The Big Issue
HOUSTON - For a team that’s reshuffled the deck as many times as the Rockets have over the course of the past five months, Houston enters the season’s stretch run with a surprising number of things upon which it can consistently rely. The Rockets know James Harden will give them dynamic scoring and playmaking, Omer Asik is going to own the boards, Jeremy Lin can conduct the offense with aplomb, Chandler Parsons is a lock to provide the team with a little bit (and often times a lot) of everything, and Carlos Delfino is going to be their steady, veteran presence off the bench. Through 65 games, Houston has demonstrated an ability to efficiently score against just about anyone and control the glass on the defensive end (at least when Asik is on the floor).
Those are the abundantly clear strengths of this club. We might, however, be nearing a day when one more item can be added to that list. It’s been three weeks since the Rockets’ latest reshuffling that occurred in the wake of the team’s two trades which sent its top two power forwards on the depth chart to Sacramento and Phoenix. Donatas Motiejunas wasted little time worming his way into the starting lineup and the early returns are looking pretty strong. In 109 minutes together, Houston’s starting five of Asik, Motiejunas, Parsons, Harden and Lin are a +54 – the highest +/- of any Rockets quintet this season – while boasting an insane offensive rating of 121.3 and a robust defensive rating of 98.4. Now before continuing on any further, the smallness of that sample size should be pointed out as should the fact that it is obviously somewhat skewed by Houston’s obliterations of Dallas and Phoenix (which just so happen to be the two games in which Motiejunas earned his most significant minutes of the season).
Nonetheless, those numbers certainly speak to the intriguing potential that unit possesses going forward. Its early success makes solid basketball sense, too, since D-Mo’s ability to both space and run the floor mesh perfectly with the other members of that lineup and his deficiencies on defense and the glass are lessened thanks to Asik’s otherworldly rim protection and glass-cleaning skills. And for those nights when Motiejunas finds himself in foul trouble or his ride on the rookie roller coaster appears to be on a downward trajectory, the Rockets can always lean on old faithful – the small-ball lineup that inserts Delfino in place of D-Mo and continues to deliver big results despite its obvious limitations from a size standpoint. Yes, that unit’s numbers remain off the charts as it’s posted an offensive rating of 111.5 and a defensive rating of 100.1 for the season. Is it an ideal solution over the long haul given the pounding it forces either Parsons or Delfino (whichever is manning the ‘4’-spot at the time) to absorb? Perhaps not. But in well-measured doses against the right matchups that lineup’s impeccable spacing and smarts more than make up for whatever shortcomings it possesses on the defensive end.
So those are the knowns – the Rockets’ constants, if you will. What Houston’s players and coaches will attempt to address over the team’s final 17 games are its variables; those X-factors that could go a long way in determining whether the Rockets can punch their playoff ticket and just how much damage they might be able to inflict when and if they get there. And there is perhaps no greater unknown quality on the Rockets’ roster right now than the one that exists at the club’s backup center position.
As a general rule this season, all tends to be well in Rockets land when Asik is on the floor. Houston defends at an above average rate and controls the defensive glass at an elite level when he is manning the middle. Unfortunately, Houston has had no such luck cloning the 26-year-old to date, and Asik’s presumed mortality would appear to make it unwise to play him for the full 48 minutes every night. It is, then, during those precious minutes when he rests that the Rockets simply must find production – make that consistent production. Greg Smith has had his moments, especially on the offensive end, but far too often of late the club’s defense has fallen off a cliff when he enters the game. Thomas Robinson, meanwhile, has helped give the team a boost on the boards since arriving from Sacramento, but Houston’s offense and defense have slipped while he’s been on the floor. Tim Ohlbrecht (ankle) and Terrence Jones (thumb) are options for Houston as well once they return from injury.
“That’s one of our big concerns right now,” admitted Kevin McHale following Thursday’s practice. “With 17 games to go in the season, you’d like to have some of those things ironed out. But right now we’re still in the process of ironing.
“Greg played well (Wednesday night against Phoenix) but Greg’s played well off and on. What Greg’s got to do is just become more consistent, just like T-Rob’s got to become more consistent and D-Mo has got to become more consistent.
“There’s the fluctuation that comes with (youth) that we have just got to try to narrow down. If the normal fluctuation is ‘X,’ we’ve got to reduce ‘X’ by as much as we possibly can to help those guys so that those guys can then help the team.”
Such is the essence of the algebraic equation that figures to be front and center for the Rockets for the rest of this season. To be sure, there is no simple solution. But if Smith, Robinson, Jones or Ohlbrecht can provide a suitable answer, either individually or in concert, Houston’s formula for clinching a playoff berth may well become foolproof.