COMMENTARY | It certainly sounds trite to say that the landscape of the Western Conference is changing, but anyone who says otherwise hasn't been watching basketball lately.
The timing of the Houston Rockets' signing of Dwight Howard couldn't have come at a better time. In the matter of two seasons, the Rockets have gone through wholesale changes that have put them in the position to contend. What exactly is contending these days? It's entering April's festivities with a chance to come out of the West: point blank.
The only team in the West that has had anywhere near as much roster movement as the Rockets in the last two years are the Dallas Mavericks, but no one is confusing the stock of the two franchises. Houston plowed through three years of mediocrity before last season's modest but promising success, and all signals point to continued progress for Morey's upstart crew.
Houston's got themselves a young shooting guard in James Harden who can fill up the box score the way guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant do. They have a marquee big man in Dwight Howard who can protect the paint, grab rebounds at an elite rate, and score with his back to the basket. They have a crafty third scorer in Chandler Parsons, who can guard the opposing team's best wing player, shoot the three with consistency, and play the angles of the court correctly at both ends, while supplying the team with an on-court savvy that can't be put so plainly into words.
Outside of those three, there are a ton of questions. Who starts at power forward? Who starts at point? Who of the four bigs (Terrance Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Omer Asik and Greg Smith) fits best next to Howard? What will the offense look like after adding a post player like Howard? Will last year's defensive troubles carry over to next season? Who's the next guy out the door and who's taking his spot? These questions can range from player personnel moves, to rotational issues, to player development, to possible chemistry problems and so on.
The questions are many and the answers are few at this juncture, but that isn't a problem that only Houston faces. The Western Conference is filled with teams retooling, reworking and readjusting from top to bottom. The San Antonio Spurs are in the process of going through possibly devastating changes, as the team shifts from the Parker-Duncan-Ginobili three-headed monster to the Parker-Leonard-Green-Splitter quartet; a move that time has deemed necessary, but may not keep San Antonio among the NBA's elite. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder just lost their sixth man (Kevin Martin) in free agency, and who knows if Jeremy Lamb is ready to take over that role. The Los Angeles Clippers, who in my opinion are the next best team out West, just brought in a new coach (Doc Rivers), a new backup point guard (Darren Collison) and a couple of wings (Jared Dudley and J.J Redick), but their future still depends on the sometimes stagnant progress of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Aside from those three, I don't think there's a team in the West that you can say has a definite leg up on Houston. The Memphis Grizzlies are pretty much the same as they were last year, and if they couldn't come out of the injury-riddled West last season, it's going to be even tougher for them to do it this year. The Denver Nuggets have taken a step back with the departures of Andre Iguodala, Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer, while only bringing J.J Hickson and Randy Foye into the fold. The Golden State Warriors brought in Iguodala, but losing Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry could hurt them more than most people seem to think. Then, there are the Los Angeles Lakers (insert devious laugh, possibly even Dr. Evil's patented pinky to the corner of the mouth).
Now, just because those teams are going through changes, it doesn't mean that Houston is going to run through the competition without its fair share of roadblocks. Each of the aforementioned teams can still make roster moves, improve internally, or fall victim to untimely injuries, but the point is that the Western Conference has a little more wiggle room heading into next season.
With that being said, even the young and retooling Minnesota Timberwolves could put a shock into the league, as well as the Portland Trail Blazers, who finally have some NBA bodies coming off their bench. There's no doubt that the Western Conference is still deep, talented, and the better of the two conferences, but Houston potentially could find themselves among the top-tier teams in the West. Morey's plan is unfolding nicely this summer; now it's time for Harden and the gang to prove that they belong in the title conversation.
M. De Moor is an NBA junkie and a graduate of Montclair State University. He has followed the Rockets from the championship days of Hakeem Olajuwon, to the years of Francis and Mobley, to the McGrady and Yao era, and will continue to follow them through Harden and Dwight's reign of destruction.
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