by: Bill Ingram
If you’re looking for consistency in the NBA’s Western Conference, you need look no further than the Houston Rockets. Sure, the defending champion Golden State Warriors are the heavy favorites to repeat as champs, but when the dust settled on the pre-All-Star schedule it was the boys from Clutch City sitting atop the standings and in the midst of a 10-game winning streak. Only the Utah Jazz were hotter going into the break, having won 12 straight, but they are not yet in the playoff picture.
Those who thought the backcourt combination of James Harden and Chris Paul wouldn’t work have been silenced, as that duo has proven to be all but unbeatable. Harden is averaging 31.3 points per game in what is almost certain to be a Most Valuable Player season, while Paul is second in scoring with 19.2 points per game while also dishing 8.3 assists per contest. Eric Gordon, leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate, is adding a huge lift off the bench with 18.5 points per game and key additions Gerald Green and Joe Johnson have rounded out a lineup that looks as formidable as any in the NBA.
Speculation about the possibility of LeBron James landing in Houston went into overdrive as the Cleveland Cavaliers blew up the team around him, but the Rockets don’t look like a team that needs another star to compete for a championship this season. Houston has already player all of their regular season games against the aforementioned Warriors, winning the series 2-1, and it looks like their roster additions give them everything they need to expect to give the defending champs all they can handle come playoff time.
San Antonio Spurs
The burning question in San Antonio is, more than ever, who exactly are the San Antonio Spurs?
All-Star and MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard has made little more than a cameo appearance this season due to multiple injuries, Tony Parker and Rudy Gay have missed substantial time with injuries, and head coach Gregg Popovich continues to use his healthy starters sparingly in the interest of long-term health. Even with all of that going on, the Spurs still sit in the West’s third seed.
It’s easy to write off the Spurs because they can’t seem to get healthy, but what happens if they do get everyone back and up to speed before the playoffs start? They looked like a team to reckon with before Leonard when down in their series with Golden State last postseason, and they have given their role players considerably more experience since then. Gay has also been an inspired addition when he’s been healthy.
No one questions that Popovich is the best coach in the NBA, and if you give him a full complement of healthy players come playoff time, the Spurs might still be title-worthy. It’s just hard to anticipate such a turn of events given their constant onslaught of injuries to key players.
The Mark Cuban era Dallas Mavericks have never been rebuilding the traditional way. They prefer to chase big-name free agents and then add as many veterans as possible when the big names land elsewhere. That method has kept them squarely in the Western Conference’s twilight zone since their impressive Finals run in 2011. They’ve been a playoff team, but first round losers, until last season.
Missing the playoffs netted the Mavericks Dennis Smith, Jr., who is clearly going to be a part of the next perennial playoff team in Dallas, as is Harrison Barnes. What the Mavericks really need now is a lottery pick that lands the next franchise player as Dirk Nowitzki plays out the twilight of his career. They’re in the running for the league’s worst record, which could mean they have a shot at one of the premier front court players currently expected to dominate the 2018 NBA Draft.
For now, the Mavericks are in a holding pattern, just giving their young guns as many touches as possible to prepare them for life after Dirk.
Bill Ingram has 17 years of experience covering the NBA and is now a contributing writer for nbaradioshow.com. You can find him on Twitter: @TheRocketGuy.
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