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Ball Don't Lie

Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Houston Rockets

Ball Don't Lie

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Dwight Howard, center of attention (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

It seems a little thin, or borderline daft, to wrest an entire franchise’s season-long hopes on the idea that one franchise cornerstone will lead a team to great things because he feels loved. Still, aren’t you getting that feeling with Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets?

Fawning praise, free agent contracts for good buddies, and the adoration of the community eventually failed Howard in Orlando. For a while there, though, surrounded by a coach he still likes as a person (though he didn’t like as a co-worker) and heaps of buddies (and three-point shooters), Howard led the Magic to great things. A Finals appearance in 2009. One Vince Carter flameout away from another Finals appearance in 2010. The destruction of LeBron James’ finest Cleveland Cavaliers team, and the eventual desperate turn from both Cleveland and Boston as they hired an ancient Shaquille O’Neal to man their middle.

Howard is older now, and just as loved in Houston, but also coming off one of the tougher decisions an NBA free agent has ever had to make. Yes, max money is max money, and Howard will eventually rake it all in, but he left the bloody Los Angeles Lakers. Left them for a team that managed the same record as Los Angeles last year, even though the Rockets worked with a far healthier roster. Yes, it was to be adored all over again, and Los Angeles as anything other than a summertime rental doesn’t suit Dwight, but it was still a significant jump.

A jump to a better team. Kudos to Dwight for utilizing those basketball reasons.

As it was in Orlando, he’ll have his buddies slash three-point shooters around him, and a gregarious coach that doesn’t mince words in place. The difference is that he’ll be without the tough love from Kobe Bryant, a good thing in Dwight’s eyes, but no real leadership history in the form of teammates James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Patrick Beverely. Anyone from that triptych could step up to take the vocal locker room lead, but the youth and promise that lured Howard to Houston has to turn into actual veteran guidance at some point.

This is why Howard’s run in Houston could outpace his time in Orlando. Mostly because those Magic didn’t have anything close that what the Rockets have in Harden, but because Howard is older. Dwight is still a goofball, to an embarrassing degree sometimes, but he is older, and his skin will crawl if he gets that old Orlando feeling all over again.

Luckily for Dwight, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey isn’t the sort of GM that hands out a six-year, $118 million contract to Rashard Lewis.

Morey isn’t done tinkering, which is good, because the Rockets feature a gaping hole at the power forward slot, and once the giddiness of the preseason dies down and paper starts to play, they could be revealed as a team lacking playoff-worthy depth. Morey has stocked the cupboard with all sorts of players that we truly do love on paper – Reggie Williams, Donatas Motiejunas, Omri Casspi, Ronnie Brewer and Francisco Garcia alone run the swingman portion of things – but these characters have to coalesce in a hurry.

The same goes for the hybrid backcourt featuring both Lin and Beverly, a potential powder keg that McHale (a cheery sort) seems to have defused by now. Harden will have to find a way to create a middle ground between the ultra-efficient run he had in Oklahoma City, and super-high usage he came through with last year (while still remaining startlingly efficient). The parts will have to find a way to be greater than the sum of their parts under McHale, who is still trying to shake the stigma of a players’ coach that just rolls the ball out. Whether he deserves that tag, or not.

In the middle of it all is Howard, as it should be, as it’s where he’s compensated to stand. He will have a fitful 2013-14, you can expect, attempting equally to prove his worth as a destroyer of worlds as the undisputed best center of his generation, while fitting in with all his new buddy-buddies that like to run and shoot from 25 feet. Soon to turn 28, on his second maximum contract, he will have to produce at an All-NBA level, and lead at the same time.

Howard can’t hide in Houston. Luckily for Rocket fans, you don’t get the feeling he wants to.

Projected record: 56-26

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Kevin McHale chats it up in China (Getty Images)

Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Rockets for … the revelation of whether a new character will derail one of TV’s best-loved programs.

Before I start: Shouts to Daryl Morey for waiting until three days before last season to make the Harden trade, thereby rendering our 2012-13 Rockets preview (and its 25-57 prediction) useless in record time. Thanks a lot, man. Do us a favor: Wait until the trade deadline to polish off this year’s “unfinished” project, huh? (Given the way the last one unfolded, we might need all the moves we can get.)

