The NBA season is nearly here. Exhibition games start in a mere eight days. The Houston Rockets held their media day today, in preparation for training camp to begin. Now that the Rockets have two superstars on the roster, Houston has to prove that James Harden, Dwight Howard and the team assembled around them can compete for a championship. To beat every team, Houston has to beat each team, and today we’ll look at how they can attack the Southeast Division.
Here’s a shocker: the defending NBA champions present the greatest challenge in the Southeast Division. The Heat sport the best basketball player in the league and probably on the planet. The Heat have also been to the finals every year since he arrived, and have won the last two championships. Of course, LeBron James isn’t their only weapon. The Heat are still Dwyane Wade’s team in a lot of ways, and Wade is still one of the elite players at his position, even with his injury problems last season. Chris Bosh headed to South Beach as well, filling out a truly mighty big three. With a group of veteran role players filling out the roster, the Heat are willing and able to win any given game against any given team.
The off-season for the Heat was largely unremarkable. Chris Andersen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Norris Cole and Udonis Haslem all stayed with the team. Only Mike Miller moved on, leaving for the Memphis Grizzlies in free agency. Battier had already largely supplanted Miller’s role, however, making this departure easy to stomach. On the other hand, the Heat picked up two low-risk players in Greg Oden and MIchael Beasley. Oden is making his return after being out of the league due to recurring knee injury. Oden’s star level potential was perennially quashed by his ongoing battle with injury, and the Heat offer him an opportunity to contribute without being under external pressure to do so. Michael Beasley, for his part, is returning to his original NBA team after being summarily dropped by the Minnesota TImberwolves and the Phoenix Suns. Expecting much from either player seems hopeful at this time, but neither addition seems likely to harm the team.
The good news for Houston is that James Harden is on the rise while Dwyane Wade is declining. The bad news for Houston is that the Rockets haven’t won even a single game against Miami since LeBron James signed on. The first two years of Miami’s “big three” era came against a Rockets team that barely resembles today’s squad, but last season saw a Rockets team that features most of the same players. The upside is that both games were close, and the Rockets are expected to be far better this year, given the inclusion of Dwight Howard. The Heat, however, are still likely to beat the Rockets in every game. Both games last season featured a sleepy start from LeBron James and a powerful finish to knock off Harden’s Rockets. A motivated Heat team is nearly unbeatable due to the level of sheer talent involved, and the Rockets have painted a giant red crosshairs on their backs this year. To beat a motivated LeBron, Wade and Bosh, The Rockets will have to pull heroic effort from their own stars.
If Bosh continues to play center, Dwight will have his hands full with one of the craftiest big men scorers in the league. Bosh’s combination of skills is often underrated, but he remains a deadly midrange shooter, willing three point shooter (if not exactly good) and a very capable post player. Dwight Howard should be favored in that matchup, but Bosh pulling Howard away from the rim is the nightmare scenario. Leaving the paint uncontested would put Houston’s wing defenders on an island against two of the best drivers in the league. LeBron, when he decides to utilize all his skills, is unstoppable from anywhere, meaning that Chandler Parsons and possibly Francisco Garcia would be left having to hope for the best. Most likely this would mean giving him space in midrange in order to try to prevent the drive, a strategy that the Spurs used happily in the Finals. It worked for a few games until LeBron decided to bury them under an avalanche of jumpers. Meanwhile, this leaves James Harden on Dwyane Wade, a defensive matchup that can’t possibly end well. The Heat would then fill out their lineup with Chalmers, Allen and Battier, spacing the defense with deadly three point threats and preventing Houston from going big in return. In this case, Houston has to either double down on defense with Ömer Aşık and Dwight Howard patrolling the paint together, or double down on offense and try to bury the Heat right back. Bosh is a capable defender, but Howard is one of the most athletic and deadly pick and roll finishers in the league. Harden can’t guard Wade, but Wade can’t guard Harden very well either. The Rockets have their own three point shooters to pile onto the court, making this almost a mirror match. How well the Rockets can cope with small ball strategies is going to determine how well they can defend the Heat, and their defense is going to decide how these games turn out and these games should prove to be yardposts for a team looking to improve to championship status.
