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Houston Rockets Power Rank: Week 13 – Surviving January Dog Days

By Tamberlyn Richardson
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Houston Rockets Power Rank: Week 13

Last week brought about the half way point for all 30 teams with most having played between 44 and 46 games. Golden State and Boston have played a low of 42 games and Orlando has played a high of 47.

As I mentioned last week this is the time of season often referred to as the dog days of January when teams are trying to maintain their seeding, deal with nagging injuries and primarily stay focused until the All-Star break. (Of note, Steve Kerr actually referenced the same thing I was speaking of in his post game speech Sunday night on NBA TV).

Staying healthy takes precedent over all else from now until the break. Just ask Stan Van Gundy who lost Brandon Jennings with a ruptured Achilles tendon Saturday or LaMarcus Aldridge who made the gutsy decision to play through the pain of an injured tendon in his thumb. It really is the time of year when teams try to maintain their position without amassing copious losses or players due to injury.

To that end, while some teams may fall down the ladder it’s unusual to see teams make big movements upward between now and the break. For 27 teams they have between 15 and 16 days left until their All-Star break. The three exceptions are Philly who are the first team to go on break after their February 9th game and Cleveland and Chicago who are the lone game Thursday, February 12. What this means is we have two and a half weeks where there is likely to be a bunch of status quo situations.

For Houston, maintaining their position over the next 16-days (and 8 games) is even more pressing given their inconsistencies coupled with the potential of Dwight Howard missing additional games due to his sprained ankle. So, let’s highlight this week as the benchmark to see if the Rockets can maintain or improve their current fifth seed in the West and second place position in the Southwest Division.

The National Lists:

NBA: John Schuhmann’s week 13 list finds the Rockets moving back up to 8th. I’m not sure any team goes up and down his list with as much regularity as the Rockets.

The USA Today panel keep the team fifth and bring up the same point I’ve been musing which is what happens when Terrence Jones returns.

ESPN’s Marc Stein stayed the course for the second week in a row retaining the Rockets in his sixth slot.

John Hollinger, also of ESPN has pretty consistently ranked the Rockets in his daily 5 spot which is where they sit today.

Matt Moore of CBS rounds out the national lists dropping Houston 2 spots but curiously raising Dallas up even though the Rockets had a better week. I’ve been most in sync with Matt his season in terms of our picks, but I’m now wondering if one of us is suffering from the dog days of January.

Tamberlyn’s Top-10

Not much movement on my list which I attribute to the maintenance of the January dog days where teams are looking to remain status quo or ideally move up, but above all just make it healthy to the All-Star break so they can recharge and make their run through the last third of the season.

1.  Golden State: Klay Thompson made the selection of who’ll replace Kobe in the starting All-Star line-up more difficult this past week when he scored 37 points in a quarter. His competition should come in the form of Houston’s own James Harden. This week they face Chicago (a good test), Phoenix and Utah, but seriously can anyone honestly think of any other game besides February 6th when they’ll face their Eastern counterpart the Atlanta Hawks?  (remain first)

2. Atlanta: I’m well aware of how well this team has played and they deservedly sit a top the East and 2nd on my list. What I’m not convinced of is that they’ll be able to sustain their regular season effort in the post season. Unlike their Western clones San Antonio who have several front court bigs in Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Aron Baynes and Jeff Ayres both of Atlanta’s bigs (Paul Millsap and Al Horford) are under sized. That in my opinion will be the factor that takes them out in the post season. (remain 2nd)

3. San Antonio: The Spurs had some early season bad luck with multiple injuries and triple over time losses, but now the wheel of fate has turned back to their favor. With their Championship MVP back on the court they’ve won 6 of 7 games. Prior to their annual rodeo trip they’ll play three lower seeded Eastern teams and the Clippers at home. They currently rank 4rd in the ever competitive Southwest division, but they are only a game and half back of Dallas, two and half back of Houston and 4 games back of Memphis. So, ask me if I’ll be surprised if  when they end up winning the division. (remain 3rd)

4. Memphis: Like San Antonio they’ve won 6 of 7 and Jeff Green continues to look like a solid fit. While they are the division leaders I rank them behind San Antonio based on the Spurs now having a full complement of players. Also the fact Memphis is considered a defensive team but rank 11th while the Spurs rank 6 and have accomplished that rank without Kawhi Leonard gives the Spurs the edge. (remain 4th) 

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5. Houston: So they lost again to Golden State (badly), hey every team has one squad they just don’t match up to and the Warriors apparently are that team for the Rockets. James Harden unluckily didn’t get voted into the All-Star game by the fans but he persevered in the absence of Howard to take down the Suns and led the team to a workmanlike thrashing of the Lakers. His 21 thirty point games this season are seconded by LeBron James who has a distant 12 in comparison.

