Will the combination of Chris Paul and James Harden be able to lead the Houston Rockets to an NBA Championship?
It’s still early in the NBA season, but that doesn’t mean we cannot begin to look at who’ll take home some hardware in the spring as the league’s MVP. And although that Christmas has not yet arrived, here are some players that are right now a cut above the rest.
DeMar DeRozan-Shooting Guard-Toronto Raptors
Since the Toronto Raptors made shooting guard DeMar Derozan the ninth overall selection of the NBA Draft in 2009, he has been a work in progress. As a rookie, DeRozan averaged 8.6 points per contest, but he would make a huge leap in his second season as he netted 17.2 points per game. And by 2014, DeRozan had elevated his game to that of an NBA All-Star.
Last season saw DeRozan help the Raptors make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, and he’s doing his part to help Toronto take that next step in order to win an NBA Championship.
This season DeRozan is averaging 28 points per game, which has included a pair of 40-point performances. In all but three games this season DeRozan has scored at least 21 points as he is the focal point of the Raptors offense.
DeRozan deserves a ton of credit as after signing a five-year, $139 million extension to remain in Toronto over the summer, his production has increased which goes against the norm as athletes tend to regress after agreeing to a mega deal. But DeRozan is mentally tough and as he has the Raptors poised to make a title run, he cannot be overlooked in regards to being the NBA’s MVP.
LeBron James-Small Forward-Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James falls into that rare air. James has been one of the best players in the NBA since he first came on to the scene in 2003 which is evident by him being a four-time NBA MVP. James is always in the discussion to be the NBA’s MVP, and although that he’s only averaging 23.9 points so far this season, he is averaging 9.1 assists, and 7.6 rebounds per contest as he is still the game’s best all-around player.
Russell Westbrook-Point Guard-Oklahoma City Thunder
Since Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook made his NBA debut in 2008, he has been one of the league’s most explosive players. Westbrook is a five-time NBA All-Star in spite of the fact that he has spent his entire professional career playing out of position as he was always a shooting guard prior to joining the Thunder.
I expected Westbrook to have an increased role in the Thunder’s offense after small forward Kevin Durant left last summer in free agency and he has lived up to the expectations and then some.
In Westbrook’s first game this season, he dropped 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists on the Philadelphia 76ers. Westbrook follwed this up by torching the Phoenix Suns in the second game of the season for 51 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.
For the season Westbrook has 11 triple-doubles to his credit which includes recording one in his each of his last six games. Westbrook is currently averaging 31 points, 11.3 assists, and 10.9 rebounds as he is seeking to become the first player in the NBA to average a triple-double for an entire season since Oscar Robertson in 1962. And if Westbrook is able to pull off that feat, he should receive very strong consideration to be the NBA’s MVP.
Kevin Durant-Small Forward-Golden State Warriors
Small forward Kevin Durant shocked many people last summer when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder as a free agent to join the Golden State Warriors. And when Durant joined the Warriors, it was going to be interesting to see how he would play alongside point guard Steph Curry and shooting guard Klay Thompson who are two of the premier scorers in the NBA.
But so far Durant hasn’t skipped a beat with his new team as he is averaging 26.5 points, 4.8 assists, and 8.4 rebounds which are a career-high. Durant has been consistent for the Warriors as he has scored at least 20 points in every contest in all but two for the Warriors. And as the Warriors once again find themselves in the title hunt, Durant’s contributions cannot be overlooked.
James Harden-Point Guard-Houston Rockets
Before this NBA season began, new Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni announced that he would be shifting James Harden from shooting guard to point guard. And whereas people such as myself laughed at the notion, D’Antoni has been right on so far.
Harden has still maintained his status as one of the better scorers in the NBA as he is averaging 28.5 points per game. But the amazing feat is that Harden has done this while he is leading the league in assists at 11.4 per contest. Harden has four triple-doubles on the season. And in those contests the Rockets are 3-1 which includes victories over the San Antonio Spurs, along with the Golden State Warriors.
D’Antoni has maximized the ability of Harden which is leading to victories for the Rockets and the elevation of the all-around game of one of the best players in the NBA.
Anthony Davis-Power Forward-New Orleans Pelicans
Being that the New Orleans Pelicans are not one of the better teams in the NBA, the exploits of power forward Anthony Davis could go unnoticed to the casual fan. Davis was the first overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft by the then New Orleans Hornets, and he has been as good as advertised. Davis is a budding superstar which began to recognized as he was named to his first All-Star team in 2014. That season Davis averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks as he helped the Pelicans reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Injuries limited Davis to just 61 games last season, but this time around he is currently averaging 31.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks.
