Mar 05, 2014 9:19 PM EST
With a 106-103 victory over the Miami Heat on Tuesday, the Houston Rockets moved into a tie for third place out West. Winners of 8 of their last 10, Houston has found a groove - every man in their 9-man rotation has settled into a role. With a 41-19 record and a +4.5 point differential, they are on pace to win 55 games in a stacked conference. The 13-14 Rockets are the best team Dwight Howard has been on since the 08-09 Orlando Magic, whom he lead to the NBA Finals.
At 28 and in the prime of his career, Howard has become a somewhat forgotten man in the NBA. After burning bridges on his way out of town in Orlando and Los Angeles, his Q rating has fallen off a cliff. At the same time, a lengthy recovery from back surgery had many questioning whether he was already peaked as a player. This season, almost two years removed from the procedure, Howard has reestablished himself as the best center in the NBA.
At 6’10 260 with a 7’4 wingspan, Howard is one of the most physically imposing players in the league. Even though he gives up height to a lot of centers, his broad shoulders carve out a tremendous amount of space in the paint. He’s a force of gravity - he has tremendous mass, very long arms and he still has the ability to play high above the rim. When he gets the ball inside, help defenders are naturally drawn to him. On defense, few can move him out of position.
Howard is the anchor of the 12th rated defense in the NBA, an impressive number when you consider the youth of the players in front of him. Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons, James Harden and Terrence Jones are all 25 or younger and Beverley is the only one with much of a defensive reputation. Parsons, Harden and Jones are more focused on the offensive end of the floor, particularly Harden, whose defensive effort is lacking at best, if not outright egregious.
And while he’s no longer leading the league in rebounding, Howard is still grabbing 12.5 bounds a game. His ability to clean the defensive glass allows the Rockets perimeter players to leak out in transition, where they are particularly deadly. Once he gets the rebound, Howard can get down the floor quickly, drawing defensive attention and opening up shooters on the perimeter. You can count the number of centers who can bang and run with Howard on one hand.
Where Howard differs from guys like DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond is his effectiveness in the halfcourt. He may never have the refined post moves of Kevin McHale, the Rockets coach, but he’s light years ahead of most modern centers who can’t play with their back to the basket. Howard commands a double team on the block; he gives his team the versatility to play either out of the post or the pick-and-roll. Few teams have the personnel to defend both.
Add it all up and you have a very impressive package of skills at the center position - an elite defender who averages 20 points a game on 59 percent shooting and is also a Top-5 rebounder. When guys play with Howard, they benefit from the attention he draws on offense and his ability to cover up their mistakes on defense. The centerpiece of Houston’s offense and defense, he makes his teammates better on both sides of the ball, the mark of a true superstar.
To understand his importance, all you have to do is look at his former teams. The Magic turned Howard into some quality young players, yet they still have a 19-43 record and are years away from respectability. The Lakers, meanwhile, are already selling their fans on the 2015 and 2016 free agent classes. There’s just no way to replace the canyon-sized hole Howard’s absence creates. When Dwight leaves town, turn off the lights, because the party is over.
Howard has made only one NBA Finals appearance in his 10-year career, but that’s mostly a testament to how shallow his supporting casts have been. Who was the best player he played with in Orlando - Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu or Jameer Nelson? He was certainly not in a situation like LeBron James in Miami, playing with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, or Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, when he was teamed up with Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Who knows what would have happened if the Magic had a perimeter player like Harden, instead of relying on Nelson and Turkoglu as their primary playmakers. The combination of Harden and Howard shifts the balance of power in the West, not only this season, but well into the next decade. In 2020, Howard will be 35 and Harden will be 31, younger than what Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are now. The Rockets aren’t going anywhere for a very long time.
When you project Howard’s career going forward, it’s hard not to see him as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In his first 10 seasons in the NBA, Howard has made the All-Star team eight times, the All-NBA team seven times and the All-Defensive team five times. He has won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards, scored over 13,000 points and grabbed over 9,000 rebounds. Keep in mind, he did all of this while he was too “immature” to be a championship-caliber player.
Just like LeBron in Cleveland, Howard has been psychoanalyzed to death by a culture that can’t accept the fact that basketball is a team game. Over the course of his career, Howard has done more than enough to put his teams in championship contention. The reality is that no one was winning a title with Howard’s supporting cast in either Orlando or Los Angeles. He’s in a better situation in Houston, with a shrewd front office and a talented young core around him.
