Give And Go: Can Pacers, Warriors and Rockets climb the ladder?
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: digging into three 2012-13 playoff teams — the Pacers, Warriors and Rockets – looking to take the next step this season.
1. After pushing the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals, the Pacers re-signed David West, upgraded their bench and expect to get Danny Granger back from a season-long knee injury. Are they now in a position to unseat the Heat?
Ben Golliver: One could see the relief on the faces of the Heat players — from LeBron James on down — after their improbable comeback against the Spurs in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. That was a team that realized it got away with the caper of a lifetime. Miami deserves full credit for that desperate (in the best way) late-game surge and for its poise in slamming the door in Game 7 to secure its second title in a row. But that strong finish didn’t completely erase the memories of the Heat’s teetering over the previous two-plus weeks.
The Heat trailed in overtime of Game 1 and lost Game 2 to Indiana, both at home. They never solved Roy Hibbert, so much as they survived him. In June, Miami endured losses of composure (Chris Andersen), injuries (Dwyane Wade) and bouts of passivity (James). The team that rolled to 27 consecutive regular-season victories was not the same one that crossed the finish line first, exhausted.
Among the group of perceived title contenders, the Pacers had as good an offseason as anyone. Even though Indiana didn’t lose a single starter from last season’s team, there will be times this season when watching the Pacers will feel like a new experience, thanks to Granger’s return and the additions of C.J. Watson, Luis Scola and Chris Copeland. Everything about this group — its star-level leaders, elite defense, balance, depth, continuity and chemistry — says 55-plus wins. (Indiana finished 49-32 last season.) I read this week that the Pacers’ season-ticket sales numbers are up significantly. Good, they should be.
What’s more, Miami’s top rivals have to like their odds a bit more heading into this season simply because most or all should be better than at any point during the Big Three’s run. No matter what order the teams finish, Miami will almost certainly have to get past two teams from the quartet of Indiana, Chicago, Brooklyn and New York. In 2011, Miami lost only three games in the East playoffs. In 2012, injuries to Wade and Bosh helped increase that number to six. Last season, it was only four, as the Heat dispatched the Derrick Rose-less Bulls in five games before edging Indiana. Miami added no meaningful reinforcements unless Greg Oden completes his comeback and makes an impact, while Indiana improved, Chicago got Rose back and Brooklyn loaded up. Shouldn’t that lay of the land make the Heat’s path to the 2014 Finals tougher than any of their previous three trips?
Rob Mahoney: In terms of broad estimations of team quality, Indiana is still well behind Miami. The Heat are so flexible and explosive as to overwhelm a greater range of potential opponents, while the Pacers’ offense can still struggle when pressured on the perimeter and fritter away possessions in the disarray that results. It wasn’t by coincidence that Miami won 17 more games than Indiana in the regular season. The Pacers’ bench improvements alone will not threaten Miami’s lead on the rest of the conference.
But the divide between the two teams is meaningless when it comes to their specific matchup. Through both careful construction and a bit of serendipity, Indiana’s roster is now incredibly well suited to challenge Miami’s small-ball tilt and attack its structural weaknesses. All that the Pacers do is predicated on a stout defensive system loaded with solid one-on-one defenders, the combination of which positions Hibbert to take away precious access to the lane without overstretching. To be able to defend the likes of James and Wade while on-balance is a huge advantage, and from that point the Pacers are able to make gains by pounding the ball into the post whenever possible and leveraging their size into a dominant rebounding margin.
If Indiana — which has Granger back and a far better bench — meets Miami in the playoffs again, the series would likely be competitive and possibly even fatal to the Heat’s three-peat hopes. But even getting to that point could be a challenge, as Chicago and Brooklyn are rather considerable roadblocks in the East. The Pacers are among the two or three teams most qualified to topple the defending champs, but that in itself unfortunately doesn’t guarantee a postseason opportunity to continue their rivalry.
2. Five teams in the West finished with 56-60 victories last season. Golden State was the best of the rest, with 47. Did the acquisition of Andre Iguodala move the Warriors into the conference’s top tier?
Mahoney: Not quite. What we saw from Golden State in the playoffs was awesome and refined, but I don’t think this team — even with Iguodala’s addition — is capable of sustaining that level of execution over a full regular season. They’ll be a very good team and seem to have a legitimate shot at the title, but the Warriors’ inconsistency still concerns me enough to plant them in the West’s second tier. It was those stretches of seismographic scoring that barely bumped a loaded Golden State team out of the top 10 in offensive efficiency last season, according to Basketball-Reference’s numbers, and the acquisition of Iguodala coupled with a hot playoff run hasn’t resolved the issue.
Plus, regarding Golden State’s regular-season win total, there’s a distinct possibility that Iguodala’s arrival might initially complicate matters for a team that will first be looking to reincorporate David Lee while accounting for the departures of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry. The overall talent level here is still outstanding, but let’s not pretend that the Warriors will be drawing from a place of inherent chemistry. Jack was a ball-dominant influence who will now be conspicuously absent; Iguodala’s lack of shooting will make him a strange fit on a team that thrives when spreading the floor; and Lee’s return will at least partially compromise the “four-out” platform that made Golden State’s postseason offense so deadly. Coach Mark Jackson will have a host of kinks to iron out before the Warriors are discussed as a candidate for 55-plus wins.
All the same, I see Golden State as a tough postseason opponent, if still perhaps the preferred draw compared to many of the other contenders in play.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.