This week they finally get 2 days off in a row for the first time since the Josh Smith trade. We’ll see if coach Kevin McHale can utilize the time to get their rapidly descending defense back on track.  Dwight Howard will also luck out getting the opportunity to rest his twisted ankle until at least their first game this week on Wednesday.  For me the question still remains how after a full season together Harden and Howard cant seem to simultaneously have big nights.

If McHale fixes that they’ll become even more dangerous. News out of the Houston Chronicle is that Terrence Jones could be back on the court as early as Wednesday following him participating in a full practice Tuesday. This would be a great start, but then again could Jones’ return create cracks in the squad because suddenly they’ll have Donatas Motiejunas and Smith to appease regarding playing time.  (last week 6)

6. Portland: You gotta hand it to LaMarcus Aldridge (no pun intended) it sure is a gusty move to attempt to play through a pulled tendon risking his absence from the team late this season or in the playoffs. Yet a franchise that has suffered the abject disappointment of losing Greg Oden and Brandon Roy will be eternally grateful for this gesture.

As long as there are no long term side effects I’d say it can’t hurt. I’ve been impressed by the performances of Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews through the injuries to Aldridge, Robin Lopez and Nic Batum. In truth, I think this starting 5 is the best in the Association. If they can repeat their second round from last season or better it and then retain all 5 starters their future is bright.

Similarly to  how Golden State and Oklahoma City grew organically, Portland feels like they are on the precipice of greatness. Adding the right one or two vets to their bench could propel them even higher. The question is will they make a move this season or wait until next year now that Aldridge will assuredly be less than 100 percent for the remainder of this season and playoffs.   (last week 5th)

7. Dallas: The Mavericks were moments away from having wins versus the Bulls and Pelicans which showcased they are still having chemistry issues. While they continue to figure out their chemistry we all know Rondo will show up when the lights of the big games come on. Question is will Canadian Dwight Powell be enough of an answer off the bench?

To that end, for some reason I keep thinking Dallas will resolve their bench issues before the trade deadline and the name that keeps popping in my head is Kevin Garnett.Maybe it’s the history of his battles with Howard and Duncan or his relationship with Rondo, but it just feels like Garnett will be a Maverick before the deadline.

This week we’ll learn a lot about their tenacity as they play 4 games in 5 nights featuring bouts against Memphis, Houston, Miami and Orlando. The first back to back series will really show what they’re made of. Houston won the first meeting and now get the advantage of being rested while Dallas play the Grizzlies the night prior.  (remain 7)

8. Toronto: Listening to NBA TV you’d think the Raptors were unfolding like the Pacers last season, but inexplicably they remain in third ahead of the two teams being given every excuse by the same pundits. Just like Westbrook and Durant took some time to get their rhythm back so too has DeMar DeRozan, however his performance Sunday versus the Pistons looked promising.

They’ve won 3 of 4 (though NBA TV keeps saying they are 5-7 in January) and almost beat Memphis. Also while we keep being told how bad their defense is the truth is over the past 5 games they’ve held their opponents to 94.4 points (league best are Hawks and Heat at 96.2 opp ppg). With the sudden return of their offense Sunday, coupled with their re-commitment on defense they look to be poised to return to form. Kyle Lowry is exhausted from the haul he carried in DeRozan’s absence but he’ll be fine post All-Star break.

