The Houston Rockets are, new, improved, and full of potential. They have enough talent to go toe to toe with any team in the league. All that’s left is making a game plan and executing it once the season starts. There’s no way to know what will happen in a few short weeks, but for now we can try to imagine it. Let’s postulate on what the Houston Rockets need to to in order to beat each team in the Atlantic Division.
New York Knicks:
Last year’s Atlantic division champs are one of the strangest matchups for the Houston Rockets. The Rockets and Knicks both broke the regular season record for three pointers made in a season, with New York coming out ahead in that category when all was said and done. Both teams feature a bevy of marksmen on the perimeter, defensive big men inside, and a bench full of veteran minimum players.
A look at last year’s matchup has the Rockets easily rolling over the Knicks in both games, with the first contest being a complete blowout. Given Carmelo Anthony didn’t play in the second game, and Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t play in either, there’s room for debate on what could happen with both teams at full strength. The Rockets have certainly improved more since then, however, with young players maturing and Dwight Howard signing on. The Knicks lost promising big man Chris Copeland to Indiana, veteran point guard Jason Kidd to retirement and traded Steve Novak, Marcus Camby and Quentin Richardson to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for a player of dubious utility in Andrea Bargnani. Marcus Camby eventually ended up on the Rockets, but would be unlikely to play more than garbage time minutes.
To beat the Knicks, the Rockets need to do two things. First, they need to run pick and roll sets over and over again. The Knicks have shown themselves to be vulnerable to teams which attack the basket off the pick, and that’s where the Rockets killed them last season. With as many high quality options as Houston has in that department, it’s very likely this happens. Secondly, the Rockets have to guard the perimeter. The Knicks make their living by hoisting threes, and hands in faces at the line will be well worth the cost. The Knicks as a team tend to shy away from drives to the basket, relying on their vicious shooting to get the job done. With Dwight Howard and Ömer Aşık inside, Houston has some room to stick to shooters outside. This might leave Carmelo Anthony open for piles of midrange jumpers, but of all the available poisons, that seems to be the easiest to stomach.
After a tumultuous off season, the Brooklyn Nets now look like the team to beat in the Atlantic Division. Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, and Kris Joseph were shipped to Boston in exchange for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and DJ White. In terms of basketball talent and skill, the Nets easily won out, though the Celtics had their own reasons for making the trade. The Nets also signed free agent Andrei Kirilenko to a shockingly cheap $3m/year deal, and hired freshly retired Jason Kidd as their head coach. Nobody knows how good this team will be yet, and with good reason. A starting lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez is at worst the second most intimidating in the east, and with a fairly stacked bench, a challenge for a top seed seems plausible.
The good news is that the Rockets beat the other New York team both games as well. Both matchups against Brooklyn were convincing victories for Houston, with the Rockets simply out executing the Nets. Deron Williams seemed to have something to prove against Jeremy Lin, and in both games Williams hoisted a relatively large number of shots. Brook Lopez was a threat, especially in the second game, and containing him was proving difficult. The addition of Dwight Howard should provide some degree of protection against Brook Lopez, but his offensive game is efficient and largely unstoppable. Seeing the two arguably best offensive and defensive centers in the NBA should be a sight to behold
The Nets faced some issues last season which may be resolved this season, leading to an even tougher out for other teams. Head coach Avery Johnson was let go midway through last season, resulting in P.J. Carlesimo taking the reins. The team certainly didn’t perform any worse under his leadership, but it didn’t seem to help team chemistry or cohesion. The Nets, while a solid offensive team, lacked much of an identity and were overall a good if not great squad. Replacing rotation slots with Garnett, Pierce and Kirilenko should only add to their offensive firepower while keeping the defense even at worst. The biggest question mark is Jason Kidd, who has exactly zero professional coaching experience, but who has been surrounded by exceptional assistants.
The best option for the Rockets to beat the Nets should be to attack in their signature style. Lopez might be an offensive powerhouse, but his defense is average at best. Kevin Garnett is a brilliant defender and will be able to cover many of those weaknesses, but this is one situation where post play from Dwight Howard may be just what the doctor ordered. If defense is forced to collapse on him, Houston’s army of gunners should be able to take advantage of perimeter opportunities.The Nets still haven’t established a clear style, and that leaves the door open for Houston to try to impose their own.
