May 2, 2014; Portland, OR, USA;Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) congratulates Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) after making a last second shot in the second half in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center.Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Can Houston Rockets Exceed ESPN Projection of 8th Seed?

This week ESPN has been unveiling projections for the upcoming year for both the east and western conference. They have ranked each team from top to bottom and Tuesday is was reviled that Houston will finish eight in the western conference with a 49-33 record.

Last year the Rockets finished fourth in the West with a 54-28 record for next year. Now granted the west is a gauntlet with a legit ten teams vowing for playoff spots, and that has to be considered.  ESPN reflects this with two games separating fourth place from eighth.

But eighth place still seems to be a bit low for Houston.

This offseason Houston lost three rotational players on their team last year in Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik. ESPN must have thought that was a significant drop off for the Rockets in result dropping them four places from where they were last year.

It must be taken into consideration that not adding pieces does make the team more vulnerable to falling a few spots.

The departed Rockets will be missed but doesn’t exactly put team out of near borderline playoff contention. Parsons’ production will be most missed—but Lin,  maybe not so much. Lin had a 2:3 assist to turnover ratio last year that is not hard to replace.

Asik was solid, but he only played 48 games last year due to injury.  His defensive abilities were valuable, especially in the postseason, and waiving Greg Smith last season ultimately leaves the Rockets with only Donatas Motiejunas behind Dwight Howard.

Houston finished eighth place in the west in 2012 which was James Harden’s first year on the team and with no Dwight Howard. So according to this projection even with Howard on the team the Rockets will finish eighth again? That is hard to believe especially when this year’s roster is better than 2012’s roster.  Has the Western Conference become that difficult?

It is possible the Rockets could have a little drop off in win totals, but it doesn’t seem like to the point where they would be considered a bottom half team in the West.

Houston still has two All-NBA players in Howard and Harden, not to mention they have an All-NBA defender in Patrick Beverley.  The second year of the Howard and Harden experiment should help the team mature, not regress.

Aug 1, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Team USA players Damian Lillard (22) and guard James Harden (32) look on as teammate Paul George is tended to after suffering a leg injury during the USA Basketball Showcase at Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

If Harden improves defensively, that will help his growth for the Rockets and becoming one of the top players in the league. Howard will have to channel his inner Orlando and also become a better passer out of double teams. Hakeem Olajuwon’s guidance should help Dwight become a better passer, but it hasn’t really happened yet, so it may be wishful thinking. The offense would function far better with an inside/outside attack if Howard improved his court vision.

The Rockets swung and missed badly in free agency, but they still added some good pieces to the team for them to remain competitive. Daryl Morey added Trevor Ariza whose numbers are similar to Parsons, but Ariza is a better defender. Through the draft, they added Clint Capela and Nick Johnson.

Johnson flashed very well in summer league and has the potential to bring highlights and a good defensive presence off the bench. There is no better person to learn from than Beverley on how to pester opposing guards.  The Rockets could wreak a lot of havoc on opposing backcourts this season.

Also, the Rockets still have young players looking to take the next step in their game such as Terrence Jones and Donatas Montiejunas. Isaiah Canaan and Troy Daniels should be better as well. Canaan should be a more valuable backup option then Lin was last year this will be his second year, and he showed in summer league that he could shoot the ball well and make plays.

We all know Daniels for his game winner in the playoffs, but improvements to his game all around will help the Rockets as well.  He’s more versatile than we’ve seen thus far, and his growth will be a storyline to this season, as the Rockets bench must be more productive in 2014-15.

Motiejunas had a good summer for the Rockets and should be taking a step forward in his game as he provides more shooting on the perimeter as a stretch four man. Jones will have to take a quantum leap forward defensively to be able to keep up with the lethal power forwards in the west.  He has the athleticism and style of a Josh Smith, so he should be able to become a solid defender.  With Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and so on, Jones’ has his work cut out for himself.

The Rockets do have a few questions that need to be answered, and it was clear ESPN thought about that when determining the Rockets projection. Everyone knows the west is a tough conference and Houston will have a lot to prove.  It will be difficult to improve on last season’s No. 4 playoff seeding, but there are a lot of reasons to believe the Rockets can sustain last season’s level of play.

It seems just because Morey swung and missed at Chris Bosh that analysts are ready to write the Rockets off.  Dwight Howard insinuated that losing Chandler Parsons isn’t as serious as many think, and if Kevin McHale becomes a better coach, there’s no telling how far a tandem as talented as Harden and Howard can take this team.

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Tags: Dwight Howard ESPN Team Projections Houston Rockets James Harden

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