NBA Sunday: 2013-14′s Most Anticipated Team?
VIDEO OF THE DAY - Dwight Howard
Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard holds court at Media Day.Watch More Video Here
2013-14′s Most Anticipated NBA Team?
Whether or not you happen to be a fan of the Houston Rockets, odds are, as you look at all of the changes made across the NBA this offseason, you’re going to be keeping at least half an eye on the new dynamic duo of Dwight Howard and James Harden. Howard has been one of the top stories in the league for the last two seasons as he made quite a spectacle of himself and his decision about where to play long-term. The overall effect of that has been that he completely alienated fan bases in Orlando and on the Lakers’ side of Los Angeles. Now it’s time for him to put that drama behind him, and the Rockets have put a team around him that looks ready to help him do that in a big way.
“These guys are two of the best players in the league and they have to continue to prove that,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey said at the team’s media day press conference, referring to Howard and Harden. “Both of them have played at extremely high levels, and in this league you’ve got to have at least one (superstar), and it’s great to have two like we have now, who can play at an elite level. You’ve got to have guys who can play a role and play it well around them. You never really know, going into the season, how it’s going to gel. We’re not going to come in as the favorites, nor should be, but we definitely have the potential to compete at a high level.”
“We all have the same goal, and that’s to win a championship,” said Howard. “We understand it’s not going to be easy because there are a lot of great teams in the West. We have an opportunity to do something special if we stay together and stay focused for the whole season. I believe in this team, I believe in our coach, and I believe in (team owner) Les (Alexander). He’s put together a great team and he’s done everything he can as an owner to make sure we have everything we need to be successful on the court. They’ve done their jobs and now it’s time for us to go out and do ours.”
“The highest limit. We can go as far as we want to go,” added Harden. “We have a lot of chemistry to rebuild with the addition of Dwight, but we have all the right pieces and we’re no longer ‘younger.’ Last year people said we were the youngest team in the league and made all these excuses. We have no more excuses. Even the guys on the bench know what it means to be on the road in front of the loudest crowds in the NBA, so it’s time to bounce off of that and show people how good we can be.”
One of the big questions still left to be answered is what will happen with the power forward position. Morey and his staff made several strong efforts to acquire a star-caliber four to play alongside Howard, but those efforts have thus far been fruitless. One possibility is that Omer Asik will play center while Howard plays some at the four, a situation that the latter sees as intriguing.
“I don’t think it’s a challenge. I’m going to get mine, but that’s not the focus,” said Howard. “Our focus as a team will be on the defensive end. We have a lot of guys who play great individual defense but we have to do it as a team. I think me and Omer have an opportunity to really mess up a lot of teams on the defensive end just because of our presence. He’s a very big guy, so when we’re playing together it will give me a chance to roam around, block a lot of shots and be who I am on the defensive end. I’m very excited about that.”
Two concerns have been prevalent among Houston fans, in light of the issues surrounding Howard on his first two teams. First, the issue of allowing a dominant shooting guard to be the team’s primary offensive weapon, and how happy he’ll be in an offense that didn’t feature the post at all last season. Harden quickly laid that concern to rest.
“Dwight’s going to help me a lot just by having an outlet to pass it to the rim,” said Harden. “There were a lot of times last season where we needed to get the ball into the post and we didn’t really have that. Dwight’s going to get his touches. He’s going to get his opportunities to score, make plays and make passes, as well. That’s why I think he fits in well with us. It’s going to be a brand of basketball where it’s easy for everybody to score.”
The second concern is the true status of Howard’s back. Once the picture of an NBA superman, almost as strong as the superhero he loves to represent, he has spent the last two seasons as a shadow of himself and had back surgery two summers ago to try and solve the problem. By all indications, he is now past that and ready to get back to being the dominant low post player who led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals.
“I feel great,” said Howard. “I spent a lot of time in Colorado just getting away from everything and training and I think it was one of the best summers I’ve had in a while. Last summer I didn’t get to train at all because of the back surgery. I just tried to jump into the season and I don’t think that was right. I’m a lot healthier this time around and I’m looking forward to the season, working with Hakeem and Kevin. The big thing they don’t want me to use my power so much all the time, but use my speed and quickness to get around guys and finish over the top. I’ve had a lot of fouls the last couple of years because I’ve been using my power and guys fall and I get offensive fouls.”
“It’s hard for me to say how he looks compared to the years ago, but he looks quick, he looks strong, he looks fresh,” said Rockets head coach Kevin McHale. “He says he feels really good, that the difference between how he felt this time last year and this year is night and day. Our training staff did a total evaluation on him in July, when we signed him, and gave him some specific stuff that they felt he really needed to work on and he did a great job of doing that.”