On the season Davis has 10 games in which has delivered at least 30 points and 10 rebounds which was highlighted by going for 50 points and 15 rebounds in an opening night loss to the Denver Nuggets, along with a 41-point, 16-rebound barrage last Tuesday in a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Pelicans don’t have a good team around Davis which will hinder his chances as far as making the postseason goes, but what he is currently doing the season cannot be discredited.
It’s no secret that Houston Rockets point guard James Harden is one of the better scorers in the NBA. In Harden’s four-plus seasons with the Rockets, he has averaged 27 points per game, but what about his ability as a passer? Last year Harden averaged 7.5 assists per game which was sixth in the NBA, however this season he is as deadly as a passer as he is as a scorer.
When Mike D’Antoni was hired over the summer to be the Rockets new head coach, he turned some heads when he talked about moving Harden from shooting guard to point guard. However D’Antoni has been right on with his decision this season.
Through 15 games this season Harden is averaging 12.5 assists per contest which is by far tops in the NBA. And Harden has done this while he has also managed to average 28.7 points per game. So far this season the Rockets are 9-6 as they are seeking to get to the postseason after missing out on it last spring, and you have to wonder how far that this brand of basketball can take them?
The Rockets aren’t D’Antoni’s first time around in the NBA as he’s also been the head coach of the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, and Los Angeles Lakers. D’Antoni has always been known for the wide open, fun and gun brand of basketball which produces a litany of points. D’Antoni’s best run in the NBA came as the head coach of the Suns as he led them to a pair of appearances in the Western Conference Finals and his time in Phoenix was predicated by point guard Steve Nash who was a two-time NBA MVP under D’Antoni. D’Antoni has had other star players under his guidance which included small forward Carmelo Anthony, and shooting guard Kobe Bryant with the Lakers. But with Anthony, D’Antoni had a player that wasn’t on the same page with him system, and the same could be said in regards to Bryant who was also in the twilight of his career. However things are different with Harden.
At 27-years of age, Harden is in the prime of his career, and it hasn’t taken him and D’Antoni that long to click. Last year saw the Rockets concentrate more on isolation ball with Harden being the focal point, and at times Houston was playing one-on-five on offense. But under D’Antoni, ball movement has been the theme for the Rockets and everyone has been benefiting from it. The Rockets consistently find the open man of offense, while allowing Harden to maintain his status as one of the better scorers in the NBA.
In the Rockets season opening loss to the Lakers, Harden went for 34 points, 17 assists, and 7 rebounds. And in 9 of the Rockets 12 games, Harden has recorded at least 12 assists, while he had a 24-point, 15-assist, 12-rebound performance on November 9 in a victory over the San Antonio Spurs, and a 26-point, 14-assist, 12-rebound performance in last Thursday night’s 126-109 victory over the Portland Trailblazers which was his third triple-double of the season.
In the early stages of this NBA season there have been several players that have stuck out because of their extraordinary performances, and Harden finds himself right in the middle of the group. And if Harden can keep up the pace that he is currently on, the NBA’s MVP Award that has eluded for the past couple of years could finally be his as it is indeed a rarity to be a quality passer and scorer.
X-San Antonio Spurs 63-19 (2)
Last season saw the San Antonio Spurs win 67 games, but they were a team that most people were not talking about since the Golden State Warriors set an NBA single-season record for victories with 73. The Spurs were poised for another title run until they ran into the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals who knocked them out in six games. The loss to the Thunder signaled the end for power forward Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs. For the last 19 seasons Duncan has been the face on Spurs franchise. With Duncan leading the way, the Spurs never missed the playoffs en route to winning five NBA Championships. But under the guidance of head coach Gregg Popovich, don’t expect the Spurs to slow down now that Duncan has retired.
In order to attempt to replace Duncan, the Spurs signed free agent center Pau Gasol. In 15 NBA seasons Gasol has averaged 18.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists as his skill set is an ideal fit for the Spurs system. Gasol is also a two-time NBA Champion and his leadership and knowledge of the game will be welcomed with open arms in San Antonio.
