The Houston Rockets are new and exciting. Hopes and dreams have given way to reality and responsibility, and now the new look Rockets have to go about the business of playing basketball. With James Harden and Dwight Howard leading the team, the Rockets are now expected to be able to keep up with any team in the league. Today we’ll look at the teams in the Pacific division and how the Rockets can plan for victory.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers have effectively cemented their place at the top of the Pacific Division. The Clippers sailed their way to 56 wins and the 4th seed in the Western Conference, but lost out in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies, who tied their record. Chris Paul is still the best point guard in the League, Blake Griffin for all his skill still has piles of potential, a promising center in DeAndre Jordan and an increasingly deadly arsenal of shooters. The Clippers are a not only a playoff lock this season, but look to stay in the top four teams in the west. After the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Clippers can be expected to be the next biggest challenge for Houston in the west.
Last year’s matchups weren’t exactly a walk in the park for Houston. To be specific, the first two were ugly losses, but the last one did, in fact, resemble a walk in the park. Los Angeles looked mighty coming out of the gates, but became an easier target midway through season, including their February loss to Houston. Various factors have been cited, some more plausible than others. The most likely explanation is that other teams simply figured out how to defend them effectively, and the team wasn’t ready to make changes on the fly which would put them back in a position to win. With head coach Vinnie del Negro replaced by Celtics great Doc Rivers, the coaching will surely improve. The Clippers also added talent such as J.J. Redick on the wings, moving them further into the realm of three point threat teams.
What beat the Clippers last year is liable to beat them again this year. As the season progressed, many teams decided to prioritize keeping the ball out of Chris Paul’s hands. That was especially effective last year when the team had less shooting prowess in aggregate. This season, the addition of a few pressure valves on offense should help them stay aloft, and they’ll easily top fifty wins again. The Rockets have to believe in their defense, preferably after building up their defense, and do everything they can to be killed by anyone except Chris Paul. Without his shot creation, the Clippers will largely rely on jumpshooting, something which the Rockets will have to prioritize. On the other side, the Clippers are if anything worse than last year inside. Jordan has the tools to become a great defensive big man, but so far has gotten by on his athleticism and shot blocking. Dwight Howard is, quite simply, better than Jordan at his own game and that’s a matchup the Rockets will be able to lean on. The Rockets won’t be able to sweep this season series, but they can reasonably hope to split the four games.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Clippers’ big brother has fallen on hard times. The Los Angeles Lakers remain one of the most relevant teams in the league, and Kobe Bryant is still one of the best players in history. Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are still great players, and the three of them still have the potential to be imposing. That’s the good news. The bad news is that everything else that could go wrong is going wrong. Kobe is still recovering from his achilles rupture, and his return date is completely unknown. Nash and Gasol are aging rapidly and have been battling nagging injuries. With Metta World Peace amnestied, the rest of the roster is underwhelming. Nick Young may be their best player outside of the aforementioned three, which is nothing short of astounding. The Lakers still could find a formula which works, though, even though many are writing them off. If Dwight had never been on the Lakers at all, if last year was stricken from our collective memories, this team would look ready to make the playoffs and maybe make some noise.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, last year did, in fact, happen. Ever since their last championship, the Lakers have been defeated by the eventual Western Conference champion in the last three playoffs. The Lakers were swept by the Spurs last season, though they did so without the services of Kobe Bryant. Given how poor the defense was and how uncoordinated the players seemed, it’s unlikely his inclusion would have stopped Tim Duncan from trolling Dwight Howard and the Lakers. The Lakers looked bad as far back as preseason exhibition, which split viewers down the middle. Half decried the end of the Lakers, while the other half called for patience. In the end, cooler heads proved incorrect, and the Lakers remained a mess all year. This year might be different, but expectations have been changed in a big way.
This year, the Rockets are the better team. For the first time in a very, very long time, The Houston Rockets will be the favorites in every game they play against the Los Angeles Lakers. Oh, and the Rockets poached an all-star Center from the Lakers. The biggest danger for the Rockets is also the biggest danger for the Lakers. Both teams have something to prove. Kobe, should be be on the court, has a large degree of face to save. As good or bad as Howard may have been for Los Angeles, losing a player of his caliber is a slap to the face. At the same time, Dwight himself will almost assuredly be seeking his own vindication. In the eventual Kobe vs Dwight grudge match, the proof will be in the other players. Nash and Gasol remain two of the cagiest vets in the league, but Houston sports a roster full of young, skilled players. James Harden is at worst the third best shooting guard in the league, and Kobe increasingly finds himself on the wrong side of that player comparison. It won’t be a walk in the park, but Houston simply needs to play hard and play their game. The Lakers won’t make the wins easy, but those are wins that are in Houston’s grasp.
