Apr 17, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dribbles the ball with Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) in pursuit at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The New Western Conference Landscape: Houston

Part 1 in the New Western Conference Landscape series, which observes how free agency changes will effect the teams the Grizzlies see in conference play next season.

 

In April, the Grizzlies won their first game in Houston since 2006, after a 13 game drought. It required a little luck – James Harden missing an open shot at the buzzer – but the weak link for Houston in that game was center Omer Asik (-11 in 34 minutes), with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph scoring 15 apiece for a classic Grizzlies final score, 82-78.

The next time Memphis sees Houston, they’ll have a harder time scoring in the post with free agent whale Dwight Howard guarding the rim. The Rockets’ defense was anemic last year, with a roster built for speed and shooting rather than defense. The Grizz found success pounding the ball inside and using defensive specialists like Tony Allen to shut down Houston’s 3-point machine, and while that was enough to split the season series last year, things will be different with D12 in the post.

On offense, the Rockets still have a deadly backcourt with Chandler Parsons, James Harden, and the streaky Jeremy Lin, all capable of running up the score when the mood strikes (remember that record-tying 140 point game against Golden State?). But the offense they produce is high energy, forcing turnovers, running the floor, finding the open man – in a word, chaotic.

When they play in the half court, they lean heavily on pick and rolls, although the rollman (previously Omer Asik) was never typically a scoring option in those sets – Asik averaged just 10 PPG on team that put up 106 a night. Fitting Dwight into that system will be trickier than it sounds. For one, Dwight considers himself a first or second option scorer. As he probably should, given his 18+ PPG career average and 57% field goal shooting. He moped on the court and complained publicly in L.A. when he felt he wasn’t getting enough touches, dragging his team through his rough scoring slumps in the process. Houston is stacked with shooters, but they’ll have to give the ball up more than they’re comfortable with to keep their new center happy.

For another, Dwight Howard, who averaged 1.29 points per possession last year and 1.36 the year before (2nd most in the NBA) on pick and rolls…doesn’t really like running pick and rolls.

 

(There was an added wrinkle in L.A., as Steve Nash loves to deliver the ball early with a pocket pass, and Dwight preferred to catch lobs over the top.) Howard much prefers post deliveries to PNRs, even though his post game is shaky and seriously turnover-prone. So if Houston does continue to use PNRs to get its shooters open, I don’t expect D12 to receive the ball much; which means Memphis can switch smaller guards onto Howard (Allen or Prince, who is not actually small) rather than chase Harden, Lin, and Parsons underneath screens, which is a formula for a 3-ball to the face.

I suspect Houston still will use picks and weaves to get its shooters open, but for Howard to score, they will also have to throw the ball to him in the post. This may add a Grizzlies-style inside-out game in their offense, but where the Grizzlies’ system is weighted down low (Z-Bo and Gasol are great post scorers), Houston’s will have to be top heavy to be effective. Our guards will have to choose between staying home on the Rockets’ perimeter shooters and going in for the steal against Dwight – always a viable option, but risky.

To supplement Howard and the new 1-2-5 structure of the team, Houston GM Daryl Morey acquired Israeli combo guard Omri Casspi from Cleveland. Casspi has shown effectiveness as a small forward in spread systems like Houston’s, averaging 8 points per game in four NBA seasons. Casspi will by no means be a focal point of Houston’s new offense, but he could be a valuable roll player that the Grizz will have to divert attention to.

The good news is, Howard was hilariously ineffective against the Grizzlies last year: just 6 PPG on 29% shooting in 3 games, one of which he left at halftime when a glancing blow re-aggravated his shoulder injury. If the Grizzlies can bottle him up on defense and stay true to Houston’s shooters, we should have a solid chance against the Rockets next year. If not, we may be looking at the start of another Houston-based losing streak.

Tags: Houston Rockets Memphis Grizzlies

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