Dwight has also made quite an impression on his new teammates, encouraging and inspiring the same kind of team chemistry that helped push the Magic to their highest level of sustained success as a franchise.
“I would say in Orlando, the years we went deep into the playoffs and the year we made it to the Finals, we spent a lot of time together and I really like that about this team,” said Howard. “It’s a close-knit team, the chemistry is already there. We’ve spent time with each other and also we’ve been texting and talking about ways we can improve as a team. That’s one thing I really like.”
Going into training camp, the Rockets are focused on the fundamentals: playing together, playing as a team, and playing championship-caliber basketball.
“If we’re going to have the kind of success that we want to have, and this goes for any team, top players have to figure out how to play together,” said McHale. “There is only one ball, so you have to share it, and if you really get into it, it really just makes it easier on you having another guy out there. It takes some pressure off of you.”
As for Howard, no more worrying about coaching, touches, or anything else that doesn’t involve winning games.
“My focus is just to dominate on both ends of the floor and that’s what we’ve been talking about since day one – dominating the paint,” said Howard. “I’m going to make it tough for other teams to score, and on the offensive end I just have to do what I’ve been doing for the last few years.”
By all indications the Houston Rockets are going to be one of the best teams in the NBA this season, and fans across the country will be watching with interest. Lakers and Magic fans will no doubt be hoping Howard struggles to get back to the Finals with his new team. Fans of the NBA as a whole will be watching to see how this new chemistry project works out and if Howard can once again bring the center position to the forefront of the championship discussion. Fans in Houston . . .they will be watching even closer, hoping the arrival of Howard will mean the end of a decades-long postseason drought.
Houston’s X-Factor: Jeremy Lin
Exactly one year ago, few NBA players carried as much expectation on their shoulders as did Jeremy Lin. His outstanding play in New York was literally the stuff of legends, and Rockets fans hoped he would be the next franchise player to lead them on a long string of postseason runs. Unfortunately, he fell well short of expectations. Some nagging injury issues and a league that was better prepared for him conspired to make his first full season as a starter a major disappointment. Lin hopes that his second season in Houston, with a great deal of continuity on his side, will be a big improvement.
“Hopefully. The season hasn’t really started yet, but just being here, coming back to the same city I was in the year before is already a big step for me,” Lin said at his media day press conference. “I haven’t done that since junior to senior year of college. For me to be back in the same place with the same coaches and the same style is huge for me building a level of comfort. I am a creature of comfort, so when I’m comfortable I play much better. A lot of times when I don’t really know what’s going on or I’m still trying to figure it out I don’t always do too well. Hopefully I’ll be a little more mature. Like Coach said, last year was kind of my rookie year in terms of understanding what the league is all about.”
Rockets head coach Kevin McHale downplayed Lin’s struggles, pointing out that it was really kind of like his rookie season, and in that light it wasn’t all that bad.
“If people hadn’t seen that first five weeks in New York and last year was Jeremy’s first year of playing, starting the season, going 82 games, playing through all the drudgery of back-to-backs, people would be saying that was a heck of a rookie year for the kid,” said McHale. “He had really a very good year for us. I really thought he did. I think he had an opportunity to look at his game more realistically through the scope of 82 games and the scope of being a starter and the scope of not surprising people.”
The arrival of Dwight Howard means that there will be less individual pressure on Lin, but as he pointed out, it also means there is more collective pressure on the team.
“I think there’s more pressure in the sense that there are going to be more people focused on the Rockets, but from a personal standpoint I think there’s definitely less pressure and I have a lot more freedom to just be myself. Last year there was a lot of uncertainty, coming in post-Linsanity, and now it’s calmed down a little bit for sure. … I think for me, as the point guard, I have to make sure everybody gets the ball and I have to control the tempo of the game. I have a little bit different role this season, but I still want to be the same attacking player that I have been in the past and be more efficient in terms of picking my spots.”
Lin hopes that the pressure he dealt with in New York and then the pressure that met him in Houston will help him to be a calming influence for the Rockets as they embark on a season where expectations are sky-high.
“I hope so, and I hope I’m better at it,” said Lin. “I’ve had such a wide stretch of literally no expectations to every expectation and now it’s kind of going back down to lower expectations. I think the key for out team, though, is to be able to block out what’s coming in from outside. We’re going to have losing streaks and we’re going to have slumps. That’s no mystery. Every team does through that. It’s just a matter of being focused and making all of our concerns internal – communicating openly, directly, with each other. I think those are some of the keys in terms of tuning out outside noise and staying focused on our own expectations.”
It’s fairly easy to predict what the Rockets will get from their two superstars. Howard and James Harden promise to make this an exciting season for Houston. If they are going to get deep into the playoffs, however, they are going to need more from their floor leader, and Jeremy Lin appears to be up for the challenge.
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