Gasol will team in the Spurs starting front court with small forward Kawhi Leonard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to give San Antonio one of the toughest trios in the NBA to match up against. In each of Leonard’s five seasons with the Spurs, his numbers have improved and he is becoming one of the best two-way players in the league. Last year Leonard averaged 21.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.8 steals as he finished second in the NBA’s MVP voting. Leonard should once again be a force to be reckoned with this time around. As for Aldridge, his numbers were slightly down in his first year with the Spurs which was the result of the constant ball movement that is orchestrated in San Antonio. However you can pencil in Aldridge for another All-Star caliber season, and he should also benefit from playing alongside Gasol who is one of the better passing big men in the NBA.
Veteran point guard Tony Parker has seen his fair share of the NBA’s grind as he is set to begin his 15th season with the Spurs. And even at the age of 34, Parker isn’t showing any signs of slowing down as he is still one of better guards in the NBA when it comes to penetration. Veteran shooting guard Manu Ginobili is 39-years of age, but he will still be a vital member coming off of the bench for San Antonio, while shooting guard Danny Green is looking to bounce back after a subpar campaign last season from downtown. Power forward David Lee is set to begin his first season with the Spurs, and as he has averaged 14.2 points, along with 9.2 rebounds during his 11-year NBA career, he will be a valuable player coming off of the bench for the Spurs.
The Spurs are one of the most complete teams in the NBA, and being that they are led by Popovich, I don’t expect this team to take their eyes off of the prize as they will once again be a very formidable team when the playoffs roll around.
Y-Dallas Mavericks 49-33 (6)
The past five years have been a rough go at it for the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks do have four playoff appearances over that stretch, but they’ve been unable to advance past the first round of the NBA Playoffs. After winning the NBA Championship in 2011, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been hell bent on getting back to the promised land. And after Cuban and the Mavs were spurned several times recently in free agency, they could be ready to re-emerge as a contender in the Western Conference.
Power forward Dirk Nowitzki is set to begin his 19th season with the Mavericks and he is still playing at a quality level. Nowitzki averaged 18.3 points per contest last season and you can expect another quality campaign from him due to the talent that has been assembled around him.
In four seasons with the Golden State Warriors, small forward Harrison Barnes saw his points per game average increase, but he was still under utilized. With the Warriors, Barnes took a backseat to shooting guard Klay Thompson and point guard Steph Curry. But after the Warriors signed small forward Kevin Durant over the summer, Barnes became an afterthought there. And once Barnes hit free agency, the Mavs welcomed him with open arms to the tune of $94 million dollars over the next four years. Barnes will definitely see more shots per game and he should be able to average at least 16 points per game in Dallas.
The Mavericks also landed another player formerly with the Warriors in center Andrew Bogut. The Mavericks acquired Bogut from the Warriors over the summer, and like Barnes, he saw a dip in his production there. Bogut won’t look to be a scorer in Dallas, but what you can expect from him is a solid rebounder, while he is also a quality facilitator from the center position.
The summer of 2015 saw the Mavericks sign shooting guard Wesley Matthews, but he spent his first season in Dallas attempting to get back on track after he ruptured his Achilles tendon in the previous season as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. However Matthews is now healthy and he should able to contribute as a solid wing player; especially at the defensive end of the floor.
In 65 games with the Mavericks last season, point guard Deron Williams showed flashes of what made him a three-time NBA All-Star. And even at the age of 32, if Williams is once again motivated, it will be a huge plus for the Mavericks.
Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle is one of the best in the business when it comes to dealing with different personalities while getting the most out of his team. And the Mavericks could be set up to have a very productive NBA campaign.
Y-Memphis Grizzlies 46-36 (7)
The past six NBA seasons have seen the Memphis Grizzlies be the little engine that could of the Western Conference. The Grizzlies have made the playoffs in each of the last six years, and although that they have been unable to advance to the NBA Finals, they continue to be a tough out in the postseason. But things are once again changing for the Memphis Grizzlies as after compiling a 147-99 record over the last three years, Dave Joerger was fired as the team’s head coach.
Joerger was replaced in Memphis by Dave Fizdale who has spent the last 14 years as an assistant coach in the NBA; most notably as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat for the last nine seasons. Fizdale has inherited a veteran team that he must find a way to keep healthy for the riggers of the long haul that is the regular season in the NBA.
A broken foot forced center Marc Gasol to miss 26 games last year, along with the playoffs. Gasol is a catalyst for the Grizzlies at both ends of the floor as he is an all-around player. In 2013, Gasol was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, while in each of the last four seasons, he has averaged nearly 4 assists per contest. Gasol has good court vision which can see him pass the basketball from the top of the key as well as in the post equally which always keeps an opposing defense on its toes.
