Posted August 28, 2013

Give And Go: Can Pacers, Warriors and Rockets climb the ladder?

Ben Golliver, Give-and-Go, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Rob Mahoney

Golliver: Given that four of the five teams that won 56 or more games — the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers and Grizzlies — bring back all of their important pieces, this season’s top tier is already looking pretty crowded. Jumping from 47 wins to 55 is no easy task, especially when the Rockets are aiming to make a similar leap and a number of the West’s weaker sisters from last season — Dallas, Minnesota, Portland and New Orleans — all spent meaningful amounts of money to improve their respective outlooks. While many will rightly point to the departures of Jack and Landry as good reasons for downplaying Golden State’s expectations, I’d argue that the Warriors’ unusually favorable good health might be a reason to believe they approached their peak achievement level last year.

Yes, that requires some qualifiers: Andrew Bogut, a perpetual question mark, was sidelined for a majority of the season, Brandon Rush (who was traded to Utah last month in the three-time deal for Iguodala) was lost to a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the year and Lee went down early in the playoffs with a hip injury. But get this: Golden State’s top-eight players by minutes played missed only 19 combined games last year. Now compare that to the Lakers, who finished one seed lower and lost 115 games among their top eight. Or to No. 8 seed Houston, which had only five players appear in 70 games or more, due in part to multiple midseason trades.

The point is that the Warriors enjoyed a major night-to-night continuity advantage over both the Lakers and the Rockets, and yet all three wound up in roughly the same spot in the standings. It’s hard not to come off like a voodoo doll by asking this, but shouldn’t we seriously consider the possibility that Golden State won’t be this fortunate two years in a row?

To boil this down: It’s possible to consider the Iguodala addition as one of the best moves of the NBA offseason, while simultaneously believing that there’s a good chance the move’s true impact won’t be felt until the playoffs. It’s also reasonable to believe that Iguodala makes the Warriors a (fringe) contender while acknowledging the possibility that Golden State winds up falling short of the 55-win plateau. Those two (four?) statements sum up my expectations for the Warriors.

Dwight Howard

Dwight Howard joins a Rockets team that won 45 games last season. (Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

3. Less than five months ago, the Rockets were desperately clinging to their spot in the postseason. Needless to say, a lot changed this summer. Most everyone will agree that landing Dwight Howard immensely improves Houston’s prospects, but by how much exactly?

Golliver: The whole narrative around this Rockets organization has changed so quickly that mental flashbacks — even if only back to April — are chuckle-inducing.

MAHONEY: The far-reaching impact of Howard’s free agency

I vividly remember watching Houston put up 116 points at Portland a few weeks before the end of the regular season. Thirty-eight of the Rockets’ 39 field goals that night were either three-pointers or shots from within five feet of the basket. Houston also tacked on 26 free throws. I shared a wide-eyed look at the shot chart with a colleague and we wondered aloud whether we might be watching a team from the future that had cracked the code to offensive efficiency. (The Blazers’ defense was pathetic that night, as it often was last year, but still.) Of course, the very next night, Houston waltzed into Denver and promptly gave up 132 points in a blowout loss.

That was, more or less, the story of the 2012-13 Rockets: fairly unpredictable, world-beating at times, but too young and too in flux to be fully trusted. Houston could be labeled precocious, but not formidable.

The 2013-14 version, though, has what it needs to achieve that “formidable” standard: two perennial All-Stars, at least eight guys who can play and two prospects with sufficient talent to thrive in a narrow role (Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones). Howard, of course, is the game-changer and ceiling-raiser: His presence takes Houston from a team that can beat anyone on any given night to a team that should set a goal of finishing in the low-50s in victories, at minimum.

Those heeding the lessons of the 2011 Heat, the 2012 Clippers and the 2013 Lakers are wise. A superstar addition can mean regular-season improvement in Year 1, or not. It can mean a playoff-series victory, or not. It can mean a Finals appearance, or not. With steady, polished powers like the Thunder and Spurs in place, leaping to the head of the pack in one bound is asking so, so much.

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Those expecting the Rockets to compete for a title immediately are likely guilty of being overly ambitious. At the same time, it’s easy to imagine the 2015 Rockets being incrementally more fearsome than this year’s group, and the same can be said for the 2016 vintage after that. This party is just getting started.

Even so, I would argue that both win/loss projections and future growth curves are beside the point: Howard has transformed the Rockets from one of the league’s better-kept secrets into a must-watch shows. That’s a lot, and enough for the time being. Let’s sit back, enjoy this and watch how everything unfolds.

Mahoney: Howard improves Houston’s prospects enough to make the notion of a championship season conceivable, if not at all probable. I agree that San Antonio and Oklahoma City are the cream of the conference, but it’s possible that Houston could wind up as the top team in the West’s second tier come playoff time.

MAHONEY; Grading the Rockets’ offseason

That outcome would hinge on Howard’s returning to superstar form, Houston’s finding ways to make do at power forward and Howard’s adding to the offense without taking too much away from the style that allowed the Rockets to post such gaudy numbers last season. If Howard does his part, he could be a force and play a stabilizing role for a team that, as Ben noted, was a bit wild last season.

The benefit of having superstar-level players is that it both raises and tethers the range of possibility. Howard’s arrival will lift Houston’s ceiling and floor. Having Howard as both a pick-and-roll threat and post-up option, as opposed to funneling so many possessions through James Harden and Jeremy Lin, will mitigate those nights when Houston suffers the brutal turn of its shot selection’s variance. And the defensive influence of Howard and Omer Asik will stem those lengthy stretches of bucket-trading with opponents.

Howard’s play should eventually build on Houston’s previous strengths (shooting efficiency, free-throw rate, defensive rebounding) while accounting for some of its weaknesses (lower turnovers with greater offensive structure, offensive rebounding, rotational defense). Expecting him to make a substantial difference in each of those areas immediately would be a bit unfair, but I’d be surprised if his play doesn’t translate to significant gains across the board by season’s end.

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