This summer, the Rockets can either make a run at Kevin Love or count on internal improvement and Howard’s ability to lure free agents. Other players may not like his personality, but they respect his game. There are only three players who can swing the balance of power in the NBA - one is in South Beach, one is in OKC and one is in Houston. My guess is the team that knocks off LeBron James will have either Dwight Howard or Kevin Durant on it.
Mar 05, 2014 12:57 PM EST
Listed as the top-heavy title darlings at 11/5 odds, the Miami Heat are still largely considered the favorites to win the title this season. LeBron James is playing at an all-time top-5 individual basketball level while also seemingly leaving enough in the tank to win 16 games again in late April, May and June.
Yet, oddsmakers and the general public seem to forget how incredibly difficult it is to threepeat in the NBA. Only three NBA franchises (Celtics, Lakers, Bulls) have been successful in completing the feat of winning three championships in a row in NBA history.
“There’s a reason these teams don’t do it,” Steve Kerr tells Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times. “Emotionally, it’s just exhausting to keep doing it year after year, particularly when you have to deal with everything Miami has to deal with on a daily basis, just the constant critiquing and scrutiny on the team, and then you factor in the injuries with Wade and Bosh and their health. I don’t think Miami will get out of the East this year.”
While other contenders have been constantly tweaking their rotations up until the trade deadline, the Heat have stood pat with what they’ve had, other than shedding the contract of Joel Anthony for unserviceable guard Toney Douglass. Miami's rotation this season is much thinner than in previous seasons, and the pressure of Michael Beasley and Greg Oden to produce consistently would be a stretch.
The Indiana Pacers swapped Danny Granger for the talented former second overall pick Evan Turner to help provide more consistency as a swingman off the bench. Additionally, the Pacers were able to add Andrew Bynum as insurance for big man depth on their roster. Through 60 games, the Pacers bench has produced a solid positive 0.6-point differential compared to a negative 0.7-point differential last year per NBA.com.
Over the past two years, the Pacers have closed the gap on the Heat. Fused with the drastic annual improvements to now superstar Paul George, breakout player Lance Stephenson, a relentless pit bull-like mentality from David West, and the ruthless interior defense from Roy Hibbert, the Pacers are hungrier than ever to get past the Heat.
Comparing the rotations of the Heat last season to this one can give us a solid idea of its lack of depth. The loss of Mike Miller has pushed veteran Shane Battier to play even more meaningful minutes than what he signed up for. Outside of Battier, Erik Spoelstra is forced to use Beasley in hopes of spelling LeBron and Battier minutes in the playoffs. Miller was crucial in huge moments in last year’s playoffs hitting timely three-point shots as he did in 2012. Except for Ray Allen, the Heat have been unable to find a consistent three-point shooter that could take pressure off the Big Three.
Additionally, the loss of Anthony in favor of Oden should be looked at intently. Sure Oden beats Anthony from a talent standpoint, but trusting him to play a solid 15-20 minutes off the bench to spell Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen in the playoffs would be taking a huge risk, considering how brittle Oden’s knees are.
Lastly, we all know how much of an X-factor Dwayne Wade is for the title chances of the Heat. Last year, the Heat were in serious trouble against both the Pacers and Spurs, but Wade was able to string together a couple of old vintage performances. Because of Wade’s career long knee woes, we have only seen ‘flashes’ of his superstar play, rather than the old Flash we have all come to know. Wade’s knees aren’t getting any healthier even though he has been more strategic about rest throughout the regular season. Through the past three years, Dwayne Wade’s usage rate and PER has dropped each year, 28.9, 27, 25.4, and 26.37, 24.04, 22.43, respectively.
“As you get older, your game has to change and you have to think the game,” Wade tells Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald, “more than anything when you’re young, you just react….now you got to think the game, and so certain games when I’m frustrated with myself because I’m not thinking the game like I should, but for the majority of it, I do a good job of reading the game and thinking the game a little.”
Wade knows he can no longer rely on his athletic ability and must develop a craftier skill-set in order to prolong his basketball career. The Heat personnel put even more pressure on guys like Wade in order to produce by not providing much depth to back him up. Turner cost the Pacers merely $500,000 in order to acquire him, so while the Heat didn't have a huge expiring contract to cash in for a player like him, it is hard to imagine a deal for depth couldn't be made. Because of the talent in June's draft, this season has produced an even larger than normal surplus of teams trying to tank; therefore its quite strange to see the Heat not even make a minor move to help insure their team even a bit of depth on their quest for the rare threepeat.