Like Gasol, power forward Zach Randolph has been a recent fixture for Grizzlies basketball. In seven seasons in Memphis, Randolph has averaged 17.2 rebounds and 10.5 rebounds as along with Gasol, they give the Grizzlies one of the better front courts in the NBA. But at the age of 35, Randolph has 15 years worth of mileage on his legs from playing in the NBA. Fizdale understands that and he is looking to preserve Randolph which will see him come off of the bench this year, but he can still be extremely effective in that role.
Point guard Mike Conley Jr. has spent his entire nine-year NBA career with the Grizzlies and this past summer saw him become a very rich man as he signed a five-year, $153 million deal to stay in Memphis as it was one of the largest contracts in league history. For Conley’s career he has averaged 13.6 points and 5.6 assists, and now the pressure is going to be on him to increase those statistics due to the lucrative deal that he agreed to.
In two years with the Dallas Mavericks, a bad knee kept small forward Chandler Parsons from reaching his full potential. But if Parsons is healthy, he could have a big impact in Memphis due to his shooting ability which compliments the playing style of Gasol, and Conley’s ability to penetrate into the paint.
Small forward Vince Carter is 39-years of age, and although that he isn’t able to crank it up and thrown down thunderous dunks as often as he once did, he is still brings a tremendous skill set to the table, along with a plethora of NBA experience. And along with guard Tony Allen who is still a solid defender, Carter adds to the Grizzlies depth off of their bench.
The Grizzlies will be a work in progress as the season goes along, but once the postseason rolls around, they will once again be a tough out.
Houston Rockets 40-42
The past NBA season saw the Houston Rockets wilt under the lofty expectations that were thrust onto them. The Rockets made the Western Conference Finals in 2015 and there was hope within the organization that they could build off of that. But after a 4-7 start, the Rockets decided to part with head coach McHale. McHale would be replaced by J.B. Bickerstaff who was able to get the Rockets to the playoffs, but they could never rekindle the magic from the previous season.
The Rockets have now turned to Mike D’Antoni to be their next head coach. In 12 seasons in the NBA as the head coach of the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, and Los Angeles Lakers, D’Antoni has a record of 455-426. D’Antoni has six playoff appearances to his credit as his teams have been known to very offensive oriented. The Rockets scored 106.5 points per contest last season which was fourth in the NBA, but they surrendered 106.4 points game which was 25th in the league. And being that D’Antoni is now running the show in Houston, you can expect that trend to continue.
When you think of Rockets shooting guard James Harden, you think of instant offense. Harden is always in the MVP discussion as he is one of the best scorers in the NBA. Harden averaged 29 points per contest last season, and in D’Antoni’s “fun and gun” offense, you can expect him to be off to the races. Harden averaged 7.5 assists last year, and you can expect him to play the point guard position more this season which should be very interesting.
But aside from Harden, the Rockets don’t have any other players that can step up and put the team on their back. Small forward Trevor Ariza is a solid defender, and guard Patrick Beverly plays with tremendous heart, but will that be enough to make the Rockets a playoff team for a fifth consecutive year?
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is a huge proponent of analytics to build his team from which hasn’t been produced as many wins lately and it will once again be put to the test this season. Seven of the Rockets first eight games will be on the road which includes two meetings with the Dallas Mavericks, along with games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs which won’t be a picnic.
New Orleans Pelicans 38-44
In 2015, it appeared as if the New Orleans Pelicans were destined for greatness until they shot themselves in the foot. The Pelicans made the playoffs for the first time in three years and they appeared ready for an upswing under head coach Monty Williams. But surprisingly, Williams was fired by the Pelicans and replaced with Alvin Gentry. Under Gentry, the Pelicans got off to a slow start last season with a record of 1-11 and they were unable to recover as they only managed to win 30 games. The Pelicans were also done in by injuries with their best player in center Anthony Davis missing 21 games. But as a new NBA season is set to begin, will the Pelicans be able to pick up their production in the Western Conference?
Any chance that the Pelicans have for a turnaround begins with Davis. Davis is one of the NBA’s rising stars and he will be the MVP of the league at some point. If Davis is healthy, you can pencil him in to average at least 22 points and 10.5 rebounds per contest while he makes the players that are around him better due to the attention that he receives. Last year Gentry had Davis take more perimeter shots, but if he concentrates on his post game, there won’t be too many defenders in the NBA that will be able to stop him.
The Pelicans will definitely miss the contributions of point guard Jrue Holiday who has stepped away from the basketball team to care for his wife as she deals with a brain tumor, and although that it won’t be easy, New Orleans will have to find a way to replace his production as he averaged 16.8 points and 6 rebounds last season.
