By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer
January 9, 2013

The NBA website posts a weekly update that ranks the league’s most improved players, in part to keep fans abreast of who’ll be in contention for the annual MIP award that gets handed out each spring. In 2011-12, forward Ryan Anderson (then a member of the Orlando Magic) captured the honor, after increasing his scoring and rebounding averages by 5.5 and 2.2 per game, respectively.

When the Houston Rockets visit the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday in a Southwest Division matchup, each team will have multiple players on the floor who could receive votes in 2012-13 Most Improved Player balloting.

While Houston’s starting lineup includes center Omer Asik (recently ranked third by in the MIP rundown) and forward Chandler Parsons (fifth), New Orleans has seen impressive improvements by point guard Greivis Vasquez and center Robin Lopez. In the first two seasons of his NBA career, Vasquez averaged 2.2 and 5.4 assists, but he has jumped to 9.1 assists per game in 2012-13, placing him in the top three of the league leaders. The only players ahead of Vasquez are Boston’s Rajon Rondo and the Clippers’ Chris Paul.

Lopez was known primarily for defense and rebounding during his previous four seasons as a member of the Phoenix Suns, but has displayed a much more productive offensive repertoire with New Orleans. Lopez averaged 5.4 points last season in Phoenix, but has more than doubled his output in 2012-13, at 11.7 points per outing. The 7-footer is also easily surpassing his prior career highs in rebounding and blocked shots.

In a division game featuring several players who’ve shown tangible improvement, Houston has also received a significant boost from the play of shooting guard James Harden, who arrived in an October trade from Oklahoma City. Harden has upped his scoring average by an eye-popping 9.6 points per game, from 16.8 to 26.4.

Intriguing matchup: Center, Robin Lopez vs. Omer Asik
Lopez and Asik are eerily similar players in a few respects, including the fact that both are listed at exactly 7 feet, 255 pounds. Like Lopez, prior to 2012-13, Asik had played his entire NBA career with a different team (Asik was a member of two straight Chicago Bulls playoff teams). Asik’s relatively large free-agent deal was second-guessed by many NBA analysts, but the native of Turkey has helped spark Houston’s above-.500 record.

After finishing above .500 in each of the past three seasons, but just missing out on qualifying for the Western Conference playoffs each time, the Rockets decided to shake things up during the offseason. After charging out to a 2-0 start behind a historic opening week from brand-new starting shooting guard James Harden, Houston played so-so basketball for much of November. The Rockets slipped to 11-12 overall in mid-December, then put together a 9-2 stretch, including a 104-92 victory over the Hornets on Jan. 2. Houston also defeated New Orleans 100-96 on Nov. 14. The clubs meet again later this month on Jan. 25 in the Crescent City, wrapping up their annual four-game series.

What’s new
Five of Houston’s eight leading scorers are newcomers, headlined by Harden, who has emerged as one of the NBA’s premier offensive threats. Starting point guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik were both restricted free agents last summer, but were allowed to sign lucrative contracts with the Rockets. Rounding out Houston’s group of key first-year members are seventh-leading scorer Carlos Delfino and No. 8 Toney Douglas. The Rockets also have first-round picks Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Royce White on their roster, but do not rely heavily on any of their rookies.

Star player
After helping Oklahoma City reach the NBA Finals in 2012, Harden could not come to a contract-extension agreement with the Thunder in October, leading to a trade to the Rockets. Houston is thrilled with its marquee acquisition, who has generated frequent headlines since arriving in Texas. Harden totaled 82 points in his first two Rockets games. The crafty and deceptively quick left-hander has also averaged 30.5 points against New Orleans in a pair of victories.
On the rise
A former college teammate of Hornets rookie Darius Miller at Kentucky, forward Patrick Patterson has blossomed in his third year as a pro. Patterson, who is averaging double digits in scoring for the first time in the NBA, had one of his best games recently against the Hornets. On Jan. 2 in Texas, Patterson posted 15 points and 10 rebounds, in just 23 minutes of action.

After his stunning star turn with the Knicks last season, few knew what to expect from Lin as he debuted with the Rockets. Two-plus months into 2012-13, it’s still difficult to predict what his impact may be on a night-to-night basis. For example, Lin racked up 38 points against the Spurs on Dec. 10, but in the three games before that, he tallied just four, four and seven points, respectively. Two days after his 38-point breakout, he scored 10.

On the sideline
In a preseason poll on among general managers, Gregg Popovich was voted the league’s premier head coach by a substantial margin (80 percent of the ballots). Since his first full season as Spurs head coach in 1997-98, his worst record was 50-32 in 2009-10. Popovich has guided San Antonio to each of its four NBA championships, won in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007.

Did you know?
Houston is the closest city in the NBA to New Orleans, at 347 miles. Memphis is the second-shortest road trip, at 395 miles.

Players the Rockets want shooting free throws in a close game… If the Rockets need a three-pointer, three of their best options are…
Career FT percentage (through Jan. 7)
Made 20 trips to line in two games vs. NOLA this season.
Shooting career-high 89.8 percent this season.
Attempts have dipped considerably from his year in New York.
Career three-point percentage (through Jan. 7)
Averaging over five three-point attempts per game.
Rockets rank second among 30 NBA teams in made threes.
Was 4-for-5 against New Orleans in Nov. 14 victory.