This is a tough week for the Raptors who’ll play 4 games in 5 nights culminating with a bout vs. Washington who’ll be waiting on two full days rest.  Also of note, the Raptors are the last team to be undefeated in their own division. Of the three teams currently vying for second, Toronto is the only team who’ve sustained a prolonged absence of their  top performer.  Chicago has had minor hits but none of Butler, Noah, Gasol or Rose has missed 2o straight games. They have the best chemistry of the three teams vying for second and if the light bulb goes off for Valanciunas and Ross late this season, watch out. (last week tied for 9/10)

9. Oklahoma City: They are maintaining and I know I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt, but it still feels like they’ll break through on a run. Interesting whistle they had against them in both the Hawks and Cavalier games. You’d suspect two of the top five players (Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant) would warrant more respect, but maybe the league want to make this a thrilling last minute ascension by the Thunder. Certainly the last thing the NBA needs is for OKC to miss the playoffs, so I’m confused why they are allowing the zebra’s to help their opposition with blatant calls against them. New Orleans is on a bit of a run, so the February 4th and 6th games loom as must wins for the Thunder.  (last week 8th)

10. Chicago: Had big wins over San Antonio and Dallas but then lost again to Miami. They continue to perplex me especially Derrick Rose who doesn’t seem to know when to keep his mouth shut. Given their defensive struggles it either showcases the brilliance of Joakim Noah or it sheds a bright light on the chemistry issues existing for the Bulls. It feels like Rose wants more credit than he’s getting and instead of hearing him laud Jimmy Butler‘s improvements we’re getting speeches on what’s wrong with the team. Me thinks thou doth protest too much!

Here’s something I find really interesting: it’s impossible to hear a debate about the Golden State Warriors potential without the national pundits citing the fact that Golden State won’t win in the post season without Andrew Bogut.  I’m not saying that isn’t true, but I find it odd no one is saying the same thing about Joakim Noah! The truth is I think Chicago needs Noah even more than the Warriors need Bogut, and that says a lot.  (last week tied 9/10)

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Honorable Mention:

Washington: Of the three teams I tied for 9th and 10th (Wizards, Raptors and Bulls) last week Washington performed the poorest. Oklahoma City came into their building on the second game of a back to back and beat them. Portland is suffering injuries to Washington’s full complement of players and beat them and Denver should’ve beat them but got a terrible whistle (that and Kenneth Faried can’t hit money shots from the line).

This week they’ll maintain their second spot in all likelihood as they’ll be on 2 full days rest when Toronto arrives to play their 4th game in 5 nights which should find them ascending again. But still I’m not convinced the Wizards wouldn’t completely fold if they lost John Wall for any period of time.

Of the 3 teams vying for 2nd in the East could they have handled the loss of a Wall like Toronto did DeRozan or the loss of Rose, Noah, Gibson, Gasol all whom missed games for Chicago. Only Toronto has suffered an extended core player absence and although they floundered a bit they appear to be getting their defense back on track and DeRozan is close to being at full speed again.

Of note:

I know some of you are wondering how a 31-14 team (Clippers) have failed to make my list yet again and why Cleveland remains outside my top 10. Simply put I don’t believe the Clippers are a top ten team and if I were a Western Conference top seed they would be the team I’d most want to meet. Their chemistry has seemed off all season plus I’m just not drinking the Blake Griffin Kool-Aid.

As for the Cavaliers, I know they have LeBron James but I’ve yet to see them play defense. Long term it just feels like if the Cavs go through another rough stretch they won’t weather it well. I’m still not seeing Love utilized properly and I’m still not convinced if they don’t make the Eastern Conference Finals he’ll return next year.

Irving doesn’t feel like a leader to me and in fact he’s become extremely annoying to watch as he expects to get every single whistle now that James is on his team.  Plus, I’m still waiting for Love/Irving to suffer their annual injury which will sideline them multiple games. Then the issue becomes what if Cleveland plays well in (insert whichever player gets injured) absence and then the team loses when they return. Given the ego’s of James, Irving and J.R. Smith once the finger pointing starts it could get ugly.  Of note, it was great to see the zebra’s not immediately just give James calls because he expected them on his return. Too bad they didn’t continue that trend.

In my perfect world the Clippers wouldn’t even make the playoffs as I’d rather see New Orleans and Oklahoma City both make it, but it seems the Pelicans will have to wait another year.  As for Cleveland I’ve already grown weary of watching them, their attitudes and the assistance the zebras are giving them in close games.  I’d rather watch the young upstart Bucks, so you’ll have to forgive me if you feel they aren’t getting a fair shake moving forward.

That’s it for week 13. As always we invite you to give us your picks and share your insights.

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