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Enemy: Houston Rockets
3SOB Forecast*: 51-31

Photo: Houston Rockets Official

What’s the story in Houston?

The Dwightmare is over. That’s what we said to ourselves last off-season when the (then) six-time all-star center was traded to Los Angeles. But you know those nightmares that you “wake up” from, where you really find yourself in another layer of dream? That’s kind of what happened this summer, as Howard never really settled into the Hollywood stage and once again was shopping for a new home just a year removed from the initial relocation.

Orlando was not big time enough… or maybe it was… for Howard, who was infamously conflicted over his situation in Florida. Then in LA, the happy-go-lucky big man shriveled up in the spotlight and resented his role as second fiddle to the Black Mamba. Or maybe we’re all wrong and he just secretly couldn’t live with being overshadowed by Mickey Mouse in both of those locations.

Like Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Yao Ming before him, Howard has opted to don the Houston Rockets’ red and join the rich posse of big men that decorates the franchise’s history. Logistically speaking, Houston reads as the perfect fit for him. He will still be in a top five metropolitan area — and one that is starved for basketball success, at that. In the same token, he distances himself from the scrutinous eye of the scathing larger media markets. And for what it’s worth there’s no Disney Land or World for at least 900 miles. Sorry Mickey.

Signing Howard is the capstone of what has been one of the more gentlemanly rebuilding processes in recent memory of the NBA — yes, gentlemanly. With notorious and blatant tank jobs cornering the market on rebuilding franchises in the league, it’s nice to see a team move forward with maintenance of dignity and make it back into the discussion. After surviving a few years of living in the middle, the Rockets proved that it can in fact be done, proving it possible in to rebuild your roster without giving up on years of competition and swinging for the fences at a bunch of high-lottery picks. In obvious and desperate need of a recovery period after the Yao Ming era fractured before them, the franchise managed to turn things around without ever dipping below the 12th NBA draft slot.

For escaping the middle without running backwards, analytics guru general manager Darryl Morey has nothing less than my utmost respect. The respect is shared in some respect by the national media, as the Rockets will go from having six nationally televised games all last season (4 of which on NBA TV) to a whopping 26 games this year (6 NBA TV).

Of course, as is the case with any good ascent, there was some degree of luck involved. The basketball gods struck a perfectly harmonious chord in Houston’s favor, as the building process was rapidly accelerated by the coincidence of the Thunder’s need to free up some future cap space and the Rockets’ possession of assets that filled their needs. The resulting acquisition of James Harden, who emerged as a star in his own right, vaulted the Rockets directly back into the playoffs where they battled it out with his former team.

Who are they cooking with?

PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Omer Asik
C : Dwight Howard
6 : Patrick Beverley

The party in paradise-Texas does not come without cause for concern. Howard has never played on a team that ranked higher than tenth in the league in pace. Always capable of running the floor with his extra-terrestrial athletic ability for a man of his physical stature, Howard has never exactly been comfortable as an open court or pick-and-roll big. One of his major points of contention with Mike D’Antoni last season was his former coach’s insistence that he play the roll man for Steve Nash. Howard seemed to exhibit preference towards camping out in the post in a dump-it-down offensive attack, with the floor spaced and stocked by long range snipers like he was in the glory days with the Magic.

Well for the Rockets’ sake, let us hope that my suspicions are to be invalidated, as there was not a single team that enjoyed to get out and run as much as the boys in Houston did last season. They led the league with a pace rating of 98.6 possessions per game. With the exception of newly added shooters Omri Casspi, Reggie Williams, and Isaiah Canaan, as well as end-of-bench veteran Marcus Camby, on top of Howard, the roster remains largely similar, and thus Kevin McHale’s style of play factors to remain in the realm of similarity as well.

Harden’s rise to stardom has been an obvious catalyst for the team’s success, but last season he was aided by lead Howard recruiter Chandler Parsons — who remains on his absolute steal of a rookie contract of under a million on the season, and last summer’s poison pill signings Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. Speaking of the latter two, they could find their respective Rockets careers on the premature downturn. Lin’s -3.0 net on/off rating fared poorly when compared to the admittedly limited sample size of Patrick Beverley’s +5.8 last year, while Asik’s position and style of play pose some serious overlap with the new franchise center. Expect the rumor mill around the Rockets to be set in perpetual motion from now until February.

How do the good guys stack up?

Photo: Scott Halleran / Getty Images

Josh Coleman:

Anybody hear what Houston did this offseason? I seem to recall it being something notable, but the particulars are escaping me at the moment…. Ah well, I guess it will come to me later.

