Dwight Howard starts another season with yet another team. Will his tenure with the Rockets be more successful than his disappointing run in LA? (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images) (Thursday Night NFL Pick Included.)
16. Dwight Howard is a franchise cornerstone and top 5 NBA star… when healthy. And by healthy, I don’t just mean physically. Howard has struggled to keep his head on straight for the past two seasons. First, it was his final season in Orlando, where trade speculation and constant whispers ruined Howard’s game, cost Stan Van Gundy his job, and scuttled Orlando’s season. Last season, Howard’s recovery to a back injury made him the scapegoat to a rabid fan base. More importantly, it made Howard soft, on and off the court. Howard’s most famous moment as a Laker came in his final game as he fouled out of Game 4 in a playoff sweep to the Spurs. Howard’s head was a mess. He needed a fresh start.
Howard is now with a franchise where that team’s alpha dog won’t negatively impact Howard’s psyche. He has a coach that understands big men. He has a team built to hit open shots and let him pound the glass and protect the rim. He doesn’t have to be the go-to guy in the closing minutes as James Harden already fills that role. But most importantly, Howard is getting healthy.
90% of Howard’s issues last year were health related. He couldn’t play well. Fans got mad. Howard got mad. His body couldn’t do what it used to and no one – not the fans, not the Lakers, not Howard – could accept that. If Howard is healthier and closer to his 2010 form, the Rockets are contenders in the West. My only question is this: Deep in the postseason, can the Rockets get enough stops? Outside of Howard, Houston’s roster isn’t exactly bursting with defensive stoppers.
15. The Memphis Grizzlies face an identity crisis. Last season, the Grizzlies were the NBA’s premiere defensive team. “Grit and Grind” was the team’s slogan. They punished opponents into submission with physical, relentless defense. They bullied Blake Griffin and the Clippers from the playoffs before taking out the shorthanded Thunder. Then the Spurs marched into the Western Conference Finals and swept the Grizzlies with relative ease. The Spurs scored almost at will while Memphis had to scrap for every last point.
Memphis’ biggest offseason move was not bringing back coach Lionel Hollins, the franchise’s most successful coach. (Yeh, that’s not saying much, but still.) Memphis is the same team this season, just a year older, which isn’t a big deal for the roster in general, but it’s a huge deal for Zack Randolph. The Spurs swarmed Randolph in the playoffs and neutralized his inside presence by double and triple teaming him, daring Memphis’ shooters to take and hit shots. They took the shoots, but made too few. Since Randolph is the Grizzlies’ go-to scorer, Memphis was lost. Unless Mike Conley Jr. can elevate his game to another level or Marc Gasol can expand his offensive game to be more of a go-to scorer, the Grizzlies will find themselves in the same place they did a year ago.
Instead of adding shooters to space the floor and free up Gasol and Randolph, the Grizzlies mostly stood pat, hoping Quincy Pondexter will be enough. At some point, Memphis must realize suffocating defense isn’t enough if you can’t protect your big men on the offensive end. Something has to give in Memphis.
14. I don’t quite get why people think the Knicks matter. They flopped in the playoffs last season. Their roster is, in my opinion, worse than a year ago. Their defense relies heavily on Tyson Chandler being healthy and effective, which he hasn’t been since winning the title with Dallas. Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith matter too much. Felton either plays like an all-star or a D-Leaguer, with no in-between. Smith is the NBA’s version of a diva wide receiver. He has All-Star talent, but you’re always waiting for him to snap, as he did in Game 3 against the Celtics in last year’s playoffs. But most of all, I don’t believe Carmelo Anthony is capable of carrying a team to a conference title, let alone an NBA championship.
Don’t get me wrong; Carmelo is a great, great player. He’s the league’s most versatile scorer. His offensive game is endless. While Anthony is a great player, he’s never made his teams great. He doesn’t elevate the players around him like Tim Duncan or LeBron James. He’s rarely committed to playing both ends of the floor. When you watch him all season it’s hard to tell if he’s more upset with losing or having an off night. Though he talks about winning championships, I’m not convinced he cares to make the sacrifices necessary to get there. In many ways, Anthony is another version of Allen Iverson, but with Iverson, you could always count on heart and effort (at least in his first 8 years in Philly). As talented as Anthony is, he’s led a team to the conference finals only once. I’m out on the Knicks this year and for the foreseeable future.
13. Be patient with the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn will look great at times and downright awful at others. The Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce led Celtics were notorious for losing to bad teams in the regular season. Right or wrong, those guys have a switch they turn on and off throughout the season. This year won’t be any different, especially given the Nets overall age and the makeup of the Eastern Conference.
In years past, it was crucial to gain an advantageous seed in the playoffs to avoid the Miami Heat until the conference finals. This year, with four potential title contenders in the east, the seeding is slightly less important. One way or another (barring injury), you’re going toe-to-toe with a title contender in the conference semifinals. A top four seed is the goal here. You can argue the Nets should fight for the 2-3 seed to avoid Miami, but I’m not convinced Miami cares enough about the top seed. After three consecutive runs to the Finals and an Olympic stretch thrown in, the Heat will recognize their need for rest. It wouldn’t surprise me if Eric Spoelstra opted for rest over seeding come the spring. Regardless what the Heat do (does?), you know Jason Kidd and the Nets will take measures to preserve their aging talent.
I’m completely intrigued by the potential of this Nets team. They’re built for a long playoff run if they can get through the season with health and energy in tack. Though the road to the playoffs may be bumpy and ugly, I encourage you to judge the Nets in April and May and not before. (On queue, the Nets lost to the Cavaliers Wednesday night.)
12. I have nothing against New Orleans, pelicans, or the New Orleans Pelicans. However, I hope things go haywire for the newly minted Pelicans. Why? Because the 76ers own the Pelicans’ 1st round pick in the loaded 2014 NBA Draft.
New Orleans spent the offseason assembling a lot of talent. Whether all that talent equates to a good team is the big question. I’m skeptical.
Crowded backcourts get messy… and fast. Jrue Holiday likes the ball in his hand, and rightfully so. The 23 year-old was an All-Star last year and continues to improve. Tyreke Evans also likes the ball in his hands. While Eric Gordon isn’t much of a ball-handler, he likes to score. How the Pelicans manage their crowded backcourt will determine how well their season goes and more importantly (to me, at least), what kind of pick the 76ers will get.
Bengals at Dolphins
I don’t think Andy Dalton will throw five touchdowns, and he most certainly won’t throw four to Marvin Jones, but the Bengals will beat the Dolphins regardless. These two teams are actually more even then their records indicate. The most significant difference is at quarterback, more specifically, turnovers from the quarterback position. Dalton has committed ten turnovers this season but only three in Cincinnati’s last four games (all wins). Ryan Tannehill has 17 turnovers this year and ten in Miami’s last four games (all losses). BENGALS If I were Charles Barkley; Bengals -3