With Holiday away from the team, Tyreke Evans should see more time at point guard this year, and getting the basketball to Davis early and often should be his main priority.
Shooting guard Buddy Hield was the Pelicans first-round past June and he should have an immediate impact. Hield comes to the NBA as a very decorated player which included him being the Naismith Player of the Year as the nation’s top men’s basketball player during the previous college basketball season as he averaged 25 points per game in helping the Oklahoma Sooners reach the Final Four this past April. Hield is one of the players that can heat up from behind the three-point line rather quickly and playing alongside Davis should see them help each other.
The Pelicans should be a little bit better than last year, but being that the Southwest Division is one of the toughest in the NBA, they will be fighting an uphill battle as far as making the postseason in the spring.
As Mike D’Antoni is set to become the new head coach of the Houston Rockets, it marks his fifth head coaching gig in the NBA. In parts of 12 NBA seasons, D’Antoni has had an up and down career which is evident by his career record of 455-426. The highlight of D’Antoni’s coaching career was when he led the Phoenix Suns to consecutive trips to the Western Conference Finals in 2005 and 2006. But the downside to D’Antoni’s time in the NBA has included a pair of 50-loss seasons with the New York Knicks, while also going 27-55 as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2013-2014 NBA season. D’Antoni has most recently worked as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers as he was seeking another opportunity to be a head coach in the NBA which he now has with the Rockets and it will be interesting to say the least.
D’Antoni has built a reputation in NBA circles for his innovation on offense. D’Antoni’s teams are typically amongst the leaders in the league as far as points per game, and three-point attempts. However defensive basketball is not one of D’Antoni’s specialties which tends to show up during the postseason, while in his last season with the Lakers, his team gave up 120 points or more in a game on 16 occasions. This past season the Rockets were 26th the NBA in points allowed at 106.5 points per contest, and once you factor in D’Antoni’s overall dismissal of defensive basketball, there won’t be that much optimism as far as the Rockets and winning basketball next season.
Looking at the Rockets roster, they do have a bona fide star in shooting guard James Harden. This past season Harden was second in the NBA in scoring at 29 per game. However Harden’s game is very one-dimensional as he is mainly an isolation player on offense. Harden should see more opportunities to score under D’Antoni, but it won’t result in winning basketball for the Rockets as this is an organization that is in dire need of structure, instead of the wide open theatrics that will come with his brand of basketball.
This past season saw the Rockets as a team of dysfunction. After leading Houston to the Western Conference Finals last year, Kevin McHale was fired as the Rockets head coach 11 games into this season. J.B. Bickerstaff served as the Rockets interim head coach and guided them to the postseason where they were swept by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. But Bickerstaff was fighting an uphill battle all season long due to the team that was constructed by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.
Morey relies on analytics and sabermetrics instead on relying on the eye test as to whether or not that the guys that he brought in could actually play together. And with the Rockets roster in the state that it currently is, don’t expect any improvement next season from them.
Three years ago center Dwight Howard was a highly sought after free agent as he decided to sign with the Rockets to play alongside Harden. Howard and the Rockets agreed on a four-year contract that is worth $88 million. But Howard’s numbers have decreased in each of his three years with the Rockets as this past season he averaged 13.7 points and 11.8 rebounds which is his worst statistical season since his rookie campaign during the 2004-2005 NBA season. Howard can be disinterested at times as the Rockets offense doesn’t go through him, while he hasn’t played with a top-tier point guard. With one year remaining on Howard’s contract, he can opt out of his deal this summer. And I highly doubt that you’ll see Howard in a Rockets uniform next season as D’Antoni’s “run and gun” offense doesn’t fit his playing style which was highlighted in their one season of working together with the Lakers.
If Howard were to leave Houston, it would open up more than $23 million of cap space for the Rockets for next season as they will look to lure other players Houston that could compliment Harden. But it isn’t that cut and dry due to D’Antoni’s track record as he doesn’t rely in stars players as much as he does his system. With the Suns, D’Antoni made point guard Steve Nash a household name. But with the Knicks, D’Antoni’s system never fit the skill set of small forward Carmelo Anthony, and it wasn’t conducive to shooting guard Kobe Bryant with the Lakers either. Scoring wise Harden should be comfortable playing for D’Antoni, but there will plenty of losses associated with it.
The NBA isn’t any different from any other sport in the sense that offense wins games and sells tickets, but at some point teams must clamp down on the defensive end in order to be assured of a win. D’Antoni has yet to figure this out yet, and neither have the Rockets if they believe that his coaching style can produce an NBA Championship.
