Playoff Result: Lost in First Round
Key Additions: Reggie Williams (free agent), Omri Casspi (free agent)) – oh and that Dwight Howard guy.
Key Losses: Carlos Delfino (free agent), Thomas Robinson (trade)
Projected 2013-14 Record: 52-30 (5th in West)*
What to Expect: Here’s the thing with Houston. Last year they were exceptional on offense with a very efficiency-driven approach. That meant a lot of threes and a lot of free throws. The flip side was that they were “meh” defensively with the team relying on Omer Asik in his first year as a starter and defensive anchor and Carlos Delfino who was 31. What changed? Well, they got Dwight freakin’ Howard.
Now immediately you think Dwight Howard, top echelon center, on top of this young and prolific core of James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley/Jeremy Lin means a cemented spot among the top teams in the Western Conference.
Yes, and no.
The Rockets’ biggest issue was their defense, and nabbing Howard to take Asik’s spot wasn’t a huge upgrade. Howard is obviously better at that end, but questions remain about his health with the back problem that seemingly has been bothersome for over a year. Not to mention that Houston really has little help defensively for Dwight, losing Delfino and quite possibly starting Lin over the defensive spark-plug Beverley this year. One could say starting Asik with Howard would alleviate these concerns, and that’s true, but they’d just bring up spacing ones on the other end. Obviously, Howard is a major upgrade over Asik in terms of offense.
Other than this, generally the team is the same. James Harden will likely continue to be James Harden, splitting pick and roll traps and euro-stepping his way to another 25 PPG year while subtracting from the team’s efforts on defense. If the latter can be turned around to the surprise of many, this team would benefit remarkably.
The Rockets added some of my favorite commonly unheralded wings in the league in Casspi, Williams and Brewer (I’m weird, I know), and re-signed a very helpful role player from last season – Francisco Garcia. They also drafted guard Isaiah Canaan, but he’ll likely rarely see the court with Lin and Beverley at the helm.
Expect threes, wins, but a team that – at least in my book – won’t make it to the NBA Finals as the roster stands with it’s defensive concerns and Western Conference competition.
Matchup with the Hawks: The Hawks went 0-2 last year to the Rockets:
1. When Atlanta had a premier perimeter defender in Josh Smith
2. Before Houston got Dwight Howard
Probably safe to say the Hawks are going to be in for a fight against Houston this year.
Howard brings a much more potent low-post game than Asik did, and his primary defender will likely be Al Horford or Elton Brand throughout the way. Atlanta can’t afford to double or triple Howard down low with the shooter surrounding him in Harden and Parsons, meaning either Horford or Brand will have to have the best defensive games of their lives.
Let’s not forget James Harden, who punished the Hawks for 45 points in their season and home opener last year. Where once upon a time putting Josh Smith on the slithering, sizzling, southpaw was a viable option – Atlanta doesn’t have a go-to guy for guarding perimeter scoring threats as elite as Harden. Depending on who Houston plays alongside Howard, Harden, Beverley/Lin and Parsons, the Hawks could be out of these games defensively based on talent strength alone.
Offensively, the Hawks do have a good amount of things going for them. For one, they have two dynamic big men on the offensive end to compete with Dwight’s lonely interior defense. If Horford and Millsap can unleash a Duncan and Splitter-esque ball movement attack, Atlanta can come away with some easy points. Even on their own, one will be matched up with Howard but the other with a much more vulnerable defender when both can score the basketball by their own means.
Secondly, the Rockets play at a pace the Hawks will be comfortable in this year. Whereas last season when Atlanta was in the middle of the pack of the league in pace, coach Budenholzer is expected to install a high-tempo offense this year. In the Hawks favor lies Al Horford, arguably the best big in the business at running the break and finding either an open shot (Dwight can’t do that) or an alley-oop flush.
One concern for me is Jeff Teague, who will be much more responsible for commanding this team’s offense than ever before. After a bit of digging, I discovered that Teague has played just a single career game against Dwight Howard in which he was on the floor for at least 30 minutes. This lack of experience against Dwight could mean a lot of things. In that one game Teague was 6-11 from the field for 13 points, so perhaps confidence? Or could it be nervousness? We’ll have to wait and see.
Do these glimmers of hope mean we can expect the Hawks can pull through with a win or two? No, probably not. The talent scale is about to topple over. A revenge-propelled surge of basketball excellence out of Atlanta would be nice in response to Howard joining the Rockets over his hometown, but basketball usually outweighs a great narrative. Atlanta should be content with simply taking a single victory here.