Seriously though, they went out and got “their guy” in Dwight Howard, who is still one of the best centers in the game, even with his injury issues. Despite that…I’m not concerned. Why, you ask (pretend you did and this will go a lot more smoothly)? Well, simply put, because Marc Gasol owns Dwight Howard. I was there in Gasol’s first ever NBA game when Howard was so frustrated with the big Spaniard’s defense that he got a technical in the first half because he was whining to the refs so much. So, D12 doesn’t worry me that much. Neither does James Harden, to be honest, despite his status as (arguably) the best shooting guard in the game today. Having Tony Allen around will do that for your confidence.

Instead, it is the potential combination of Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik at the forward positions that gives me cause for concern. Parsons usually plays well against Memphis, no matter which SF they put on him, and Asik was one of the best big men in the game at the pivot, so I shudder to think of what he might do against ZBo, rather than Marc. That matchup could very well decide who wins these four divisional contests. The Grizzlies still have a better bench, which should help, but all of these games should be tighter than tree bark and down to the wire. My prediction is a 2-2 split with the home team winning every game.

Matt Noe:

I’m just not buyin’ it. Just ain’t.

First…just run down that roster and find me the defensive stalwarts. Ok. That’s what I thought…except…he can’t stop a whole team, and unless he improves a fair bit from last season’s chaotic and unimpressive performance, he’ll have a hard time stopping either Gasol or Randolph alone…and the two of them? Forget it. Sure, Camby can play on experience (BUT HE WILL BE 40 BEFORE THE REGULAR SEASON IS OVER), Greg Smith is not useless on D, and Asik is a Turkish mountain of D…but he’s gonna be cranky. Even if they win a LOT, he’s gonna be cranky. Can Beverley stop anyone (insert horribly tasteless Tonya Harding joke here)? Can Lin? Not likely that either of them can shut down Conley.Wing-wise, Garcia is ok on D-but his lateral mobility is not the greatest, and his hands can get him in foul trouble and he’s subject to frustration too. Parsons, while a super useful player, has not quite gotten how to use his length to stop opposing wings, and small ball will not really be an option against the Grizz.

Now…on the other end of the court, this team will kill. Harden and Howard p-n-r? Yes, Gasol is amazingly smart on D-but that combo is going to be deadly inside and out. Sorta strikes me though, that HOU is trying what ORL did, to a decent but illusory and fleeting level of success (ha, I almost misspelled “fleeting” as “fleeing”-see what I did there?). Surround D12 with shooters, and score some points. Parsons, Harden, Reggie Williams, Aaron Brooks, Garcia…they’ve got some decent outside threats, but the Grizzlies have TA, Prince, Pondexter, and perhaps Franklin ready to shut down that very idea. Gotta think that the Grizzlies have an edge over the Rockets this season, and I, for one, have my doubts about deeming the Rockets any sort of contender.

Forrest Walker (of Red94):

So, the Houston Rockets kind of have a lot to prove this season. They completed step two of a many-step process and signed Dwight Howard to a four year contract, with step one being James Harden. Expectations have moved from incredibly low to incredibly high in the span of about ninety days, and now Houston has to put up or shut up in the toughest division in sports. The Houston Rockets and the Memphis Grizzlies already had something of a respectful rivalry before, but now that both are fighting for the same playoff spots in earnest, this could be a matchup to watch. As with the San Antonio Spurs, the Rockets always seem to have close matches with the Grizzlies, even when one team seems like the clear favorite. There’s no reason to expect that to stop now, since both teams have somewhat opposite reasons for needing to prove they can hang in the top of the Western Conference.

Houston has to prove they aren’t a paper tiger, and Memphis has to prove that the Grizzlies haven’t lost any bite with the departure of head coach Lionel Hollins. Making this matchup even more intriguing is the big man battle we might see. With two post and rebound threats in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, Memphis might be one of the only teams Houston tries a twin towers scheme against. Dwight Howard and newly demoted Ömer Aşık share so much of the same role and have so little range on their shot that on most nights they’ll probably never touch hardwood at the same time. Against a very talented and very tall group of Memphis big men, trotting out both centers for extended minutes might not only make sense, but could lead to the kind of brutal, physical grudge match Houston just doesn’t tend towards.

The Grizzlies might not be the biggest rivals in the west for Houston, but they’re a real threat that the team and its fans will both dread and look forward to. Bring on those four games, Memphis. This should be rough, rowdy and raucous.

When and Where do they square off?

November 25th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
December 26th: 7:00PM at the Toyota Center
January 24th: 7:00PM at the Toyota Center
January 25th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum

For more Rockets content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at Red94.

*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.

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