After making a trip to the Western Conference Finals last spring, the Houston Rockets felt that they would have what it would take to win an NBA Championship this year. The Rockets have one of the best scorers that is currently in the NBA in shooting guard James Harden along with one of the best rebounders and interior defenders in center Dwight Howard. And after acquiring point guard Ty Lawson from the Denver Nuggets last summer, the Rockets appeared ready to be ready for lift off.
But the Rockets got off to a slow start with a record of 4-7 which would cost head coach Kevin McHale his job as he was fired. The Rockets are currently 17-19 which finds them in fourth place in the Southwest Division and seventh place overall in the Western Conference. The Rockets still might be able to make the NBA Playoffs this spring, but they are far from having the look of a title contender like they once expected.
Whereas McHale might have been the fall guy for the Rockets on-court performance, their problems primarily fall into the lap of general manager Daryl Morey. Morey has been the Rockets general manager since 2007 and he has been the victim of “analysis paralysis”. Instead of Morey seeking to build a team of players that can co-exist and win together, Morey relies too much on sabermetrrics which should be a part of putting a team together, but not everything. And with that mindset by Morey, he tends to overlook players that possess intangibles that could potentially help the Rockets win.
The Rockets have lacked chemistry all season. Harden remains as one of the top scorers in the NBA as he is averaging 28.1 per contest which is second in the league, while Howard is still one of the top rebounders as he is pulling 11.7 rebounds per game which is third. However, Lawson has never been a fit for the Rockets this season as he has only started 11 games in Houston while averaging career-lows in points (6.5), and assists (4.2). Lawson is a point guard that thrives off of penetration to the basket and it has been tough for him to get it going being that Harden is an isolation player which can slow down the tempo of the offense. Lawson is currently seeking a trade out of Houston, while the Rockets have also been a team that has lacked leadership all season long.
The Rockets lost their first three games of the season, each by 20 points which was a harbinger of things to come. The Rockets also lost to the previously winless Brooklyn Nets while their longest winning streak of the season has only been four games. The Rockets have lost four out of their last six games which included them being unable to take advantage of the Golden State Warriors this past Saturday night who were playing without the reigning NBA MVP in point guard Stephen Curry.
A big part of the Rockets problem this season has been on the defensive end of the floor where they have lacked an overall intensity. The Rockets are tied for 26th in the NBA this season in points allowed (105.8), while being 28th in opponents field-goal percentage (.464) as opponents are making nearly 40 field goals per contest. As good as Howard can be individually, he is known to check out mentally; especially in key situations while Harden will never be known for being a good defender. And without an emphasis on the defensive end of the floor or solid leadership, the Rockets stand to be a mediocre team this season.
When McHale was fired, J.B. Bickerstaff was named as the Rockets interim head coach in a move that was expected to jolt the team, but it hasn’t. The Western Conference is a bit down this year which does mean that the Rockets could make the playoffs, but with a large possibility of them meeting either the Warriors or San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the postseason, their chances won’t be good as far as advancing.
Morey has survived this long in Houston, but a philosophy change is needed there. Harden will is still one of the best scorers in the NBA, but lately it has been him and four other guys on the floor that are waiting for him to get something done as there is nobody else on this team to take some of the scoring load off of him; especially in the fourth quarter as all that the Rockets currently are is a pretty sports car that simply lacks an engine.
Y-San Antonio Spurs 62-20 (1)
The dawn of a new NBA season is upon us, but it’s same standard of excellence for the San Antonio Spurs. Each of the last 18 seasons have seen the Spurs make the NBA Playoffs and they’ve done damage when they get there as they’ve won five NBA Championships. The Spurs dynasty has mainly consisted of power forward Tim Duncan, shooting guard Manu Ginobili, and point guard Tony Parker as the trio has combined to win four of the Spurs five NBA Titles with Duncan leading the way in 1999. And as this trio is now in its mid-to-late 30’s, nothing last forever which is something that is not lost on Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and head coach Gregg Popovich.
Popovich knows how to keep his veteran players fresh for the stretch run of the season by managing their minutes early on which gives his role players the opportunity to gain quality playing time which always pays dividends in clutch situations down the stretch. The Spurs consistently have one of the deepest teams in the NBA which will once again be magnified this season.
