The high-powered offenses are set to face off for a seven game series beginning Sunday at the Toyota Center in Houston. The Rockets and Blazers matchup extraordinarily well with both teams featuring stellar front courts and perimeter shooting. This series is likely to be high-scoring with each offense boasting a superb efficiency rating on offense (Rockets and Blazers are 4th and 5th respectively in the league). Both teams won 54 games in the season and they faced off four times with Houston taking three of them by an average of six points. There is no doubt that this series could be one of the highlights of the entire playoffs.
The Rockets are led by their two perennial All-Stars, James Harden and Dwight Howard. After much controversy during his one season in Los Angeles, Howard has become a consistent option for the Rockets this season with averages of 18.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. He added to the front court that already consisted of Omer Asik and the young and talented Terrence Jones. With Howard in the lineup, Asik moved to the second unit only bolstering Houston’s depth. Howard can matchup with essentially any center in the league with his excellent defense at the rim and footwork on offense. Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez are decent rim protectors with Aldridge averaging 1 block a game and Lopez with 1.7. Howard is set to make his mark on the series. On the other hand, Terrence Jones is still a young power forward looking to learn. Jones had a drastic improvement this season from his rookie campaign. Jones cracked the starting unit with averages of 12.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He complements Howard in the front court nicely and this series should be no different. If he can average 12 and 9 in the series, he will provide a major boost to Houston’s offense.
Yet, it is the back court that will have the advantage in this series. The tenacious guard Patrick Beverley will surely make a difference in this series. He has averaged 31.3 minutes, 10.2 points, 2.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game this season. Beverley, well known for his ability to pester opposing guards, must play harder against the Blazers’ Guard Damian Lillard to limit his production. The aforementioned Harden has truly transformed into an All-NBA caliber player during his time in Texas. His loaded stat line includes 25.4 points, 6.1 assists, and 4.7 rebounds a game. His statistics against Portland are even more impressive. His splits against the team include 30.3 points, 5.3 assists, and 7.3 rebounds in their four regular season meetings. The second unit includes PG Jeremy Lin who has averaged 12.5 points and 4.1 assists. Houston needs him to heat up from beyond the three point arc for the second unit to contribute with Harden off the floor. Perimeter shooting from Houston’s guards should be a difference maker in this series. The Rockets’ head coach, Kevin McHale is hoping that the Rockets will not have to live and die by the three ball. Still, that is what might occur as this series unfolds.
Portland Trail Blazers
Similar to Houston, the Trail Blazers boast an impressive front court highlighted by the veteran play of PF LaMarcus Aldridge. He had a spectacular season averaging 23.2 points and 11.1 boards per game, both career highs. Aldridge failed to bring his team to the postseason the last couple seasons, but he has nice career averages in the playoffs with 19.8 points and 7 rebounds. If this regular season serves as any indication, he will improve on these numbers. Despite Terrence Jones probably matching up against him the majority of the time, he will see a bit of Howard on the low block. This may force Aldridge to take more mid-range jumpers, which is one of his strong suits. LA has one of the best mid-range games for a power forward in the entire NBA. Besides him, Portland has C Robin Lopez in the front court. The seven-footer has only seen playoff action once before with the Suns in 2010, when they lost in six games in the first round. This season was among Lopez’s best though and he’ll provide valuable minutes for Portland in the opening series. He will likely fall into foul trouble when guarding Dwight in the post, but it should be effective as Howard is an atrocious free throw shooter.
The Trail Blazers feature a young and talented back court with All-Star PG Damian Lillard and SG Wesley Matthews. Portland is hoping Damian Lillard’s debut in the playoffs will be similar to Derrick Rose’s debut which included 36 points and 11 assists. Lillard has had himself an impressive sophomore season averaging 20.8 points, 5.6 assists, and 3.6 rebounds. Perhaps, more of the same is in store for fans during the playoffs. His unbelievable three point shooting (218 this season) will be a major part of Houston’s defensive gameplan. If Lillard can shoot the three ball effectively, Portland will be a tough team to beat. Matthews will need to pick up his defensive game against superstar James Harden throughout the series. If Harden can be contained, which is not likely, then the Trail Blazers have a good shot of winning the series because the scoring burden falls on the shoulders of Dwight Howard. I do not believe that Portland Head coach Terry Stotts will employ the Hack-a-Howard throughout the series, but it is certainly a possibility. Howard will be unable to capitalize on his trips to the free throw line and then the advantage falls to the Trail Blazers if the Hack-a-Howard is used correctly.
