By JON KRAWCZYNSKI
The NBA season was barely over for two weeks, and the Houston Rockets found themselves in another heated competition to gain ground in the Western Conference.
The Rockets were one of five teams to be granted a meeting in Los Angeles with Dwight Howard, the crown jewel of the 2013 free agent class and a player who could tilt the balance of power in the ultra-competitive West.
And they won the bidding war, beating out the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks for Howard’s services.
Now the franchise that was on the periphery of relevancy in the West faces an even more daunting task, turning the offseason victory into a Western Conference crown and possibly and NBA title.
Howard, James Harden, Jeremy Lin and the rest of the Rockets won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season. And the West is loaded again, with the San Antonio Spurs back for more after a heart-breaking loss to the Miami Heat in the Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder looking to get healthy and become a factor again and the Los Angeles Clippers bringing a new coach and a loaded bench to the fight.
The Rockets say they’re ready.
“We can go as far as we want to go,” Harden said. “We have a lot of chemistry. With the addition of Dwight we have all the right pieces. We have a lot of talent in that locker room. We’re no longer younger. Last year we’d say oh this team is the youngest team in the league and we could make all these excuses. But we have no more excuses.”
The Clippers reeled in a big star of their own in Doc Rivers, a coach who could be huge for a deep and talented roster that was looking for the right leadership.
There were big changes in Memphis and Denver as well, while the Spurs, predictably, brought everyone back for one more run.
“The West is obviously very tough, and it’s very deep,” said Mike Miller, who signed with the Grizzlies. “There’s no easy game in the West, which makes the season very long and grueling.”
Here are five things to watch this season in the wild, wild West:
LAKERS DEMISE?: Kobe Bryant is recovering from a blown Achilles, and it’s still unknown when he will be ready to hit the floor this season. History shows that counting him out is foolish, but the Lakers didn’t make a banner move after losing Howard. Now Bryant’s supporting cast consists of Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, both aging veterans who missed dozens of games due to injury last year, and unproven journeymen like Nick Young and Wes Johnson. It all could add up to missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
THUNDERSTRUCK: When Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka lost to the Heat in the finals in 2012, everyone expected them to be back again and again as the new alpha dogs out West. But financial constraints caused the Thunder to trade Harden to the Rockets that summer, and their playoff run last year was derailed by Westbrook’s knee injury. Westbrook is starting this season on the sideline as well, and suddenly the Thunder don’t look as formidable as they once did.
BAY AREA HEAT CHECK: The Golden State Warriors were one of last year’s biggest surprises, riding incredible shooting from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to the Western Conference semifinals. Now they’re back for more. They added Iguodala, Jermaine O’Neal and Marreese Speights and have a healthy Andrew Bogut from the start. “This year, I don’t think making the playoffs is our goal,” David Lee said. “Taking it as far as we can in the playoffs is our goal. If we play like we can, than we can be as good as anybody in the West.”
SAME OLD SPURS: After taking the Heat to seven games in the finals, why change? The Spurs re-signed Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter to keep their long-established core together. The only significant addition was Marco Belinelli in a bench role and their only big losses where on the bench, where assistants Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown left for head jobs. With all the success they’ve enjoyed, it’s hard to blame the Spurs for standing pat.
NEW-LOOK NUGGETS: After winning a franchise-record 57 games last season, the Nuggets went through an overhaul. General manager Masai Ujiri left for Toronto and was replaced by Tim Connelly. Coach of the Year George Karl was fired and replaced by Brian Shaw. And Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer headed elsewhere. “This league is defined by change and how you react to change,” Connelly said. “We’re hoping to grow/change. There’s way, way more good there than bad.”