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Extreme Makeover: Rockets Edition

Discussing and dissecting the Rockets' past, present and future

HOUSTON - The more things change, the more they stay the same. That axiom may apply elsewhere, but it seems to loom largely irrelevant with regard to the Houston Rockets these days. Things have changed -- and quite rapidly at that -- around Toyota Center to be sure, but any lingering sense of sameness has been swept away like so many of the “Houston can’t land a superstar” catcalls that threatened to drown out any and all rational discourse about the Rockets prior to the arrival of James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Today the team boasts two all-world talents, a bevy of burgeoning young players and a wide-ranging cadre of characters armed with veteran experience, savvy and an ability to fill the roles that every club with championship aspirations requires of its supporting cast. General Manager Daryl Morey has made no secret of the fact that more work remains to be done, but thanks to an immeasurable amount of labor, vision and yes, luck, Houston has inserted itself back into the title-contending conversation -- a remarkable feat given where this franchise stood in the not-so-distant past.

To apply a bit of perspective to that journey -- and to take a look at where the adventure may take the team from here -- Rockets.com’s Jason Friedman has teamed up with Red94.net’s Rahat Huq to discuss the state of the team as it prepares to embark upon the upcoming 2013-14 campaign.

Rahat: I just checked out that last collaboration we did two years ago (cited above) and the caption on that main pic alone really underscores just how far we’ve come to get to this point. The rise of Kyle Lowry offers hope for a bright future in Houston. That isn’t to say Lowry wasn’t a fine player in his own right -- he gave it his all and was a great building block for the future. But we’re past hoping for future stardom. There are arguably two top-10 players in Houston now. That is, in a word, unreal.

Jason: What’s most amazing to me is the relative suddenness with which this transformation occurred. Much has already been written about the Rockets’ extreme makeover, but it still seems somewhat surreal when examining the butterfly effect of moves and fortuitous events that brought the club to this point.

You know how your friends always try to cheer you up during trying times by telling you that everything happens for a reason? It never helps you feel better at the time and more often than not it just makes you want to punch them in the face. Then one day you reach the light at the end of the tunnel and, upon careful reflection of everything that transpired to bring you to this better place, you’re both buoyed and embittered to begrudgingly admit that their weak platitude was actually right on the money.

That basically sums up where a good portion of Rockets fans are at the moment. Certain deals and non-deals over the past several seasons might have initially stung but it’s next to impossible to envision an alternative sequence of events that would have left the Rockets in any better position to win -- both now and in the future -- than the pattern that ultimately became the framework for where this franchise currently rests as of this writing.

Rahat:  Seriously. If I were starting a team, there aren’t that many two-player combinations I’d prefer to start with over the two guys we have. Obviously, anything involving Lebron/Durant with someone else is going to be your first choice. But after that, I want Dwight, and I want to pair him with a guard -- given Harden’s age and proven durability, I think he’s my guy.

Setting theory aside, I think they have a real chance at being the top duo in the league. Again, Lebron/Wade and Durant/Westbrook are your starting point, but factoring in the synergistic value of our guys’ respective skill sets -- they should kill teams on the pick-and-roll -- I think you’ll at least be able to make the case for our duo by the end of the year. That in itself is incredible. The basketball gods truly granted mercy after the premature fall of Yao & T-Mac.

Jason: Of course, possessing a top shelf duo is nice and all, but the name of the game is hanging banners and prompting parades. LeBron/Wade have proven their title chops and the Durant/Westbrook combo delivered one Finals appearance and then followed that up with a season in which they helped Oklahoma City produce the best point differential in the NBA. Those respective partnerships have obviously gone a long way in yielding elite results, but the pieces in place around them can’t be overlooked either. I don’t think anyone questions the prolific potential possessed by a Harden/Howard pairing, but how does Houston’s supporting cast stack up when assessing this team’s title-contending credentials?

Obviously any answers to that question will largely be speculative at this point since we haven’t yet had a chance to see this season’s Rockets in action. But for the purposes of this exercise, I thought it would be useful (or at the very least, fun) to measure Houston’s roster by how it holds up when compared to the essential characteristics of title contention outlined in David Thorpe’s three-part series examining the best strategies to beat the two-time defending champion Heat.

Those are as follows:

Rim protection: With Howard and Omer Asik patrolling the paint, I think we can safely say that category receives an emphatic check.

Elite three-point shooting: The Rockets drained the second-most three-pointers in NBA history last season, and their roster-filling strategy this summer has left little doubt that they are hell-bent on once again ensuring that they have a stable of players capable of knocking down the bevy of open looks Harden and Howard are likely to provide. I think that category comfortably gets a check as well.

Superstars: Already covered. Another check.

Future stars: The Rockets’ list of candidates for this category begins with Chandler Parsons, in my opinion. His improvement through the first two seasons of his NBA career continues to make one wonder just how high his ceiling might be. He averaged more than 18 points, six rebounds and nearly four assists per game while hitting 40 percent of his threes against OKC in the playoffs last season. Could he have a Kawhi Leonard-level impact upon a postseason series, similar to the way the Spurs’ rising star created all kinds of problems for Miami during the Finals? Based on what we’ve seen to date, I absolutely believe he could. Then you have Jeremy Lin, who has already shown an ability to take his game to another level for stretches. And though he struggled at times during his first full season as a starting point guard, he also shot 40 percent from downtown over the course of the last three months of the campaign and delivered a 38-point performance against the Spurs and a 29/7/6 game against the Thunder -- the explosive upside Lin showed the world during the throes of Linsanity still lurks. Terrence Jones, Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley are bigger question marks at this early juncture in their careers, but they, too, have also flashed glimpses hinting at bigger and better things, and given their youth there’s every reason to expect continued improvement. All of which is my typically long-winded way of saying I like Houston’s chances to ultimately place a checkmark in this category as well.

