With the NBA offseason activity beginning to wane heavily this week, albeit for a few signings still up in the air- Greg Oden/Nikola Pekovic notably. And on the eve of the NFL and college football's annual takeover of all things media, I think it's finally time to make some predictions for the upcoming NBA season given that the majority of rosters are somewhere between working rough draft and fixed. Now before reading this column, I need you guys to realize a few things: 1) I'm making NBA predictions in JULY and literally ANYTHING can happen before the season to derail these predictions. 2) These are 100% serious. I am not here to troll or make fun of anybody. That would be churlish and a waste of time. 3) I encourage you to respond with how you feel about my predictions. So without further ado, I present to you a running column that will include a Fanpost for each and every NBA team, "The Flagrantly Early, Incredibly Half-Baked NBA Predictions Series."
When you really look into this scenario, the parallels are a bit uncanny. When Houston signed Dwight Howard it combined the league’s consensus most dominant center with it’s fastest rising superstar shooting guard, much like the Lakers did with Shaq & Kobe before the 1996-1997 season. People forget when Shaq joined the Lakers, there was ample controversy surrounding his legacy and character. Shaq had missed close to 30 games his last season in Orlando, and NBA pundits at the time were clamoring that he wasn’t all that great and that Shaq couldn’t handle the moment. They thought he was more worried about being a celebrity and people liking him than winning. Further there was speculation that his injury woes would cause him to gain weight or lose his effectiveness. Sound familiar to what we’ve been hearing for the past 12 months about Dwight Howard? And just like Shaq’s exit from Orlando, I think Dwight Howard just wanted to get away from all the criticism, be on a team not a one man show, and just play the game, drink Pepsi, and wear Reebok. So he found a resurrection opportunity of sorts in Houston.
Now the wheels come off when you consider the first few Shaq-Kobe seasons, where Shaq had a few injury woes, Kobe was too young, the Lakers had no shooters, and every year they got handled in the playoffs by the Jazz. But, Howard’s not joining Kobe as a teen; he’s joining James Harden as a grown man who has blossomed magnificently into an NBA superstar this past season. Further, this Rockets team is stacked with shooters Chandler Parsons, Francisco Garcia, and Pat Beverly. While they’ve taken different paths to get to this point, I think this Rockets team from the get-go looks more similar to the 1999-2000 version of the Los Angeles Lakers than the early versions. Thus, the new Shaq and Kobe have been born in Houston on the Rockets in the form of James Harden and Dwight Howard. Will they conquer the league or will it take time? But one more parallel before we leave- Shaq was 28 when he won his first title; how old does Dwight turn this December? 28. We will see if history chooses to repeat itself.
No. 2: Daryl Morey trades Asik at the deadline for the missing piece
A lot is going to happen between now and next February- injuries, lowered expectations, etc. -that will change the probability and outlook of this prediction. Yet, when you look at the Houston Rocket’s roster today, the most dispensable player is clearly Omer Asik. Now, Omer was a champ last year averaging a double-double as the defensive anchor and only steady piece in the Rocket’s bare frontcourt. Asik had the 2nd best overall rebounding rate amongst centers (1st in defensive rebounding) and looked to have made the leap in his 3rd year in the NBA. But, he’s now backing up Dwight Howard and Asik has no intention of being the next Marcin Gortat. While some suggest Asik slide over to Power Forward where the Rockets have a dearth of experienced talent (Greg Smith, Donatas, and Terrence Jones), it’s inconceivable that Houston can afford to play both Howard and Asik thirty minutes a game with their mismatched skill sets.
Herein lies Omer Asik on the trade block. The Rockets have a few gaps on their roster that could be improved or built upon that would make them even more of a contender this year. Power Forward is their most glaring need and the Rockets would do well bring in a player who complements Dwight’s strengths better than Asik- basically a PF with a face up game who can play in the high post. Unless, of course, Terrence or Donatas are primed to break out like some speculate they will. Maybe a point guard upgrade is in order, if Jeremy Lin doesn’t make the leap in year 3 like he should. Possibly a few extra shooters or defensive stoppers to play kryptonite for the Kevin Durants and Russell Westbrooks of the Western Conference. Or maybe they keep Asik because what team would be crazy enough to take on his $14 million salary for 2014, even given his rapid development into an above average stopper. I say Morey’s smart, trades Asik, and grabs that one game-changing piece- whatever it may be- that’ll launch these Rockets to the NBA finals.
No. 3: Houston Rockets make the NBA finals
For the reasons listed above, Asik grabbing them the missing piece, Howard + Harden becoming the next Shaq + Kobe duo, and Jeremy Lin possibly making the leap, I believe this Rockets team has what it takes to beat the best of the Western Conference. Do they lack chemistry? Sure, but that’s something that will come as the season progresses. When you view the landscape of the Western Conference elite, it’s going to be a tough road ahead. San Antonio returns their entire lineup that just crushed the West in the playoffs en route to the closest 2nd place you’ll see in NBA hoops, but you can’t mistake the facts- that run looked more like a farewell ride than a corner being turned. Oklahoma City has the Anti-Dwight (Kendrick Perkins) who they are paying millions too much for that role, yet as we saw last year Houston has the Anti-Russell (Pat Beverly). Clips and Warriors both looked to have improved vastly and are deep, strong contenders, but Howard is just so much better than DeAndre Jordan or Andrew Bogut and the weak frontcourt backups they have. Memphis poses the greatest threat as Marc Gasol and Z-Bo can out bang anybody in the post, which could render Dwight helpless. Yet as we saw in last year’s WCF, they just can’t score at a high level.
Now, to some this seems like a longshot, but who can say that Houston won’t get the lucky breaks, fluky plays, and injuries that happen every season. My money says they do, they make the most of this season- the 20-year anniversary of their first title- and in some mystical way everything goes the Rocket’s way vindicating all the misplaced hate for the Dwight Howards and Jeremy Lins of the world. Dare to dream, folks.