Sorting Through the New Look of the Western Conference Part 1

Mark L. Baer/ USA Today

Mark L. Baer/ USA Today

Every NBA season there is something new to watch for. From rookie players to teams who are on the cusp to being contenders to those who are just trying to make the playoffs, there are always going to be new features every year. We try to predict how things will turn out annually around this time, but normally we end up wrong and have our predictions shoved back down our throats.

This season, the Western Conference will have a whole new look to it. With Dwight Howard moving from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Houston Rockets, the balance of power has shifted. Looking at how this one move affects the entirety of the Western Conference is a pretty difficult thing to do, but that’s what I’m here for.

With Howard moving from one team in the conference to another, things have been shaken up tremendously. The Lakers have now shifted from a potential powerhouse that was pegged by many to reach the NBA Finals and rival the Miami Heat last season to a team who’s ceiling is probably a bottom three seeding in the postseason at best. That’s a spot that no team wants to be in.

The Lakers now have a choice to make–they can either move forward with the team that they have on their roster or move on from what they envisioned last season around this time, and completely revamp this team. Their moves indicate that they’ll be doing their best to compete for this season and then, if that fails, will likely move on next season.

This team is an incredibly old one. Their core group of players are all 33 and above. The Lakers will have to rest their season’s hopes on the combination of Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, mostly. Without knowing how quickly Kobe Bryant will heal from the torn achilles he suffered from at the end of this season, there is no real reason that they should expect too much out of him.

Bryant will be 35 years old by the time next season starts–not the best age to heal from injury, obviously. Although he does have legendary status, that means absolutely nothing here. Only time will tell how he reacts from this, but at his age it would be insane to think that he can replicate the career numbers that he put up last season. Last season they needed every bit of Bryant’s production in order to limp into the playoffs as the 7th seed. They will likely need the same thing again.

The addition of Chris Kaman on the team will not provide a bandage for the production that the Lakers are losing in Dwight Howard. Kaman is nowhere near the rebounder or defender that Howard is and will never be. He provides a good option in the pick and pop game for Steve Nash to work with, but other than that he’s a stop-gap to fill a position for the time being.

The Lakers currently have $81,562,907 on their payroll for next season. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol will combine for nearly $50 million of that amount next year. Bryant may not play a full season, and Gasol has had health issues in season’s past as well. The Lakers will likely not let any of these players go without trading them, but there isn’t much value there right now.

Should the Lakers use the Amnesty provision on Metta World Peace, it’d take about $7 million off of that amount that they owe. It wouldn’t really help too much, but it does prove that they are looking to compete next season. The addition of Chris Kaman and subtraction of World Peace show that they aren’t willing to pay players who they don’t think contribute in a huge way.

Either way, next season isn’t what Lakers fans or the organization is likely looking at. Tank or not, the Lakers will be looking forward to 2014. The draft class is supposed to be one of the best in over a decade of time with at least five players who could be potential stars. It is also littered with gold in the free agency class. They’ll end up playing the season out and seeing how the dice roll. Then they’ll make changes to their team via the draft or free agency.

The Lakers only player with guaranteed money right now is Steve Nash with a figure that is just of $9,701,000. The Lakers will probably end up bringing back a few players for a lot less money or completely moving forward. Guys like Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol will have an opportunity to play for the Lakers on much cheaper deals.

They’ll have an opportunity to rebuild this team around a new figure of whom they choose to be the face of this franchise. That was supposed to be Dwight Howard, but he’s moved on to the Houston Rockets.

Speaking of the Houston Rockets, they’ve made a huge move that will likely land them in a position to be a top four seed in the conference. The best part about it is that they’re only going to be slightly over the salary cap this season. Pending whether or not they move Jeremy Lin and/or Omer Asik, the Rockets could be well under the cap with two star caliber players on their roster.

Right now, they owe $57,146,164 in guaranteed money to nine players next season. If they choose to guarantee the contracts of Patrick Beverly, Greg Smith, James Anderson and Tim Ohlbrecht then they’ll owe $60,524,300. They’ll likely end up having those most of those deals partially guaranteed or just cutting ties with the players because of better options. Either way, the Rockets are projected to have used most of their cap.

Still, with a few moves here or there, they’ll be able to make room for another max contract player on their team. If one becomes available, the Rockets can create the wiggle room to sign him via free agency. In the summer of 2014, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Randolph, and a few other players will be available.

They don’t even have to swing for the fences–they can pick up multiple guys if they free up enough space. But they aren’t so far over the cap that if this team doesn’t work out, they’ll be locked in with multiple bad contracts over the next few years.

Still, I believe that with a shooter or two more, this team will probably be the 1st or 2nd seed in the Western Conference. They now have the inside presence that they’ve been lacking in all of these years in Dwight Howard. He’ll be able to protect the rim just as Omer Asik did but still provide offensive finishing value and whatever new tricks he picks up in his post game.

He’s a terrific high screener and is very good at rolling to the basket as well–even though he prefers to be a post option. This team’s main staple is the high screen so Howard can look forward to seeing a lot of that as well as getting post touches mixed in with lots of shooters around him.

The power forwards that he will be playing with should be ecstatic as well. A player to look out for in Houston next season will be Donatas Motiejunas. He came on this season in a short stint, but I expect him to make a name for himself as a floor spacing in Houston next season. As a shooting power forward that has showcased a lot of versatility off of the bounce and spotting up, he can really produce next to Howard in kick out and high low situations.

He is a decent passer from the perimeter and will be able to keep the ball in motion even on tough close outs. Ryan Anderson had a career year with Howard in Orlando two seasons ago–I suspect we will see something similar from Motiejunas in Houston this year because of their similar games.

There are some questions that you could post for this team going forward. How will their perimeter react to Howard defensively? Last year, it was assumed that the Lakers would have a huge boost defensively because of Howard even with his health concerns. It obviously didn’t end up that way, but that wasn’t really because of Howard. The Lakers perimeter players were consistently being beat on the front end and allowing paint penetration.

If the Rockets come with that same attitude, they could be a pretty mediocre team on the defensive end. James Harden has always been a lackluster defender, but with a bit of communication and a good defensive system in place, things could change for the Rockets.

There may be little changes on that end, though. With the pace that the Rockets play at, sacrifices must be made. Its a grueling task to be the fastest paced team in the NBA and be an elite defensive squad as well. Balancing the two out here will be key. There are going to have to be sacrifices if things are to get better on this end for Houston. If they give up a few possessions per game, they may be able to boost their defensive aptitude a tad bit. And its better to give up a bit of offense to be defensively sound than to allow opponents to score to get the ball back.

Still, this team will likely be one of the better ones offensively because of Howard and Harden’s efficiency. They’ll make a run for the top of the Western Conference with the Oklahoma City Thunder staying in the same position they were and the San Antonio Spurs making minimal improvements as well. The Rockets have leapfrogged into the top half of this conference, but there are still plenty of good teams who can give them trouble.

And the biggest question above all will be this: Will Dwight Howard sport the headband next season or go without? Find out in part two.

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