The headline says it all, so let’s get right to it:
1. How good does Dwight Howard make the Rockets?
I’m a Rockets fanatic, so maybe I’m not seeing this through the correct scope, but doesn’t it seem like a possibility that the Rockets could fight for the Western Conference crown this season if everything works out? I think so. They have questions at the 1 and the 4, but they have a great general manager in Daryl Morey, a bunch of young talent outside of James Harden and Howard and a great trade asset in Omer Asik. Of course, everything could fall apart; Dwight could start panting, Jeremy Lin could continue to get minutes despite being an awful defender and infrequent offensive contributor and Kevin McHale could start doing things like playing Carlos Delfino at the 4 again (although he doesn’t have Delfino this year, maybe he’ll start throwing Francisco Garcia in as a stretch 4 to guard power forwards this year). For better or worse, it’s going to be interesting to see how good the Harden-led and Howard-infested Rockets can be.
2. Who emerges as the frontrunner of the relatively open Western Conference?
It seems weird to not consider the Spurs the best team in the West after coming so close to winning a title last season, but it seems relatively agreed upon that Oklahoma City is still the class of the West. It’s definitely going to be an awesome race to watch unfold. The Spurs will still be there, but can Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green improve enough to make up for the declining impacts of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili? Will the loss of Kevin Martin be covered up by the emergence of Jeremy Lamb or will the Thunder lose some of their luster without another consistent scorer? Are the Rockets and Golden State Warriors ready to take the leap? Can the Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets or Dallas Mavericks strike a little playoff fear into the higher seeds in the West? Then there’s that really good team in L.A. that always disappoints us in the playoffs … .
3. Will the Los Angeles Clippers finally make a run at the Western Conference crown?
There was a point last season where everyone was talking about the Clippers being the best team in the West. This summer, they shored up their wing positions with J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley and they brought in a coach with championship experience in Doc Rivers. It’s important not to overrate their offseason moves too much, though; coming through in the playoffs is still going to hinge on the improvement of Blake Griffin. Can Griffin become a more consistent offensive player and start to lift his game and his teammates games in clutch moments? Can DeAndre Jordan become anything more than a track star who plays basketball? I have faith that Rivers will be able to handle the playoff rotation and that he’ll make sure that the Clips hit their stride in March instead of November, but he can’t win them playoff games alone. He can help slightly, but the players still have to put the ball in the basket. And for the record, CP3 needs a title eventually because he’s just way too good to have to deal with his teammates constantly failing him in clutch situations.
4. Is anyone in the East ready to take down the Heat?
The last three years, the Heat have looked human as they’ve fought through the inferior conference of the NBA. Boston could have taken them down in 2011 and 2012 and Indiana had their shots in 2012 and 2013. With the Bulls coming back with Derrick Rose, the Pacers bringing in Luis Scola and a few other rotational pieces, and the Nets adding Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, and Dwyane Wade looking like a shell of himself for last year’s playoffs, it’s a reasonable possibility that the Heat don’t make it out of the East. Hopefully, the Heat will have to play two of these teams in the playoffs, not just whichever one makes it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Honestly, wouldn’t it be depressing if two of those squads emerged as legitimate contenders during the regular season, only to play each other in the second round while the Heat pick apart the New York Knicks? These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night in September.
5. Will injured stars recovering from injuries come back fully healthy?
Last season, it seemed like we were headed for a series of epic playoff battles in the Western Conference, but it didn’t turn out that way. Danilo Gallinari went down and the Denver Nuggets were upset in the first round. Russell Westbrook went down and the Kevin Durants fell to the Memphis Grizzlies without putting up much of a fight. Kobe Bryant ruptured his Achilles right before the playoffs. There’s no doubt that injuries robbed NBA fans of at least four better Western Conference series, but all we can hope for now is that everyone comes back and doesn’t miss a beat. Westbrook, Rajon Rondo and Rose are a couple of the league’s premier athletes, but will their injuries slow them down this season or for the rest of the their careers (especially Rose)? Will Bryant look like a shell of himself? Has Stephen Curry’s ankle fully healed or will it continue to be a lingering problem? What about Howard’s labrum and back? Even for some lesser guys like Lou Williams or Gallo, will they be able to rebound? Injuries are part of the game, but last season, they took an even larger toll than usual, so hopefully that evens out this season (although things don’t really seem to work out like that).
Topics: Daryl Morey, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Doc Rivers, Injuries, Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Kevin McHale, Kobe Bryant, Lou Williams, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Western Conference