Dwight Howard, NBA champion? That's the pick of ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy.
"I'm going to pick the Western Conference winner and I'm sticking with Houston," Van Gundy said Thursday afternoon on the eve of ESPN's playoff coverage. "That would mean that [the Rockets] would have to win three straight series on the road after [first-round opponent] Portland, which seems really difficult. I believe the Western Conference team will win it but you could also convince me about San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the [Los Angeles] Clippers as well. They are all really good."
As for why he has faith in the Rockets, Van Gundy says people should focus on all the positive things Howard can do, as opposed to his flaws. "When Howard is invested and engaged and active, he is so good," Van Gundy said. "For some reason when people analyze his game they spend 99 percent of the time talking about the one percent they would like to change as a player versus spending 99 percent of the time talking about all great things he does. To me, he and [point guard] Patrick Beverley make them really good defensively.
"They play fast, they score easily, and they have a talent in James Harden who is as hard to guard as anybody not named Kevin Durant or LeBron James. They have a center who gives them a force in the paint, who can rebound, and then they have one of the best competitors in Beverley; I just love his mentality in attacking each and every opponent. I think Houston has as good a chance as anyone to come out of the West."
Van Gundy said the second-seeded Thunder have not played well enough of late to make it out of the West, though he saw that as an opportunity for Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks to get things in order, especially on defense. Van Gundy said he would slightly favor the Pacers in a potential Eastern Conference finals matchup with the Heat. While he believes Miami still has a great chance to reach the Finals, he cites health and age as factors that could give Indiana an edge. "I don't think the Heat or Pacers will be challenged into the Eastern Conference finals," Van Gundy said. "But I think whoever wins the Western Conference will win the whole thing."
TNT analyst Reggie Miller countered with a different take. "I think it will be a tough road for them to win the West," MIller said. "If they get by Portland, now you are talking about San Antonio, a team that has had everyone's number though Houston has been pretty successful against them this year. Do they [the Rockets] make the commitment on the defense end? Obviously, they have a defensive gem in Dwight Howard. But they have to make shots. They have to make threes for four tough series and I am not sure they will be able to do that."
On separate topic, Van Gundy said he likes Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins best among 2014 NBA draft prospects.
"I like Wiggins a lot," Van Gundy said. "I think he has is a tremendous athlete who can play at two and can power people with his size and athleticism there."