the fray opens up the doors for that depth to strike, and this is the last thing the Rockets need.
The Utah Jazz don’t seem very good any more. Their entire frontcourt rotation consists of Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert and whatever remains of Andris Biedrins. Kanter and Favors show promise and skill, and should be capable starters for years. However, they still aren’t anywhere near the level of Dwight Howard and Ömer Aşık, who can actually take a break without the team falling apart. Gordon Hayward is a fascinating talent and yet another wing with a similar skill set to Chandler Parsons. Behind him, however, is the questionable group of Jeremy Evans, Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams. The rest of the wing rotation consists of Alec Burks and Brandon Rush, both of whom show promise but neither of whom are quite on a starter level yet. With Trey Burke and John Lucas III rounding out the point guard position, it’s hard to see this team challenging any of the top six teams in the west.
Last year, an inferior Rockets team demolished a superior Jazz team by 45 points in Houston’s biggest blowout of the year. Such an extreme differential isn’t likely to happen again, as those require a lot of factors to come together. The roster changes for these teams, however, only shift that needle farther into the red that it’s been in for a while. The Jazz don’t seem to be trying to win games this year, and the Rockets will be happy to hand them losses.