During these upcoming playoffs, we will witness James realize his supporting cast is weaker than previous seasons, thus raising his game to another level. Similar to the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals in Game 5 when James scored the final 29 of 30 points for his Cavaliers, there is a good chance this type of performance will be required from him. His usage rate and stats will all be at all-time highs, yet it is still difficult to see the Heat winning a third straight title without the suitable supporting cast.
Mar 04, 2014 5:01 PM EST
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Huston Rockets vs Orlando Magic , 7 PM ET
Utah Jazz vs Washington Wizards, 7 PM ET
Golden State Warriors vs Boston Celtics, 7:30 PM ET
Memphis Grizzlies vs Brooklyn Nets, 7:30 PM ET
Chicago Bulls vs Detroit Pistons, 7:30 PM ET
Sacramento Kings vs Milwaukee Bucks, 8 PM ET
New York Kicks vs Minnesota Timberwolves, 8 PM ET
Dallas Mavericks vs Denver Nuggets, 8 PM ET
Atlanta Hawks vs Portland Trailblazers, 10:30 PM ET
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Mar 03, 2014
The Pacers donít rely on George Hill to run the point in a traditional way, but handing the ball to Evan Turner on consecutive nights in close games down the stretch was certainly a gutsy call by Frank Vogel.
Mar 03, 2014
On Jae Crowder's excellent week, a thriller between the Legends and D-Fenders featuring 11 players with NBA experience, several Call-Ups and more.
Mar 03, 2014
It looks like a strange week for non-national games considering Sunday carries by far the best slate of matchups. There are a few potentially fun ones during the weeknights though.
Mar 03, 2014
Which teams have performed above the best case I projected in October and which teams have performed below the worst case I projected in October?
Mar 02, 2014
As Jimmer Fredette dons a new uniform, it will be interesting to see if Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls can find a way to utilize him within their system. Talent is only visible through opportunity; and Fredette could seize his opportunity very soon.
Feb 26, 2014
Anthony Bennett admitted to be being "as surprised as anyone else" when he was drafted first overall by the Cavaliers and the start of his rookie season demonstrated why. The undersized power forward is gradually starting to show flashes of the athletic talent that made him look like a lottery pick last June.
Feb 25, 2014
Nerlens Noel should not play this season, both for the good of himself and the 76ers franchise as a whole. He has to accept the teamís strategy and take full advantage of this time to focus on his development.
Feb 24, 2014
As the end of the season slowly comes into view, a series of different races have begun to take shape. Other than the top two seeds in the East, it seems like the rest of the playoff picture is wide open with chances to stratify if some teams slump while others surge.
Feb 24, 2014
On a breakout week for Bo Spencer, strong performances from Dee Bost, Robert Covington, Damion James, Kevin Murphy, Flip Murray, along with notes on the Pierre Jackson situation.
Feb 22, 2014
The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).
Feb 21, 2014
The Western Conference is highly competitive this season, but that didn't carry over to a deadline in which Steve Blake was the most important acquisition after the Rockets were unable to cash in their Omer Asik chip.
Feb 19, 2014
The Kyle Lowry Vengeance Tour against Kyrie Irving and John Wall, along with multiple appearances from the Cavaliers and Blazers.
Feb 19, 2014
The Kings have been going through major changes with a new coach, new personnel on the roster and a new ownership group. Perhaps most importantly, DeMarcus Cousins appears to be maturing and he's also become one of the NBA's most productive players.
Feb 18, 2014
If you have $22 and love NBA Basketball, draft a 1-Day Fantasy Basketball team at DraftStreet this Wednesday. You could win a share of $50,000 with a massive 1st Place Prize of $10,000.
Feb 17, 2014
On Tiny Gallon's outstanding week, Seth Curry, Courney Fells, Darius Johnson-Odom, Kevin Murphy, James Nunnally and a recap of the D-League All-Star activities.
Feb 17, 2014
Tubby Smith and Larry Brown's turnarounds, plus meditations on close losses and wins for Tom Crean and Jim Boeheim.
Feb 13, 2014
A little more than a year since going under the knife, Jared Sullinger is headed to All-Star weekend for the Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans. He talks to RealGM about how he remained strong during rehab and where he sees his career going.
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