This past summer saw the Spurs dip into free agency which is something that they don’t normally do. Recognizing that Duncan is 39-years of age and that he doesn’t have much more basketball left in the tank, the Spurs went out and signed power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge has spent his entire nine-year NBA career with the Portland Trailblazers where he averaged 19.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while being named to four NBA All-Star teams. And the Spurs are hoping to transition to Aldridge into becoming their main post presence in the same fashion that David Robinson passed the torch Duncan many moons ago.
The Spurs also signed veteran power forward David West and shooting guard Jimmer Fredette over the summer. West is a grizzled veteran that has seen his fair share of the wars in the paint in the NBA as he has played for the New Orleans Hornets and Indiana Pacers and he is now looking to put a league championship on his resume. What West gives the Spurs is another unselfish player that is not afraid to crash the boards while giving them a presence in the post coming off of the bench. The Spurs are one of the best shooting teams in the NBA from behind the three-point arc and what Fredette provides them with is another solid deep shooter and he’ll enjoy playing pick and roll along with coming off of screens in San Antonio.
The Spurs are the most unselfish team in the NBA which is why they are always in contention to win the NBA Championship. Small forward Kawhi Leonard is emerging as a star and as he has already won a title along with being NBA Finals MVP, he might be able to add NBA All-Star to his resume this season due to the fact that he is becoming a solid two-way player in the league. And as long as Parker is able to continue to penetrate the lane and kick out the basketball, shooting guard Danny Green will continue to knock down open shots from downtown.
The Spurs will need a little bit of time gel, but they’ve always been a tremendous second half team under Popovich which means that we can expect another deep run in the playoffs next spring.
X-Houston Rockets 52-30 (5)
The Houston Rockets are coming off of their best campaign since the 1996-1997 NBA season when they went 57-25 and reached the Western Conference Finals. Last season the Rockets won 56 games and they made a surprise appearance in the Western Conference Finals. But with it being so difficult to consistently make deep playoff runs in the Western Conference, what will the Rockets be able to do for an encore this season?
In three years with the Rockets, shooting guard James Harden has become one the top scoring threats in the NBA. Harden is coming off of a season which was worthy of him winning the NBA MVP Award, but that honor went to Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry. Harden averaged 27.4 points last season along with 5.7 rebounds per contest. Harden also knew how to get his teammates involved as he averaged 7.0 assists per game as well. This season Harden has help in the backcourt in the form of point guard Ty Lawson. The Rockets acquired Lawson from the Denver Nuggets where he had an up and down six-year stint. Lawson is one of the better point guards in the NBA, but he wasn’t fully motivated over the past few seasons in Denver which is something that should change now that he is playing along side Harden.
There are some critics of Rockets center Dwight Howard who want to see him take his offensive game to another level. But Howard is an 11-year NBA veteran who will be 30-years old this December and at this point, what you see from him is exactly what you are going to get. Howard is a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year who has led the league in rebounds on five separate occasions. And with Harden, Lawson, and all of the three-point shooters that Houston employs under head coach Kevin McHale, the Rockets strictly need Harden to be a presence in the paint defensively while continuing to clean up on the glass.
No team in the NBA attempted more three-point shots than the Rockets last who chucked up 32.7 per game and you can expect more of the same with Harden, shooting guard Jason Terry, small forward Corey Brewer, and rookie forward Sam Dekker leading the way.
The Rockets will once again be one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA and the addition of Lawson at the point guard position could help them achieve better things this season.
X-Memphis Grizzlies 52-30 (6)
The past few years have seen a common theme attached to the Memphis Grizzlies which is that they are a team the nobody wants to face in the NBA Playoffs. The Grizzlies have won at least 50 games in each of the last three NBA seasons as they are matchup nightmare for opponents due to the fact that they have two quality big men in power forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol. Gasol had the ability to leave Memphis over the summer as a free agent, but he decided to stay and he was rewarded by the Grizzlies with a new five-year, $110 million contract. What makes it so difficult for teams to defend Gasol and Randolph is that they have different offensive skill sets. Randolph plays more in the post while Gasol who can post up, is a great perimeter passer and scorer with the vintage “European” game.
But the Grizzlies are more than Gasol and Randolph with solid contributors in point guard Mike Conley and small forward Jeff Green in their starting lineup while they also have solid and versatile role players in swingmen Tony Allen and Courtney Lee along with small forwards Vince Carter and Matt Barnes.
The Grizzlies allowed the second fewest points in the NBA last season and once again under head coach Dave Joerger, the FedEx Forum in Memphis will be the “Grindhouse”.
