In the seemingly ever-competitive Western Conference, have the Rockets done enough this offseason to warrant making the playoffs next year? Before looking at what they have accomplished, let’s take a look at what the playoff teams from last year have done to try and improve their respective teams.
1) Lakers—While keeping the core of their team together, the Lakers have gone out and solidified their backcourt. After hearing rumors that Derrick Fisher was reportedly going to meet with Pat Riley, the Black Mamba swooped in and made sure Fish stayed in L.A. Age will continue to catch up with him, so they also signed a solid backup point guard in Steve Blake. A very smart player, Blake doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, but does all the little things pretty well, and is certainly an upgrade from Jordan Farmar. The Lakers are still the favorite in the West, and in my opinion the best team in the NBA.
2) Mavericks—Not only did they re-sign their franchise player, but also the Mavericks broke Rockets fans hearts, once again, when they went out and traded for Tyson Chandler. Their had been talks that Morey had made a strong push to get Chandler in a four-way deal, with the Rockets giving up Jared Jeffries and cash considerations. Dallas now has arguably the best 1-2 punch at Center in the NBA, with Brendan Haywood and Chandler. Through the move, they were also able to dump off Eric Dampier. Dallas will again be in contention to win the West, but unless Cuban lands a star in the next couple of years (i.e. Melo), Dirk’s chances of winning a title are shutting fast.
3) Suns—Phoenix finished last year with a strong push to get the third seed in the playoffs, but lost an integral part of their team with the departure of Amare Stoudemire. The Suns will not finish third again next year. They will experience a significant drop off, but still make the playoffs. It will be interesting to see the Suns’ offensive approach next season since a majority of their plays were pick and rolls between Nash and Amare. Hedo Turkoglu was a solid pick up for the Suns, but won’t run the pick and roll. He will shine in Phoenix’s run-gun style offense, like he did in Orlando. Playing with Nash, who can spread the floor so well, will create open shots for Hedo. They also signed Josh Childress from the Hawks. Down low, the Suns have young talent in Robin Lopez and Channing Frye, to take over for Amare, and will perform better with another year under their belts. Defense will again be another issue for the Suns. They have allowed an average of 105.9 points per game for the last three years, and are constantly at the top of the list among teams letting opponents score the most points in the NBA. Inversely, they have been at the top of the league in scoring points the last two years, and have averaged close to 110 points a game the last four seasons (109.4 being the lowest). The only question for Phoenix is: can they score more than the opposition?
4) Nuggets—Denver finished the regular season in a disappointing way, obtaining the four seed when they should have locked up the second seed. In the playoffs they looked disorganized and uninspired, getting knocked out in the first round by an injury depleted Utah Jazz squad. If George Karl does decide to return, this team could once again be at the top of the West. They didn’t lose anyone, and are getting an All-Star caliber coach to once again lead them to the top. However, if Adrian Dantley returns as head coach, he is going to need to assert some authority over guys like Carmelo and K-Mart. He now has half a season under his belt, and extreme talent both in the starters and the bench. Ty Lawson has been tearing it up in Summer League (16.4 ppg, 5 apg, and 1.6 spg) and they still have Chris Anderson to provide that spark. It will be tough for Dantley to screw it up.
5) Jazz—The Jazz will experience a drop off. Yes they got Raja Bell and Al Jefferson in the offseason, but will Jefferson’s game translate to the Utah offense as smoothly as the Williams/Boozer combination did? My guess in no and here is why. Al is more of a slow-it-down, low-post scorer who is not used to running the pick and roll. Boozer had great range and could/would constantly hit jumpers from the top of the key. Jefferson doesn’t have as deep of a range as Boozer. He does have outstanding career statistics: in 208 games (all starts) he has averaged 20.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.44 blocks in 34.7 minutes, while leading the team in scoring each season. But this was on a bad Minnesota team where he got a majority of touches on the offensive end. He can completely take over a game when he wants to though. I was in attendance when the Rockets played the T-Wolves on Jan. 13th last year. Jefferson went off for 26 points and 26 rebounds. Granted he was going against a smaller defender in Chuck Hayes, but he was impressive. If Jerry Sloan can get him acclimated (and “on-board”) with the pick and roll the Jazz will once again be a dangerous team. It is a big IF though.
6) Trailblazers—What is going on in Portland? After firing Kevin Pritchard, a top GM (aside from the terrible Oden/Durant decision), hours before the 2010 NBA Draft to not making even the tiniest ripple in the Draft, the Trailblazers organization is at a cross-roads. They still have an extremely talented core of young players to make the playoffs. They have their franchise athlete in Brandon Roy, a great defensive big in Marcus Camby, and another go-to scorer in LaMarcus Aldrigde. Throw in a deep bench and you have a contender right? Not yet. They need to decide what to do with Greg Oden. Is it time to give up on the first pick in the draft and go in a different direction, or stand by his side? I don’t know what is worse, his slow injury development or having nude pictures of himself on the Internet. Roy is not ready to lead this team past the Lakers in the playoffs, but they will still get there.
7) Spurs—I have learned never to bet against San Antonio, but I don’t see them being contenders for much longer. Out of all of last year’s playoff teams (aside from the Suns), they will have the biggest drop-off. Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker are all one year older and more injury prone. They hardly were on the floor at the same time last year, and age is not on their side once again. In terms of young talent, the Spurs have George Hill and DeJuan Blair. That’s about it, and you can’t build a championship around those two guys. No one knows what will happen to Richard Jefferson, and the jury is still out on first-round pick James Anderson being that he didn’t participate in the Summer League.
8) Thunder—I am excited to see where this team goes next year. They have the reigning scoring champion and coach of the year. This off-season they were able to draft one of the best prospects at Center in Cole Aldrich, who will see a lot of minutes in his first year in the league. The Thunder gave L.A. all they could handle in the first round of the playoffs, and with a sounder center, who knows the heights this team can reach behind KD. For me, the Zombie Sonics are one of the most enjoyable teams to watch.
Where does that leave Houston? Does throwing Yao Ming, Brad Miller, and Patrick Patterson into a squad that won 42 games last year make them an instant contender? No it doesn’t but it is a start. People are overestimating what Yao will be able to bring to the table this season. He is not going to be 100 percent when he gets back on the floor, but having his presence at center on the defensive side of the ball for 20 minutes a game will certainly be an improvement over Chuck Hayes.
Also, Brad Miller will flourish in Adelman’s system. When the two paired up in Sacramento in the ‘04/’05—‘05/’06 seasons, Miller posted the best stats of his career. Having a big man who can shoot the three point shot and spread the floor, will be something the Rockets missed last year (David Anderson didn’t pan out). Miller will also give Yao much needed rest at the beginning of the season. I hope to see Patterson, but on an already deep roster, I don’t see him being a great contributor for Houston this season. He was an extremely high recruit coming out of high school, but will be competing with Jordan Hill for his minutes. Re-signing Luis and Kyle was huge, being that those two guys really led the team last year with their consistent play. The Rockets will make the playoffs, but not higher than a four or five seed. The Western Conference is too stacked, and some teams who didn’t make the playoffs will be a lot better too.
Look at New Orleans who will get their franchise player, Chris Paul, back. Memphis, L.A. Clippers, and Golden State are all loaded with young talent and are waiting for their break out seasons. The Rockets will make the playoffs, but without a second star (i.e. Chris Bosh), Houston will continue playing second place to superior teams like the Lakers.