The Toronto Raptors are a curious team. They lured acclaimed Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri back to a place he used to call home, effectively kicking Bryan Colangelo to the curb. Ujiri
s first order of business was to trade the seemingly untradeable Andrea Bargnani for some draft picks and inoffensive contracts, to the delight of Toronto. With recent acquisition Rudy Gay still more or less leading the team, nobody outside of the front office is quite sure what the Raptors plan on doing. They don’t seem good enough to make a meaningful playoff run, but aren’t quite bad enough to hit the top of the lottery either.
The biggest threat from Toronto is likely to be Kyle Lowry. While rumors continue to swirl around his locker room demeanor, he had a bone to pick with Houston last year and seems liable to have that same bone this time around. He’s a solid shooter, a bulldog on defense, and an aggressive ball handler. That being the case, it’s probably best to try to tempt him into bad shots or playing off the ball. Rudy Gay is a fearless shooter, but not a very efficient one. DeMar DeRozan is similarly willing to hoist the ball at any time, but shoots poorly from deep. Jonas Valanciunas has shown promise for the Raptors, but in only his second year, attacking him early is sure to be a top option. This is the first team in the division that the Rockets should expect to be able to defeat, but have enough weapons to surprise a number of teams.
The Boston Celtics are now, surely, finally blowing it all up. The “big three” era core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo had existed well past its expiration date, and the departure of Ray Allen to the Miami Heat seemed an almost certain wake up call. The Celtics pushed forward, however, succumbing to injury (Rondo) age (Garnett) and frustration (head coach Doc Rivers) before season’s end. Now the Celtics are comprised of young prospects, a few cheap veterans, and as many draft picks as they can muster.
Kris Humphries isn’t worth his $12m contract this year, but he also doesn’t deserve to lose all his minutes, as he did for stretches last year. Gerald Wallace still has gas in the tank and could be a great starter on another team. Rajon Rondo, when he returns, will resume his place as one of the best point guards in the league. Jeff Green, Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger are all still projects. Courtney Lee may be on the way out once a value deal can be found, and Jordan Crawford will continue to collect paychecks. Brad Stevens, a young college coach with no NBA experience, should have all he can handle trying to figure the team out. Luckily for them, time is on their side.
As a team apparently gunning for a top lottery spot, the Celtics look to be a beatable opponent for many if not most teams. Gerald Wallace, Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green may be able to put together some good plays on both ends of the ball, and Avery Bradley may take off this season, but the rest of the roster is bench quality or worse. The biggest concern for the Rockets this season against the Celtics will be to avoid complacency. Young, less tempered teams often let their guard down against supposedly lesser foes and find that veterans have a way of sneaking in those cracks. Avoiding foul trouble and a being surprised by a gritty team should be the main preparations against a temporarily weak Celtics team.
If the Boston Celtics are rebuilding, the Philadelphia 76ers are levelling the house and paving the earth. No team has been as open with their attempts to tank, and no team has a better shot at Andrew Wiggins. New general manager Sam Hinkie was headhunted straight out of the Rockets’ front office, and GM Daryl Morey seems to have taught him well. The Sixers traded Jrue Holiday, likely their best player (who ever suited up during the season), getting back Nerlens Noel from the New Orleans Pelicans. With one injured big man coming in, they let Andrew Bynum hobble his way out in free agency, and were glad to do it. Now, the only players left who could strike fear into other teams are Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner, either of whom might be traded for a suitably tasty deal full of future prospects.
There’s not much to say about how to beat the Sixers. If you show up and aren’t trying to tank, your squad should win. The Sixers will get a win here and there, as the players aren’t trying to lose. But Hinkie has done an excellent job of putting together a roster that would be hard-pressed to beat the second worst team in the league. There’s a very real chance the Sixers might notch single digit wins this season, and it would behoove the Rockets to avoid providing any of them. As long as Houston can avoid falling into a trap game, there should be no worry against this team.