Golden State Warriors
Real NBA rivalries are a precious thing. There aren’t many left in the league, especially not ones that the players dive into whole-heartedly. The Knicks-Nets rivalry in New York is more publicity than substance, a rivalry in which players needle each other on camera and go to parties together in private. The Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, however, seem to genuinely dislike each other. The Rockets may have upgraded since the birth of this new rivalry, but the Warriors have made their own improvements as well. Andre Iguodala joined forces with an already forceful Warriors squad to shore up perimeter defense and act as another leader on the floor. With Stephen Curry metamorphosing from a sniper into some kind of pinpoint accurate orbital death ray from behind the arc, the Warriors are a playoff lock and in most years would easily win their division. The Clippers will likely pull that rug out from under them, but a 4-5 matchup in the first round between the Warriors and the Rockets seems extremely likely at this juncture, and something that the Rockets should dread but that viewers would love.
This new rivalry began with the first showdown between these two teams, a showdown in which the Rockets buried the Warriors under a historic barrage of threes. After number 23 went down, Warriors head coach Mark Jackson decided to turn the firehose on Houston’s aspirations and began to intentionally foul the Rockets in order to prevent the fateful 24th three pointer in the game. The effort was ultimately successful and prevented the Rockets from becoming the sole owners of the record for most made threes in one regular season game. The Warriors may have spared themselves from being on the wrong side of history, but in doing so contributed to a brutal rivalry which saw the Warriors eventually eke out the Rockets for the sixth seed. The Warriors won the last of the four matchups, but the Rockets won all the previous three in convincing fashion.
The best way to beat the Warriors seems to be at their own game. When the Rockets mercilessly rained down threes and attacked the basket and left defense to take care of itself, they were successful. The worry here is that Curry has since undergone a striking transformation into one of the most deadly assassins in the league. Iguodala is also sure to be glued to Harden’s beard, something which was disastrous for Harden last season. Bogut and Howard are both defensive minded centers who can finish at the rim, and Parsons is likely to be in a similar role to Iguodala. If any team is a mirror match for Houston, it’s Golden State. On paper, Dwight is a bigger addition than Iguodala, but in reality, the story may be different. Winning two out of three games against this team is going to be absolutely mission critical, and the way to do it will be to win the mirror match. Jackson is a smart and savvy coach who will rightly stop at nothing for his team, and head coach Kevin McHale will have to do the same. Expect scrappy play, trigger happy gunners and battles down low in these games, and for Jeremy Lin to play his best against his first NBA team.
The Sacramento Kings were one of the biggest stories in the NBA last year, and not because of their play. An ownership group in Seattle did their best to acquire the team from the Maloof family, and seemed all but certain to buy the team and move it to Seattle to become the new zombie Sonics. For reasons that are still being debated, the NBA board of owners recommended against relocation, and a local ownership group acquired the team instead. Free of the almost universally hated Maloof brothers, the Kings are once again trying to right the ship and make sense of a truly bizarre roster. After being one of the most important and successful teams in the early 2000s, the Kings seems still mired in mediocrity.
Last season was not kind to the Kings. They won a mere 28 games and seem no closer to figuring out the riddle of DeMarcus Cousins. They beat the Rockets in a February barn burner, but were soundly thumped by Houston in the remaining two showdowns. They may have moved difficult-to-manage Tyreke Evans and picked up the easygoing and much improved Greivis Vasquez, but still seem little prepared for a brutal Western Conference.
The Kings remain in a similar category to last year. The teams who fancy themselves elite will look at the Kings as a must-win game, something which the Kings seem to be aware of and unhappy about. The Kings are liable to put up a good fight against any team in the league, but ultimately aren’t far enough along in their development to really challenge for a top spot. They may also be too far in their development to really slide down to the head of the tanking movement. The Kings should have a fairly effective offense, especially with willing shooters like Jimmer Fredette. Unfortunately, their defense is a bit shakier, meaning that the Rockets will want to attack the basket, hoist up shots and otherwise make them pay for being relatively inexperienced. Patrick Patterson may prove problematic with his knowledge of the Rockets’ system, but similarly the Rockets should know how to deal with him. The Kings losing this season series isn’t guaranteed, but it’s very likely.
The Suns are tanking. There’s little more to the story, here. Eric Bledsoe is a good get amd will have a bright future. The Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus, show promise but still aren’t there yet. Goran Dragic is a solid point guard but doesn’t look the same on his own as he did as a backup. The Suns are the safest choice for the bottom of the west, and it’s primarily by design.
The Suns, somehow, gave the Rockets a lot of trouble last season. Despite being favored to sweep the season series, the Rockets lost the first and last games in frustrating affairs, and won one of the four on a strange and fortuitous series of events, including a basket interference call on Jermaine O’Neal.
The trick, this season, seems to be to not meet the Suns on the road on the second night of a back to back. Both losses came in that situation, and the good news is that Houston won’t be in that situation against the Suns this year. Dragic and Marcus Morris will surely try for revenge, but the Rockets should be able to take care of business as long as they don’t assume business will take care of itself. Bledsoe will try to use his impressive athleticism against Houston, but Dwight Howard should prove an able stopper at the rim. If Houston doesn’t sweep this series, something’s wrong.