James Harden and Dwight Howard plan on leading the Houston Rockets to a championship. Windows of opportunity in the NBA are short and brutal, unless you’re the Spurs, and the Rockets need to figure out how to win early and win often. The Rockets will need a gameplan against every team in the league just to make it to the Finals. Today we look at the competitors in the Central Division, and how the Rockets can plan for victory.
The Bulls might be the best team in the Central Division. Much as the Western Conference has a stable of five or six top teams that are hard to rank, the Eastern Conference features the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks as a clear top five. Within that group, the Bulls seem better than the Knicks, worse than the Heat, and roughly equal to the Pacers and Nets. It’s anyone’s guess as to how effective the Bulls will be at returning to form with the return of Derrick Rose, but it’s doubtful Chicago will feel vindicated with anything less than a Conference Finals appearance.
What changed for the Bulls this summer? Not very much apart from the departure of Nate Robinson. Oh, except for the return of Derrick Rose. I guess that event might be described as the most anticipated injury recovery in the NBA for the past two seasons. Yes, Rose is a huge part of their team. He played in their first preseason game and looked ready for more. Their offense should be functional again, and their defense will remain at its team-based Thibodeau-fueled heights.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau is one of the most intimidating factors about the Bulls, a defensive-minded coach who isn’t afraid to run his starters into the ground. Many people have decried the loss of Chicago’s once-formidable bench unit, but with the starting five playing so extensively, the impact of the “Bench Mob’s” decline is somewhat lessened. Last season, the Rockets were able to push the pace on the Bulls and deliver a Christmas Day beatdown that was only fun for Houston faithfuls. Houston’s offense is designed to punish traditional defenses, and to get off shots before a defense can settle in and lock down. There were questions about Houston’s pace this season, but Saturday’s preseason game made it clear that the Rockets intend to continue pushing the pace and capitalizing on fast breaks.
We know the Rockets will push the pace, but will that be enough? The rain of threes early in the shot clock will be hard for Chicago to stop completely, but Joakim Noah adds a difficult wrinkle. With Dwight Howard in the fold, it’s clear Houston is willing to go to him in the post once the defense has settled in. Unfortunately, Joakim Noah is one of the best big man defenders in the league, and he’s sure to make Dwight Howard’s life miserable. How well Howard can force double teams in the post is a major factor for Houston’s offense, and if Noah can handle Dwight with single coverage, the rest of the Rockets are in for a long night.
The Pacers might be the best team in the Central Division, too. Roy Hibbert, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West and George Hill is a tough defensive unit to say the least, and the Pacers were the best defending team in the league last year. Danny Granger is ready to play this season, and adds extra depth to the team at the very worst. Lance Stephenson has shown a willingness and ability to play well in their systems at both ends of the court, and as a sixth man he would be exceptional.
The Pacers acquired Luis Scola and Chris Copeland during the summer, two sneaky good pickups for their bench. Scola is a perfect fit in their reserve unit, allowing the power forward position to transition from David West’s deadly midrange shot to Luis Scola’s deadly midrange shot and crafty post play. Chris Copeland is a capable sophomore big who can space the floor and bring energy to the reserves. The Knicks’ decision to let him walk in the summer still remains confusing, but can only help the Pacers.
The Pacers are a scary team. They easily handled Harden’s Rockets last year, and look constructed to be one of the toughest matchups for Houston again. Paul George is a masterful perimeter defender, and if he can keep goading Harden into playing iso ball, will be able to badly disrupt Houston’s system. Roy Hibbert has the height, size and skills to defend any big man in the league, including Dwight Howard. We’ve seen that Howard gets frustrated by overly physical defense, and Hibbert won’t hesitate to deploy anything he can to frustrate Dwight. While Danny Granger’s stock has fallen precipitously in recent years, he still has to be favored in a matchup between himself and Chandler Parsons, who displays a similar skill set.
The Pacers’ defense is one matter, but the fact that they seem to be developing a competent offense is equally terrifying. The Pacers are increasingly willing to shoot three pointers, and it carried them to the Conference Finals. Hibbert is a solid post option, and George Hill is a capable distributor. Hill might not be a flashy point guard, but he maintains an even keel and seldom makes stupid errors. A showdown between these teams may simply come down to which team can hit their open shots better, which may somehow favor the Pacers. West and Scola are happy to shoot long two pointers, a shot which Houston is wary of themselves and may be too prone to give up to other teams. Expect these games to be close and physical no matter what the outcome.
