The Houston Rockets finally got their superstars. General manager Daryl Morey took a long, winding path to get here, and now the Rockets are in contention. The pieces of the puzzle are falling in place, but the competition is fierce out west.
Can the Rockets really run the table? Or is the Western Conference too crowded for Houston to return to the Finals?
There are a number of factors that will decide the fate of the Rockets this season. They still have to develop team chemistry before they can achieve anything. Also, there are a handful of other talented teams in the West that may have a slight edge over Houston.
The Rockets' roster on paper looks like a legitimate contender, but that does not mean it will play out that way on the court.
The best example of that would be last year's Lakers. On paper, they had four All-Stars in their starting lineup, including two former MVPs. As it turned out, the players suffered injuries and never got the opportunity to develop chemistry and mesh on the court. Also, they did not quite fit coach Mike D'Antoni's system.
The Rockets should look at the Lakers' season last year as a warning sign. Even with Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers struggled mightily. The Rockets must develop chemistry if they want to truly compete with the best out west.
Chemistry does not develop overnight. The Rockets' coaching staff must find a system that utilizes everyone's talents in the best manner possible in order to maximize the potential of this young team. If the Rockets can find a way to mesh their players on the court, unlike the Lakers, it is more likely that they will contend.
The Rockets have already had several players work out together this past week in Los Angeles. The team is getting a head start in developing chemistry, which will come in handy down the road.
Houston does have some great talent, but they are not the only ones in the West who can boast a great roster.
The San Antonio Spurs are the defending Western Conference champs. They are bringing back their entire Big Three, plus adding sharpshooter Marco Belinelli to their arsenal. As long as Coach Popovich is on the sideline and Tim Duncan is wearing a jersey, the Spurs are a dangerous threat out west, and probably finish ahead of Houston next season.
The Oklahoma City Thunder sent the Rockets packing last year in the first round. They have superstar Kevin Durant and All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook is returning from injury. With those two guys healthy, OKC is a lock for home-court advantage in the West, and most likely ahead of Houston in the standings.
The Clippers were bounced in the first round this past season, but they have swiftly made moves to make sure that doesn't happen again. Not only did they bring back Chris Paul to pair up with Blake Griffin, but they also added an array of shooters, such as JJ Redick and Jared Dudley, that makes this Clippers team awfully deep. With their superstar duo and tremendous depth coming off the bench, the Clippers will cruise through the regular season near the top of the conference, also edging out Houston.
After these three teams, there are no longer any more true powerhouses. This drop-off is where the second tier of teams comes in, and they are all fairly equal.
Many people would understandably argue that Memphis comes next because of their dominant defense and twin towers in the paint (Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol). After all, the Grizz did make it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, only to get swept by San Antonio.
Others would argue that Golden State belongs here. The Warriors are a fun team to watch, and they made a great run last year, only to fall short against San Antonio in the Western Semis. They shoot the lights out thanks to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in the backcourt, and they just signed Andre Iguodala to dramatically improve their perimeter defense.
Both Memphis and Golden State are viable options for that last home-court spot among the West's top four teams. However, I would give Houston a slight edge to come away with that coveted final spot.
The Rockets were among the most efficient teams offensively last season. They had a unique offensive attack, which usually was James Harden running the pick-and-roll surrounded by three-point shooters. The Rockets only took efficient shots, either around the rim or from behind the arc, which is why they were among the league's best at running up the scoreboard.
Houston's weakest attribute last season was its defense. The Rockets were a middle-of-the-pack defensive team with center Omer Asik in the game, but when he was on the bench, all hell broke loose. Now, the Rockets have Dwight Howard, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, clogging the lane and Asik backing him up (if he decides to stick around).
The constant protection at the rim should help the Rockets dramatically improve their defensive efficiency. If they can become more efficient on defense and continue to excel offensively, the Rockets will be among the most dangerous teams in the NBA.
Of the three teams fighting for that fourth spot, the Rockets have improved the most since last season. They have made the necessary moves this offseason to put themselves in a home-court situation come playoff time.
The Final Prediction
I predict that the Rockets will get that fourth seed and host a playoff series in the first round. They have enough talent and a smart coach that can carry them through the regular season among the top four.
Once the playoffs come around, the Rockets should be able to make a deeper run than last year. In a seven-game series with home-court advantage, they can take any team that is not listed above in the top three (Spurs, Thunder, Clippers).
After the first round, things will get much more difficult for the Rockets. They will have to face the Spurs, Clippers or Thunder, assuming there aren't any upsets or drastic injuries.
By this time of the year, if the Rockets have developed chemistry throughout the course of an entire season, they have what it takes to pull off the upset. They can outlast Los Angeles or Oklahoma City, possibly even San Antonio, if they stick to their game plan and execute.
I predict that the Rockets will upset a powerhouse and move on to the Western Conference Finals.
In the team's first full season together, the magic may stop there. I just don't see the Rockets pulling off two stunning upsets and winning the West in their first year together.
A Western Conference Finals appearance is nothing to be ashamed about, even if it isn't the team's ultimate goal. The good news for Houston fans is that the Rockets' championship window is wide open. Even if they do not win it all this year, the Rockets will contend for years to come.
How far will the Rockets go this season?
The Rockets will make a name for themselves this year, and will be a strong force for many years after, but they will not make it all the way in just one year.
Perhaps down the road the Rockets can hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy just like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler did in the '90s. This year, however, the Western Conference Finals are a much more reasonable expectation.