The Grizzlies have a favorable schedule to begin the season and a fast start could be exactly what they need as far securing one of the top four seeds in the Western Conference which would give them home-court advantage for at least the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
X-New Orleans Pelicans 47-35 (7)
Last season saw the New Orleans Pelicans make tremendous strides as they made their first trip to the postseason since 2011, but it wasn’t enough for Monty Williams to keep his job as their head coach as he was fired. Williams was replaced in New Orleans as Pelicans head coach in favor of Alvin Gentry. Gentry spent last season as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors and he has previous experience in the NBA as a head coach with the Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons, and Phoenix Suns. But in New Orleans, Gentry will be dealing with the most talented team that he has ever coached and his job will be to get the Pelicans to take their game to another level.
In just three seasons, Pelicans power forward Anthony Davis is showing the ability that made him the first overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft. Davis’ numbers have improved in each year in the NBA and as long as he stays healthy, you’re looking at a player that will be the NBA MVP in the very near future. Aside from Daivs, the Pelicans have depth in their front court with center Omer Asik who is a solid rebounder while power forward Ryan Anderson is a consistent three-point shooter. The Pelicans also have potential in their backcourt with point guard Jrue Holiday along with shooting guards Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans. But like Davis, it is just a matter of them playing healthy.
We’ll get a feel about how good that the Pelicans will be right out of the chute as two of their first three games will be against the Warriors who are the defending NBA Champions. But this will be a very fun team to watch this season.
X-Dallas Mavericks 44-38 (8)
Since winning the NBA Championship in 2011, the Dallas Mavericks have had a bit of a rough go at things. Whereas the Mavericks have not posted a losing season since 2000 and they’ve only missed the playoffs once over their current stretch, they’ve been unable to get past the first round of the NBA Playoffs since 2011. The Mavericks have also been hurt in free agency which took another turn for the worse over the summer. It appeared that the Mavericks were going to sign center DeAndre Jordan when both sides came to a verbal agreement. But Jordan had second thoughts on joining the Mavericks, and being that he had never signed a contract to come to Dallas, he was free to return to the Los Angeles Clippers. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is one of the sharpest business minds in the world. And in the business world you need to have the ability to roll with the punches along with adjusting which is something that the Mavericks must once again be able to do for the 2015-2016 NBA season.
Three of the Mavericks top five scorers from last season are no longer with the team. Point guard Monta Ellis decided to opt of his contract with the Mavericks after leading the team in scoring last season and he elected to join the Indiana Pacers. Last season center Tyson Chandler led the Mavs in rebounding at 11.5 per contest. But in the wake of pursuing Jordan, Chandler wasn’t a priority for the Mavericks and he also left as a free agent to sign with the Phoenix Suns while power forward Amare Stoudemire also left Dallas to join the Miami Heat.
Along with Cuban, the Mavericks still have Rick Carlisle who is in that rare air of quality head coaches that are currently in the NBA. The upcoming season will put that notion to the test as Carlisle will be blending veteran players with new players as the Mavericks look to stay afloat in the Western Conference.
Power forward Dirk Nowitzki is set to begin his 18th season with the Mavericks and he is a player that is still a viable scoring option in Dallas. Nowitzki averaged 17.3 points per game last season and Carlisle has done a good job in managing the 37-year old’s minutes which allows him to still be effective in the Mavericks offense. Small forward Chandler Parsons was the Mavericks big free-agent acquisition in 2014, but a troublesome knee limited him last season. Parsons more than likely will not be available when the 2015-2016 NBA season begins for the Mavericks and they are hopeful that he’ll eventually be able to regain his form as a solid wing player.
The Mavericks signed shooting guard Wesley Matthews over the summer. Matthews averaged 15.9 points per game last season as a member of the Portland Trailblazers before an Achilles injury ended his season. But Matthews is expected to be healthy for the Mavericks and he’ll provide them with the presence of an all-purpose guard. But the ultimate wild card for the Mavericks this season could be point guard Deron Williams.
The Mavericks were able to get Williams on the cheap after he agreed to a buyout with the Brooklyn Nets after a disappointing four-year stint with them. There was a time when Williams was recognized as one of the best point guards in the NBA, and if he is able to be a hungry player this season, Dallas could really benefit.
After losing out on Jordan, the Mavericks were able to center JaVale McGee. The Mavericks will be McGee’s fourth different NBA team and although he won’t be a serious scoring option in Dallas, they’ll need him to be a consistent rim protector and rebounder in the mode of Chandler.
With so many quality teams in the Western Conference once again, the Mavericks will be fighting hard to avoid getting lost in the shuffle.