Now, that said: Man, did that Harden deal make the Rockets must-see TV.

Houston opened its new era by cranking up the tempo, packing in an extra four offensive possessions per 48 minutes to move from 11th in the NBA in pace in 2011-12 to No. 1 last season, according to NBA.com’s stat tool. And they more with those possessions, posting the league’s No. 6 offense thanks to a flurry of freebies (finishing fourth in both total free-throw attempts and free-throw rate), layups (No. 3 in shots at the rim) and 3-pointers (nearly 30 percent of Houston’s offense came from beyond the arc, second only to the Knicks), many of which came in transition (No. 2 behind Denver in fast-break points per game). The catalyst for it all was offensive-efficiency prototype Harden, who went from sixth man to All-Star by finishing fifth in the NBA in scoring and sixth in minutes per game, leading the league in free-throw attempts and assisting on a career-high 25.7 percent of his teammates’ buckets.

While Chandler Parsons continued to prove he’s one of the league’s most valuable players, Omer Asik showed he could be as effective a defensive deterrent in 30 minutes a game as he was in 15, and Jeremy Lin fought off a shaky start to find his form (if not the fires of old), it was Harden who pushed Houston from give-it-a-miss top-pick territory to must-watch postseason participant by overhauling the Rockets’ offense. All Houston needed was a similar breath of fresh air for its middling D.

Hey there, Dwight.

There are issues, of course. We’ll need to see Howard -- now 18 months removed from the back injury/surgery that ended his career in Orlando and hampered him in Hollywood -- look more like the pick-and-roll-gobbling, shot-deterring three-time Defensive Player of the Year we used to know than the barely-there pivot we often saw last year. We’ll need to see Kevin McHale effectively manage the Howard-Asik pairing and the Lin-Patrick Beverley point guard combo, two combinations of once and future starters that could grow awkward and dicey if not handled properly.

More than that, though, we’ll need to see if McHale can succeed where Mike D’Antoni failed -- namely, in convincing Howard that the best way for him to dominate offensively is to set screens, roll hard and trust he’ll be found by the facilitators of arguably the NBA’s best pick-and-roll game.

The Rockets finished No. 1 in the NBA in points per play finished by pick-and-roll ball-handlers, and No. 10 on those finished by roll men, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data. You’d have to imagine that Howard, who was one of the league’s two most effective roll men in each of his last three seasons in Orlando and who finished ninth last year, even in an injury-and-chaos-riddled season, could nudge that No. 10 north … if he’s down for it, of course. When it works, it’s wonderful, but Dwight will continue to want post touches, and McHale’s got to find the right balance to keep Howard engaged on both ends without compromising the pace-and-space scheme that made the Rockets so brilliant last season.

There’s also the chance, as Morey himself noted, that even with two All-NBA-caliber talents and a slew of quality role players, Howard merely moves Houston to the middle of the Western pack rather than to the tier of top title contenders. How much farther they can go will depend largely on how Howard impacts Houston’s defense; how frequently we’ll watch, though, will depend on how much (or, preferably, how little) he impacts their go-go O.

Honorable mentions: The power-forward minutes battle among Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones; the possibility that Parsons retires to become a full-time dating advice columnist; Harden’s burgeoning singing career.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

Basketball fans will always have Linsanity, but Jeremy Lin himself must hope that it was only the first great moment in a long and fruitful NBA career. Lin’s first season as a Rocket was a mixed bag, featuring moments of stellar play reminiscent of his transcendent few weeks with the Knicks and many more extended periods of average production. With the addition of Dwight Howard this summer, Houston has its eyes on a championship, yet it’s unclear exactly how Lin fits into their plans. He appears to be in a battle for playing time with Patrick Beverley and will presumably not be asked to handle the ball as much as he did in 2012-13 when he does see the court.

This is not necessarily the worst course of events for Lin’s long-term future. Given his skills, Lin could be an excellent candidate for sixth-man duties, providing instant offense off the bench and an ability to dominate the ball when James Harden takes a rest. It would be a demotion of sorts, but also perhaps a more realistic view of what can reasonably be expected of Lin. Linsanity was by definition somewhat irregular, a glorious accident that occurred in circumstances nearly impossible to replicate. Expecting Lin to be that player, or even to come close to approximating it, is unfair.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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