Houston Will Advance In 6 Games
It would not be surprising to see at least a couple of the games in this series going into overtime. These teams are evenly matched with both sharing the same winning percentage (.659), offensive tendencies, and two All-Star players. Although all four All-Stars in this series play different positions, it is a very real possibility to see Howard matchup with Aldridge and Harden with Lillard. Houston wins in this series because of their greater depth and more consistent defense in the paint. Harden and Howard, the better of the four All-Stars, cannot afford anymore early playoff exits. They have already suffered their fair share and need to step up and prove to fans they can compete for an NBA title. They may not attain the elusive ring immediately. But this will be a start.
The Southwest division will be one of the most intriguing divisions in the NBA with the potential for three different teams to win the division. The San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies all have talented teams that made significant runs in the playoffs last season and will look to make even deeper runs this season. The most significant change for the Rockets is the addition of Dwight Howard, who signed a four year $88 million dollar deal with the potential opt-out after year two. With a core of James Harden, Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons, the Rockets are looking to win a title. But they need to best the Spurs and Grizzlies, two experienced teams with elite players like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. It should be an exciting season, now let’s look at some predictions. *Denotes playoff team
1.) *Houston Rockets
Dwight Howard is a tremendous addition to an already talented Rockets starting lineup, providing a low post presence that will take some pressure off of James Harden and Chandler Parsons on the perimeter. The main issue for the Rockets will be establishing a pace as last year they averaged 106 points per game, good for second in the league, but D12 likes to body his defender in the post and slow the game down. If Kevin McHale can set the tone and find a balance, the Rockets will be tough to beat. Another key will be Jeremy Lin’s growth from last season as the media world focused on him and his play regressed from his days in New York. If he can eliminate some turnovers and improve his 34% 3-PT shooting, the Rockets will have a scoring threat from almost every position. As Jon mentioned before, James Harden has seized the opportunity to lead a franchise as he posted a ridiculous stat line of 26 ppg 5.8 rpg and 4.9 apg, all career highs. Look for him to better his assist numbers as well as efficiency since Dwight Howard will draw some double-teams in the post. This team is dangerous and when they make the playoffs, they have a shot at knocking off the Heat.
2.) *San Antonio Spurs
The only reason why the Spurs are not the top team in this division is their age. Popovich likes to rest his older players during meaningless regular season games, which lowers their seeding. After the disappointment of losing in the Finals last year, it will be tough for the Spurs to get back as so many other teams improved. Last year might have been the last chance for this current Spurs’ core to win a championship, but that has been said for a few years now, and the Spurs have continued to excel. This year the plan will be similar for Pop — give Kawhi Leonard more of Tim’s minutes and hope Tony and Manu stay healthy. It will be interesting to see the growth of Kawhi Leonard, a player who was considered a role player, now being called on to take the reigns from one of the greatest big men of all-time, TIm Duncan. Kawhi has emerged as a tremendous two way player with terrific athleticism, defensive intensity and an underrated 3-PT shot. The other player to watch is Tony Parker, who made a solid case for MVP last season, putting up 20.3 ppg 7.8 apg and shooting an insane 52% from the field. If he can replicate his play then Houston and San Antonio could switch spots come May. For Spurs’ fans, its all about the playoffs. If the Spurs stay healthy, they might have another run left in them.
3.) *Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are another interesting team that had a shot at the NBA finals last year when the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook was injured. The Grizzlies needed an elite 3PT shooter last year so they added Mike Miller, a stud shooter who is prone to injury and is also a liability defensively. I don’t think he is enough to make the Grizzlies true contenders to represent the West in the Finals. But now let’s look at the positives, they have Z-Bo and Gasol, two elite post players who compliment each other’s game very well as both are good passers and can make a 15 foot jumpshot. They also have Tony Allen, probably the best perimeter defender in all of basketball, but he can’t score, making him a non-entity on the offensive side of the ball. The other player worth noting is Mike Conley Jr, a solid point guard who played well last season, but was eventually overwhelmed by the elite point guard play of Tony Parker in the Western Conference Finals. This Memphis team might need to make a mid-season trade for a perimeter scorer if they have any hopes of making a long run in the West. The Grizzlies are good but not good enough to be a top four seed.