Continuing a theme, the Pistons look like they will be a defensively competent team with some real questions on the offensive side of the ball. We know that Andre Drummond and Josh Smith can and will play solid defense, and that Chauncey Billups will provide a stabilizing influence. What we don’t know is how Brandon Jennings will do, or is Greg Monroe can continue improving his game. There are a lot of question marks for the new look Pistons, a team which might just end up being a League Pass favorite.
The Pistons made some moves in the summer. Josh Smith signed a contract in free agency, Brandon Jennings was acquired in a sign and trade for Brandon Knight, and Chauncey Billups returned to the team he won a championship with. All three players are expected to start, which raises an interesting question. Are Drummond, Monroe and Smith all going to play at the same time?
The answer seems to be yes, and that presents an interesting opportunity for Houston. Smith can play as a wing, and can defend well in that position, but this lets the Rockets counter big with small. A lineup of Howard, Parsons, Harden, Lin and Beverley would be able to run circles around the Pistons’ bigs, and would be able to retreat off the perimeter with aplomb on defense. Billups and Jennings are the only starters who would present a credible threat from distance, and letting Josh Smith hike up long twos is a tried and true way to beat his teams. With more questions than answers, it’s hard to know what to expect from Detroit, but it’s also hard to expect a lot of wins.
The Cavaliers have a rising star in Kyrie Irving, and now have a decent roster to surround him. Anderson Varejao is great when healthy, and hopefully will recover from his blood clot soon. Dion Waiters is in his second season and shows improvement. Andrew Bynum on a two year contract with only $6m guaranteed is a calculated risk with potentially great rewards. The Cavs might challenge for a playoff berth this season if everything goes right, and that’s better than they’ve looked in years.
The selection of Anthony Bennett first overall was a surprise in the 2013 NBA Draft, but in a relatively weak draft, the Cavaliers may not have hurt themselves. Picking up Bynum will either turn out to be a huge steal or a move of no consequence, and the rest of their team is very young except for Varejao. The Cavs are now focusing on growth and development, something which should be heartening for Cleveland fans.
There are, of course, weaknesses in the Cavs team. Kyrie Irving is increasingly dynamic, skilled and unstoppable, but the rest of the team isn’t as intimidating. Nobody knows when or even if Bynum will play basketball again. Varejao is on the wrong side of 30, and is in recovery from a life-threatening blood clot. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters still haven’t justified their draft rank, and Bennett is an even bigger question mark. Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee are competing for starting privileges at the three, and to be honest both deserve to come off the bench. Irving will tear into the Rockets’ defenses, but the rest of the team should be a paltry match on talent level alone. If Bynum and Varejao are healthy, the Cavs may pose a threat, but as it is the Rockets seem unlikely to drop games to Cleveland
What are the Bucks doing? They’re certainly changing everything up, from their roster to their coaching. We don’t know what the endgame is, though, and we probably won’t until after this season. The Bucks lost both Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis in free agency, making their team even more forward-heavy. John Henson and Larry Sanders are still solid players with bright futures, but now have O.J. Mayo and Luke Ridnour at the perimeter. Caron Butler made his way back to his home state, and Carlos Delfino left the Rockets to rejoin the Bucks. Add in Ekpe Udoh, Zaza Pachulia, Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Knight, and you have a team that seems pulled out of the clearance bin at a sporting goods store. None of those players are bad, and all of them are underappreciated, but it’s unclear exactly how the Bucks make sense as a team and not as a placeholder.
If the Bucks are indeed throwing caution to the wind, they may be an easy out for most teams, but a surprising challenge from time to time. Mayo, Butler and Delfino are all happy to let fly with shots, and if they can find openings they can hurt any team. Ilyasova is a capable shooter and solid big, while Sanders seems to be a high-octane engine designed only for blocks. Ridnour is as staid a point guard as you can find, and has the bag of tricks you pick up after years of experience. He’ll give Lin some trouble, but ultimately the Rockets are better at every position except the four. As long as someone remembers to keep a hand in Ilyasova’s face and the Rockets don’t forget to guard the perimeter completely, the Bucks are among the easier games of the season.