The NBA’s Western conference was widely viewed as pretty much wide open entering the 2013-14 season. Nothing through the opening exchanges of the season has led to the suggestion of anything different. The conference’s exciting, ‘would-be’ serious contenders Oklahoma City, Houston and the LA Clippers are all dealing with the same old questions through the opening couple of weeks.
Can Westbrook and Durant Make It Work?
Kevin Martin picked a bizarre time to critique the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the shooting guard’s comments once again reflected and highlighted the lack of balance that the roster has suffered from since the ‘three musketeers’ lost to the Miami Heat in five games in the 2012 NBA Finals.
There’s no denying the fantastic individual talent of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but since the departure of James Harden there has been a distinct lack of balance and killer edge on this roster. The ‘dynamic duo’ will easily be enough to help the Thunder to the top of the conference in the regular season, and will probably be enough to get this team through a couple of playoff rounds as well.
However, if this team is going to return as a serious championship contender then they need to find a way to make the roster blend together. Serge Ibaka has to be a serious inside presence, Westbrook and Durant need to work out the scoring between them and they need to find a way to keep Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson, not to mention a couple of others. This is a team with weapons, but they’ve got to find a way to use them.
Can Dwight Howard Lead A Serious Contender?
The Houston Rockets propelled themselves into serious national title contention when they acquired Howard this offseason. An already talented, young team led by Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin looked to have found the missing piece picking up a big center with offensive skill and elite defensive ability.
The old questions that need answering aren’t being asked of this young upstart Rockets roster. Rather they are the same old questions surrounding Howard. The 27-year old supposedly found his perfect home this offseason, but despite some impressive performances including a 29-point display against the Portland Trail Blazers and a 26-rebound display on opening night against the Charlotte Bobcats. The problem is Howard’s performances in more serious contests. Against fellow contenders the Los Angeles Clippers, Howard watched as his team conceded 137 points scoring just 13 points and only picking up nine rebounds. That was a very worrying display in the first serious test of the season for the Rockets.
It didn’t get any better last night in a game against Howard’s much maligned former team. Pau Gasol was a non-factor and the LA Lakers are still without Kobe Bryant but, despite 35 points from Harden, Houston still lost 99-98 on a late buzzer beating shot. Howard grabbed 14 rebounds, but picked up only 15 points and generally failed to make a serious impact on the game. Houston are 4-2 on the season, but there have to be concerns about their ability to seriously compete in the Western conference.
LA Clippers Have Same Inside Concerns
The Clippers made a statement against Houston at the beginning of the week, but they really struggled in Florida later this week losing to the Orlando Magic 98-90 and then failed in a more valiant effort 102-7 against the Miami Heat. Nikola Vucevic (a pretty strong player himself) knocked down 30 points and picked up 21 rebounds against the DeAndre Jordan/Blake Griffin tandem. Doc Rivers quite clearly has a lot of work to do to turn this team around into a tough defensive group.
The progress of Jordan and Griffin under Rivers has generally been considered to be one of the most critical factors in the success of this roster. Their play against Vucevic will be an early concern after an otherwise promising start to Doc’s tenure.
With the young, ‘would-be’ serious contenders still facing some serious questions. It might well be Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and those same old ‘boring’ San Antonio Spurs who earn the crown as the de facto favorites in the Western conference. The Spurs will face their first big tests of the season over the next few days as they host Golden State tonight before traveling to face New York and Philadelphia in back-to-back games on Sunday and Monday.