4.) *New Orleans Pelicans
The newly named Pelicans are young, and a sleeper team. The team has a terrific young core with Jrue Holiday 23, Eric Gordon 24, Tyreke Evans 24, Ryan Anderson 25 and Anthony Davis 20. New Orleans’ biggest move was trading away next year’s first round pick to Philly for Jrue Holiday, a surprising move for some as the first round pick in 2014 could be a star, but New Orleans opted for a proven All-Star in Jrue Holiday. NOLA also signed Tyreke Evans, who was in a dreadful situation in Sacramento and although he has regressed since his standout rookie season, with more shooters and playmakers, he should be able to find more ways to score. The key will be Eric Gordon, an oft injured shooting guard who has past history of being a 20 point scorer and could improve the Pelicans’ playoff hopes if he stays healthy. The other integral member of this squad is last year’s #1 overall pick Anthony Davis, who was the most efficient rookie last year with a PER of 21.86 good for 15th in the entire NBA. He is a menace on the defensive side and his offensive game has clearly improved since his Kentucky season and Davis could be an All-star. The main problem with this team is the lack of girth up front as Davis isn’t your ideal big man with size and strength. Davis is more finesse and quickness than power. If NOLA trades one of their shooters like Ryan Anderson for a defensive big man, the Pelicans would have a solid team at all positions. The Pelicans should improve greatly from last season, and develop nicely as these young, talented players mesh well.
5.) Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks have gone from NBA champions in 2011 to the edge of irrelevance in 2013-2014. Most of this is due to the missed opportunities in free agency including the Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard sweepstakes. Now the Mavericks have constructed a team with Dirk at the helm and Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis as secondary players, a team that will be lackluster defensively to say the least. Mark Cuban won’t settle for medicority and that is why I posed the question, should the Mavs trade Dirk? The team publicly has said they want Dirk to retire a Maverick but if a borderline-championship team offers valuable picks for an aging veteran, the Mavs would be unwise to pass on the opportunity. Dallas is not a serious contender, and they are in a rebuilding mode whether they know or accept the fact. If this is Dirk’s last season as a Maverick, he will probably land with a contender by Christmas, and Dallas will look to get some new talent in the stacked 2014 draft.
Although the center position is not at the same level as in the 1990 and early 2000, there are a few up and coming centers that have a lot of skill and potential. Centers are no longer solely play the center position as in the past. Many switch between power forward and center.
1. Dwight Howard – Houston Rockets
Although the “Dwightmare” has ruined Howard’s reputation and has made him look puerile and foolish, Dwight is still by far the best all around center in the league. Although Dwight had a “down” year, Howard posted the best stats among all the centers in the league. Howard led the league in rebounding, 12.4, while averaging 17.1 points, 2.4 blocks, and 1.1 steals. Howard was able to post great numbers although he changed teams and schemes and had to play through a myriad of injuries. The drop in his scoring can be attributed to his fewer shot attempts and minutes. Howard shot a ridiculous 58% from the field because he only shoots from around the paint. If Howard can improve his free throw shooting percentage, 49%, to around 60%, he would score three or four more points per game. Howard has average a double double during every season of his nine year career. Dwight has even completed four seasons where he averaged more than 13.5 rebounds and 20.5 points. Besides for being a solid offensive player because of his athleticism, he is one of the best defensive players of this generation because he is dominant inside the paint. Howard has led the league in rebounds five of the last six seasons and has blocked more than 2 shots per game for each of the last six seasons. Howard led the league in defensive rating three times and defensive win shares four times. Most impressively, Dwight won three straight Defensive Player of the Year Awards and has been elected to four first defensive All-NBA teams.
2. Marc Gasol – Memphis Grizzlies
The reigning DPOY has significantly improved during the last few seasons of his career. Marc is one of the most skilled all around players in the league because he can score, pass, rebound, and defend. Gasol recorded the most assists, 4.0, among centers, but he could have tallied many more because he has a great vision of the court like point guards. Gasol only averaged 14.1 points per game last season because he only shot 10.9 times per game. However, he is an efficient shooter from the field, 49%, and a great free throw shooter for a big man, 85%. Last year, he had an all around good year, averaging 14.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game. Gasol was the main reason why the Grizzlies took the next step and played in their first Western Conference Final. Although Gasol excels on the offensive side of the game, he is a great defensive wizard. He is extremely intelligent, long, lengthy, strong, and knows how to defend the rim without committing silly fouls. Gasol finished top five in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. Gasol is in the middle of his prime and should continue dominating the offensive and defensive side of the floor.
