Debut roundup: Dwight Howard, the new Nets, Andrew Bynum and more
The NBA’s opening night has a magic all its own, but even that occasion can’t much compete with the slate of games that follows. The first Wednesday of the NBA calendar is traditionally loaded with games — and by extension, loaded with the intrigue that comes as rookies and veterans alike debut with their new teams. To mark the occasion, The Point Forward made the rounds to a handful of notable premieres.
Dwight Howard and the Rockets
• Nitpick if you will, but Howard was incredibly effective in his introduction as a Rocket — even as Houston on the whole played an underwhelming game in a 96-83 victory over the Bobcats. Before he had much going offensively, Howard was working hard to compete on the offensive glass. He created five extra possessions off rebounds in the first half alone. Howard wound up tying his career high with 26 boards in total.
That dominant rebounding performance was somewhat understandable, given that Howard spent much of the game competing with Josh McRoberts, Bismack Biyombo and an injured Al Jefferson on the glass, though it should be noted that he pursued out-of-position boards and boxed out his man diligently. The ball didn’t fall in his lap; Howard made it his mission to be first to the ball as often as possible, and succeeded to the point of grabbing nearly half of his team’s rebounds. Toss in 17 points on 14 attempts, along with enthused defensive play, and that’s a hell of a night’s work.
• It took only one game to see a lot more effort in Howard’s defensive contests, which were muted by injury and lethargy last season with the Lakers.
• Houston’s offense didn’t always flow freely, but the problems seemed to stem from general stiffness (and, in fairness, Charlotte’s transition defense) as opposed to some Howard-specific issue. Once the Rockets got going, though, the points came in bunches. Houston followed a 17-point dud of a first quarter with a 28-point burst in the second, and balanced out a 22-point third quarter with a 29-point showing in the fourth. There’s some explosive potential there, evident in the Rockets’ flurries of drives and kicks, with Howard looming as a quick catch-and-finish target at every juncture.
The new-look Nets
• Brooklyn kicked off its season in inauspicious fashion, losing to the upgraded Cavaliers 98-94 in Cleveland. The basis of a balanced offense and an effective team defense was apparent, but there were too many gaps on both ends of the floor. The offense was reminiscent of last season’s, with Joe Johnson clear-outs and aimless perimeter dribbling grinding the action to an all-too-frequent halt. Defensively, Brooklyn allowed far more than the usual bunch of come-what-may jumpers. Some of the issues on both ends should be cleared up in due time, but let this first outing serve as a reminder that rarely do these things come easily — even for a cast of veterans.
• It’s good to see that the Nets are still committed to working the post, despite their considerable upgrades. Brook Lopez is one of the greatest advantages at Brooklyn’s disposal. Even though he didn’t have a great all-around performance, Lopez posted a game-high 21 points on 9-of-18 shooting — marks indicative of his primary role within the offense. Paul Pierce fed Lopez well in the post, Kevin Garnett found him with a high-low setup and overall he looks to be featured just as prominently as he was last season. Acquiring Garnett and Pierce will open up all kinds of options for executing offense, but the fundamental goal of facilitating Lopez’s scoring opportunities should remain.
• The Nets have the depth and versatility to field some fun, oddball lineups. We got a taste Wednesday with the five-man combination of Pierce, Garnett, Lopez, Johnson and Alan Anderson. That unit came to be in part because of Shaun Livingston’s foul trouble, but it speaks to the situational possibilities of having a trio of capable facilitators in Pierce, Johnson and Garnett.
Andrew Bynum plays first game since May 21, 2012
• Bynum made his unexpected debut with 3:40 remaining in the first quarter, to both the delight of Cavs fans and the fury of those who waited out his stay in Philadelphia last season. He looked much like a player who has missed significant time with lower-body injuries. He moved relatively well, all things considered, but notably didn’t have the push to overpower his man in the post.
That’s not a reason for concern, particularly when Bynum did plenty to showcase just how advantageous pure size can be. Even without operating at full speed, Bynum still ate up space on the interior and challenged shots effectively — both on the hopeless attempts of Reggie Evans and the more viable tries of Lopez. He also grabbed three quick boards by hanging around in the right spaces, as tends to happen for giant centers who play close to the rim. He finished with three points (on 1-of-5 shooting), three rebounds, two assists and one block in eight minutes.
• Bynum did a lot of standing around on the weak side of the floor, loitering while of little use to the play in progress. But, hey, it’s something of a miracle that Bynum is standing on the court at all at this point, as his return has seemed out of reach for so long. He bowled and danced through his rehabilitation, costing the Sixers plenty in the process. They got a raw deal, but it’s good to see that the Cavaliers won’t have to endure the same never-ending string of excuses and delays.
Anthony Bennett, No. 1 pick
• One immediately evident truth: Bennett clearly has no qualms about jacking up three-pointers. He let three long-range attempts fly in just 15 minutes of action. His confidence was admirable, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to connect on those looks consistently this season. Even if not, Bennett has some interesting face-up utility to his game — a dimension unique among Cleveland big men.
• Otherwise, Bennett had a fairly muted debut. He showed off his surprising agility on a few occasions but mainly floated around the court, contributing most actively on the glass (five rebounds). Bennett will fly under the radar if his playing time remains modest, but he has the potential to be a quality burst contributor.
Michael Carter-Williams dazzles
• How’s this for a first impression for the Sixers’ point guard: 22 points, 12 assists, nine steals and seven rebounds in a 114-110 win over the two-time defending champion Heat. The nine steals were the most for a debut in NBA history and the 12 assists were the second most. According to the Elias Sports Bureau via ESPN, Carter-Williams is the third player to post a 22-12-9-7 line, joining Ricky Green (1982) and Johnny Moore (1985). For more on Carter-Williams, click here.
Al Jefferson, Bobcats scorer of substance
• A sprained ankle made it challenging for Jefferson to shed Omer Asik in the post during Charlotte’s loss in Houston, but he immediately registered as the best offensive player in Bobcats history. That he finished with just 13 points on 6-of-19 shooting is almost inconsequential; he’ll be healthier and more efficient in due time, which will give Charlotte the top-down offensive restructuring it has so badly needed over the past few seasons. In the interim, Jefferson’s teammates already know where he wants the ball — the left mid-post, where he eats and sleeps — and will start to orchestrate their cuts and spot-ups around his operations.
Jarrett Jack, Cavaliers super-sub
• Cleveland’s bench was putrid last season, which made the process of dealing with injuries to Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving all the more challenging. But the Cavs’ second unit made a few nice runs Wednesday, in part due to Jack’s creation off the dribble.
He did a terrific job of worming his way into the paint off a single screen, and then 1) converted a difficult runner in the lane, 2) drew contact to get to the free throw line or 3) dished to an open shooter in the corner. All provided a stark contrast to the stylings of Shaun Livingston, Jeremy Pargo and Donald Sloan, who played a combined 1,839 minutes in ball-handling roles for Cleveland last season. Jack is quite clearly a cut above, and if he’s able to spearhead reserve lineups to similar effect all year, the Cavs will have addressed a point of primary concern.
Cody Zeller, Rookie of the Year candidate
• Zeller, the fourth pick in June, seemed to have trouble with Houston’s length on the interior in his 15 minutes. I suspect he won’t be alone in that regard. On the bright side, Zeller has the balance and body control to finish after contact, which should help him acclimate to the speed and size of more typical NBA big men. He shot 1-of-6, scored two points and grabbed four rebounds in his debut.
This post has been updated.