The Atlanta Heat look different. Danny Ferry has cleaned house in the past two years, unloading a problematic Joe Johnson contract on the Brooklyn Nets and letting Josh Smith leave in free agency this summer. Al Horford and Paul Millsap make up their starting frontcourt, a pair of underrated and deadly players. Lou Williams will likely start at shooting guard now instead of coming off the bench, a promotion he’s deserved for some time. Jeff Teague still shows piles of promise, has been given to the keys to the offense. Elton Brand, Kyle Korver and Gustavo Ayon make up the rest of the highlights of the roster, which is both good and bad. The Hawks look ready to fight for a playoff spot in the relatively weak east, but look unlikely to make it any higher than sixth at best.
The inclusion of Paul Millsap this summer was a huge get for Atlanta, who now have cap flexibility and potential going forward. The loss of Josh Smith stings for Atlanta, but the reloading effort takes precedence over a player who quite frankly has shown spotty decision making skills. Teague continues to be a tantalizing long-term option for Atlanta, and Korver’s defense isn’t nearly as bad as it’s made out to be. Atlanta will be interesting to watch going forward.
Beating the Hawks will largely be a matter of containing their shooters. Korver is deadly from three, and the entire rotation of Horford, Millsap and Brand are happy to let loose from midrange. As long as the Rockets don’t stray from their marks or get lost on the pick and roll, Houston should be able to keep hands in faces. Teague should prove an interesting matchup for Jeremy Lin, as both point guards love to attack the basket, and both have similar roles to grow into.
Are the Washington Wizards a playoff team? This is the pressing question for Washington this season, a team which seems to be on the correct side of a rebuild. The Wizards suffered at the hands of injuries last season, and are hoping to avoid the same fate this year. Unfortunately, Emeka Okafor herniated a disc in his neck and Chris Singleton broke a bone in his left foot. Both players will miss at least the next 6 weeks, and their loss will hurt the Wizards’ chances.
The biggest move the Wizards made in the off season was the addition of Eric Maynor, a backup point guard who should be able to lighten John Wall’s load somewhat. The Wizards’ hopes lie in the combination of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Nene, all of whom are capable players when healthy. Wall still has star potential, Beal’s ceiling is still unknown, and Nene is one of the more dependable big men in the league as long as his health holds. Unfortunately, health doesn’t seem to be Washington’s strong suit lately.
The Rockets had trouble with the Wizards last season, splitting the season series with two tight games. Washington actually has a solid defense, including players such as Trevor Ariza. Ariza remains a solid defensive player, even if his offensive game seems to be stagnating. Without point guard John Wall much of last season, the Wizards relied on their defense to win games, and it only worked part of the time. Without Okafor, the defense will suffer, but Wall will make the offense functional, at the least. The Wizards should be able to provide a challenge for the Rockets, but a split season series would be a disappointment for Houston.
The last season of the Charlotte Bobcats looks to be another painful one. They might be among the bottom of the pile in the NBA, but at least their nickname change to the Charlotte Hornets has already been submitted. The addition of Al Jefferson comes at a hefty price tag, but cap space is not an issue for this team. The Bobcats have had two historically weak seasons, which seems to be part of general manager Rich Cho’s plan. Al Jefferson might be a strong post player and a real veteran, but the rest of the roster has a lot of experience to gain. This team will probably be better than last year, but they’re still destined for the lottery.
Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller all show promise for the Bobcats, but none of them are good NBA players yet. Bismack Biyombo remains a fan favorite, but has yet to match his hype with his play. The Bobcats also feature players such as Gerald Henderson, Ramon Sessions and Josh McRoberts. All of these players are in the NBA. The talent differential between the Bobcats and the Rockets is stark at the least, and insurmountable in all likelihood. The biggest threat the Bobcats can bring is to surprise the Rockets while their guard is down. Any team can sneak up on you, and Jefferson in particular may have something to prove. As long as the Rockets also have something to prove, as they will on the first game of the season, Houston should be able to take these games.
The Orlando Magic still don’t have Dwight Howard. The Orlando Magic used to have Dwight Howard, but now the Houston Rockets have Dwight Howard. The Orlando Magic have Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis, Tobias Harris, Jameer Nelson and Nikola Vucevic. The Orlando Magic also have something to prove against whatever team features Dwight Howard. The Houston Rockets have Dwight Howard, who has something to prove against the Orlando Magic. The Houston Rockets also have James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Ömer Aşık and Chandler Parsons. The Houston Rockets and the Orlando Magic will both play hard in the games in which they meet. The Houston Rockets have a better roster than the Orlando Magic and will almost surely win those games.