3. Brook Lopez – Brooklyn Nets
The offensive minded Brooklyn center is the best offensive center in the league. The All-Star center had a great offensive season for the Brooklyn Nets during their inaugural season. Lopez was able to have a great season, although he only played 5 games the previous season. Over the past three seasons, Lopez showed why he is the best offensive center by averaging more than 19 points per game and shooting over 49%. Last year, Lopez had his best season, averaging 19.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 52% shooting, and 76% from the free throw line. Lopez has a diverse set of moves including the sweep through which enables him to frequently head to the line to shoot two free throws. Although Lopez is frequently criticized because he does not rebound at a high level, many people do not watch the Nets’ games who are criticizing him. If they watched the game, they would realize that his job is to protect the rim and the power forward position is suppose to grab the rebounds. Although Lopez is slow and does not have great footwork, he is able to make up his mistakes with his length and size. Next year, I predict Lopez to make a leap forward because Garnett will help his defense and his offensive skills should only improve.
4. LaMarcus Aldridge – Portland Trailblazers
The former first round pick out of Texas has been one of the best big men in the league since his rookie season in 2006. Although his rookie season was underwhelming, he has significantly improved and has been one of the best scorers down in the post. The 6’11” star has a good set of moves around the basket and a nice jump shot, which makes him nearly impossible to defend. Over the past three seasons, LaMarcus has scored more than 21 points while shooting over 48% from the field. Along with posting great scoring numbers for a big man, Aldridge is a solid rebounder, over 8 rebounds per game. Although Aldridge puts up nice stats, he is not a top fifteen player in the league because he is a horrible defensive player. Aldridge shows little effort on defense, but could be a solid defensive player. He is strong and tall, which should enable him to stay in front and stop opposing offenders. Last season, Aldridge posted some of the worst defensive numbers in his career according to the defensive metrics. Last year, he had a defensive rating of 107 and a win share of 2.3, both are below average. Aldridge looks like he may be the next big star to be traded. Ironically, he wants to be traded to the Bulls, although he was originally drafted by them.
5. Roy Hibbert – Indiana Pacers
Indiana’s behemoth had a great postseason performance, which catapulted him into my top five centers in the league. Although he has not experienced a lot of success during the regular season, Hibbert has played his best basketball during the post season. During the postseason two years ago, Hibbert was a defensive menace, 11.2 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game. Last season, Hibbert became more of a complete player, 17.0 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. Although he did not block as many shots last season, he altered every shot inside the paint and came away with one of the best blocks all season against Carmelo Anthony in a tight game six. During the regular season, Hibbert has constantly averaged around 12 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks. However, Hibbert should make a significant jump this season in the scoring department. Last season, he shot only 45% from the field, which is horrible for a man who only shoots from inside the paint. During the playoffs, he shot over 51%, which is what I expect him to shot next season. Although his offense will never be great, he will play a long time because he is a great defensive player. Hibbert finished top five in defensive rating, defensive win shares, block percentage, and blocks.
