Monday, December 16, 2013

How Many Questions Surround the Rockets? (Power Rankings, Week 7)

This week's NBA highlights included an Eastern conference finals previewa Manimal sighting, and a swell Dame.

The lowlights (at least for me) included basically eveything that happened with the Knicks. An example:

The Knicks remain firmly entrenched in the bottom 10 of these power rankings, and I'm resigned to that fact. Meanwhile, the Pacers and Thunder remain atop the rankings, with the Spurs, Blazers, and Heat rounding out the top five.

Following the complete rankings, I'll take a closer look at the mysterious Houston Rockets and the surprising Denver Nuggets.

Here are my Week 7 Power Rankings:
30. Milwaukee Bucks (5-19)
29. Utah Jazz (6-20)
28. Orlando Magic (7-17)
27. Philadelphia 76ers (7-18)
26. Sacramento Kings (7-15)
25. New York Knicks (7-16)
24. Cleveland Cavaliers (9-14)
23. Charlotte Bobcats (10-14)
22. Brooklyn Nets (8-15)
21. Toronto Raptors (9-13)
20. Washington Wizards (9-13)
19. Chicago Bulls (9-13)
18. Boston Celtics (11-14)
17. Detroit Pistons (11-14)
16. Memphis Grizzlies (10-13)
15. New Orleans Pelicans (11-11)
14. Los Angeles Lakers (11-12)
13. Atlanta Hawks (12-12)
12. Minnesota Timberwolves (12-12)
11. Golden State Warriors (13-12)
10. Phoenix Suns (14-9)
9. Denver Nuggets (14-9)
8. Dallas Mavericks (14-10)
7. Houston Rockets (16-9)
6. Los Angeles Clippers (16-9)
5. Miami Heat (17-6)
4. Portland Trail Blazers (21-4)
3. San Antonio Spurs (19-4)
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (19-4)
1. Indiana Pacers (20-3)

Houston Rockets 

This is the second time we've looked at the Rockets, and now we have a much larger sample size to examine. (Click here to read my take on Houston after Week 1.)

However, even though the hoopsters from Clutch City* have now had one-third of a season to mesh, there are still many questions surrounding the team. We'll examine three of those questions here.

*When I was in college, I had a couple buddies from Houston who insisted on calling it "Clutch City" more frequently than they called it "Houston."

Question 1: What's the deal with Omer Asik?
Asik pouted his way out of the lineup just a few weeks into the season, and his situation has been hanging over the Rockets since then. Asik has been the subject of incessant trade rumors, and Houston general manager Daryl Morey has said the big man will be traded by Thursday. Morey will probably pull the trigger soon after I post this, and the Rockets will most likely improve as a result. We'll see if they acquire any pieces that will be useful this season.

Question 2: Will the team's defense improve?
The Houston guards, especially star James Harden, have been horrible on defense this year. They consistently allow opponents to slash into the paint, and Dwight Howard can't always cover up their deficiencies. As a result, the team has not been strong defensively. The Rockets rank in the middle of the league in points per 100 possessions, and that starts with the perimeter players.

Question 3: Will Dwight Howard's free throw shooting submarine the season?
Howard went 7-for-7 from the charity stripe in Friday's shootout win over Golden State, yet he's still only shooting 56 percent from the line. Teams have not been shy to use the incredibly boring "Hack-A-Howard" strategy, because it usually works. It remains to be seen how many important games Howard's foul shooting will cost the Rockets in the spring.

Denver Nuggets 

After new coach Brian Shaw seemed to grind the fast-paced Nuggets to a halt in the season's first few weeks, Denver is again in the top 10 in John Hollinger's pace factor and offensive efficiency rankings. Even though Danilo Gallinari has missed the entire season with an ACL injury, the offense has hummed.

Ty Lawson's improved play has been the main reason that the Nuggets have remained in the playoff race even without one of their top scorers. Lawson, one of the NBA's fastest players,* leads the league with 10.8 drives to the basket each game. Even more impressively for a 5-foot-11 guy like Lawson is the fact that he's averaging 50 percent shooting on those drives.

*I remember watching Lawson when he was at UNC, and I thought he often looked out of control. It was like witnessing a Formula 1 car with no brakes. Now, it's more like watching a Ferrari with great handling. Awesome to behold. 

In addition to Lawson, Denver has an up-and-comer in Kenneth Faried (the aforementioned Manimal), as well as 10 other serviceable rotation players. The team has enough depth that it's remained in the top eight in the Western Conference despite the extended absences of Gallinari and JaVale McGee.

The Nuggets have their issues, of course. Their low-post play is lacking, they are middling on defense, and they can't rebound. Having said that, if Denver can somehow squeeze its way into the playoffs in the crowded West, the team might still end up with a 2014 lottery pick. It's beginning to look more and more like the Nuggets won the 2011 trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. Just icing on the cake for this surprising Denver team.

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