6. DeMarcus Cousins – Sacramento Kings
The young 22 year old center for the Kings is one of the most talented, but controversial players in the league. Over the last two seasons, Cousins has posted solid stats and has become one of the powerful center’s in the league. In terms of talent, Cousins may have the most talent among centers in the league. Cousins has the size, strength, and skill to score against any player on offense. Over the last two seasons, Cousins has averaged 17.5 points in only 30.5 minutes per game. His PER 36 minute are even more impressive, 20.7 points. Along with scoring a lot, Cousins is a superb rebounder. In 2012, he recorded 11 rebounds per game and almost recorded another double digit season last year, 9.9 rebounds. Last year, DeMarcus became a more efficient scorer, 44% versus 47%. Although he is extremely talented, Cousins routinely loses focus and his game consequently falters. Cousins’ defense is affected by his lack of effort because he frequently forgets to run back on defense and defend the post. Cousins’ horrible attitude causes the coach to have headaches and negatively affects his teammates. Cousins is unable to maintain his emotions, which causes him to rack up technical fouls and personal fouls. When Cousins learns how to focus and play with intensity, he will be a 20-10 man and a constant All-Star
7. Joakim Noah – Chicago Bulls
Although Noah may not be the best player on the Bulls, he is the heart and soul of team and specifically the defense. On offense, Noah has one of the ugliest shots in the game, which makes me cringe every time he shoots. Although his shot is ugly, he is a career 50% shooter and shoots 73% from the free throw line. Noah is a tough player who does not need to shoot often to make an impact on the game. Over the last four seasons, Noah has averaged about 11 points per game. Although he does not score often, he is a good passer and has great vision of the court. Last year he was tied with Marc Gasol for most assists per game for a center, 4.0. Noah makes his money on the defensive side of the court. During his six year career, Noah has averaged at least 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game in three different seasons. Last year, Noah had his best defensive year by setting a career high in rebounds, 11.1, blocks, 2.1, steals, 1.2, and defensive win shares, 4.7. Unlike most centers, Noah has the ability to grab rebounds and protect the rim. Noah has great footwork, dedication, and focus, which makes him a terror to compete against. Every team would love to have Noah because he is a proven winner and will make his teammates give their best efforts. Noah is the opposite of Cousins because he does not have the innate ability like DeMarcus, but plays extremely hard and will never give up on his teammates or coach.
8. Al Horford – Atlanta Hawks
Big Al is coming off the best season of his career at the age of 26. Al should continue posting solid statistical years as he continues into his prime. For the first time in his career, Al will be the main option on offense for the Hawks, after the departure of Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. After a subpar 2012 season because of injury, Al averaged a double double for the first time in his career. Horford has been one of the most efficient players among big men. Last year, Horford scored 17.4 points on 14.3 shots while shooting 54% from the field. Along with improving on his offensive numbers, Horford has improved his defensive. When Al entered the league, he was considered a below average defender. However, he has improved his footwork and ability to guard the pick and roll, which has made him a decent defender. Horford should and needs to improve as a player if the Hawks are going to make the playoffs again next season.
9. Chris Bosh – Miami Heat
The third piece of the ‘Big 3’ has been an extremely inconsistent player during his three years with the Miami Heat. Before signing with the Heat, Bosh was one of the most successful big men in the league, posting three seasons of at least 22.5 points and 10.0 rebounds. Although he was never the best rebounder, Chris tallied five straight season of at least 22.5 points before signing a max deal with the Heat. Last season, Bosh had his worst year since his rookie season. Bosh posted his second lowest scoring and lowest rebounding average of his career. Bosh’s 12.3 shots per game is the lowest since his rookie season and explains his decrease in scoring output. However, Bosh should be increasing his rebounding totals, since he is the tallest starter and the most adept at rebounding. Although Bosh is scoring fewer points, he had his most efficient season, 54% from the field. Although had a “down” year in terms of offense, Bosh blocked 1.4 shots and stole 0.9 balls per game, both career highs. According to the defensive metrics, Bosh is an average defensive player, although he can be a great rim protector when he active on defense. During the postseason, Bosh was a complete anomaly. Bosh had worse stats in the playoffs than the regular season, 12.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 45% shooting percentage. Bosh started to drift outside of the paint and shot about two threes per game. During his career, Bosh averaged about half a three per game.
10. Al Jefferson – Charlotte Hornets
The newest member of the new named Hornets received a big money deal this offseason because he is a consistent producer. Al has posted consistent scoring and rebounding number since he began starting in his third year. The integral part of the deal that sent Kevin Garnett to the Celtics has been so consistent that it is actually scary. Over the past four seasons, Jefferson has averaged around 18 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1 steal, and 49% shooting from the field. For a big man, Jefferson has a nice array of inside moves and touch on his jumper. Jefferson will provide the Hornets with a veteran presence that they did not have in previous seasons. Jefferson will allow the Hornets to have a go to scorer during crunch time, when they desperately need a bucket. Although Al has a nice offensive game, he is a not a good defensive player. Jefferson’s deficiencies will be obvious on the Hornets because Cody Zeller is not a good defender either. Last season, Jefferson posted poor defensive stats because he is not the most athletic player and does not give full effort on defense.
pics and stats from espn.com and basketballreference