Elite defense: Here’s where the Rockets have their work cut out for them. Houston was a middle-of-the-pack defensive squad last season. They’ll have to make major strides if they wish to join the ranks of the elite. But even this category has reasons for optimism from a Rockets’ perspective. The biggest thing holding Houston back defensively last season was the fact that the team’s defensive efficiency fell off a cliff whenever Asik was not on the floor. While he played, Houston performed at a top-10 rate on that side of the ball. Well, with three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard now in the fold, last season’s issue of lacking rebounding and rim protection sans Asik no longer exists. The Rockets will likely have one of the league's best defensive bigs on the floor at all times in the season to come. Yes, Houston has to prove it can get the job done defensively over the long haul before anything concrete can truly be determined. But again, the potential for a significant step forward remains.

And last but not least: Unconventional schemes. When the subject is Houston, we’re talking about a coaching staff that wasted no time making a bold, ballsy and, yes, unconventional gambit following a blowout loss in Game 1 of the playoffs by inserting Beverley into the team’s starting backcourt -- a move that ostensibly slid All-Star shooting guard James Harden to power forward and a matchup with Serge Ibaka. The Rockets recognized right away that the conventional route was likely to earn them little more than a four-game sweep. Their response entailed utilizing a lineup they hadn’t used all season long. It was risky to be sure, but it gave them a fighting chance and, ultimately, made the series far more interesting than it likely would have been otherwise (obviously Russell Westbrook’s injury in Game 2 played a significant role in that as well). The Rockets rightfully own a league-wide reputation for being outside-the-box thinkers. That designation is largely due to the attention that gets paid to their forward-thinking front office. But such moves and adjustments made amid the heat of the postseason fire show that Houston’s coaching staff isn't afraid to buck convention when the need arises either.

OK, I’m wrapping up now, I swear. I’ll finish by saying this: Does this Rockets team have flaws and question marks? Absolutely -- name me a team that doesn’t. But if nothing else, I think this exercise shows that this club potentially stacks up pretty darn well according to Thorpe’s criteria for what it will take to beat the Heat and, by extension, compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy next June.

Rahat:  I agree, though as we had talked about over e-mail, some big question marks also arise from those same and other similar issues.  

You mention defense, and rightfully so. Already boasting the 6th best offense in the league, the defensive side of the ball is where the Rockets can really take the leap to contender status. And as you said, having both Asik and Howard on the team -- and having at least one on the court at all times -- will enable that kind of production. But the big question from my vantage point is how Asik will be used. One wonders whether having the league’s best backup center is a luxury the Rockets feel they can afford while there remain questions left to be answered at the power forward position. I’ve argued on my own pages that keeping Asik and finding a way to work him together with Howard for a few minutes per game is perhaps the biggest key to the Rockets’ season -- I feel that strongly about 48-minute rim protection. But to get maximum value from Asik’s presence, I believe he needs to get close to the 30-minute per game mark -- thus the need for some degree of overlap with Howard.  

And to that end, will either of the team’s sophomore power forwards take the next step? You are right in describing Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones as future contributors with the upside to be so much more - both showed tremendous flashes of potential last season. But the team got so little out of that position against the Thunder that they had to just scrap their use of conventional schemes altogether. One of those two players is going to have to step up or the team will have to resort to small-ball for extended durations yet again. With Carlos Delfino gone, that might be a challenge.

Motiejunas has the purest skill-set of any “big” on the team with his dizzying array of spins and post fakes and his ability to put the ball on the floor and make a pass. But he struggled defensively and had trouble establishing the range necessary to become a full-time weapon (just 29% on 3’s.) Having Howard around will help defensively, but if Motiejunas isn’t spreading the floor, he likely won’t get big minutes.

Jones is a compelling physical specimen who, with his freakish athleticism, evoked memories of Carl Landry’s rookie season, seemingly exploding out of his shoes on numerous occasions. The former Kentucky standout seems to have all the tools, even boasting a comfortable handle, but it is on the defensive side where one imagines him earning his keep -- Jones blocked shots last year at a rate comparable to the rookie campaigns of some of last year’s league leaders. Indeed, it is tough to imagine opponents getting much around the basket with both Jones and Howard on the court together, but still, like Motiejunas, if Jones can’t consistently spread the floor, it could make it tough for him to crack the starting lineup. So the big question is, will either of the two shoot well enough to be able to stay on the floor for big minutes on a regular basis?

You mentioned Parsons. The question for him is whether he can maintain his shooting accuracy. Last year, Parsons shot a ridiculous 50% on corner 3’s -- if that carries over, it will give James Harden and Dwight Howard all kinds of space to operate. Like last year, I expect many games to close with Parsons playing power forward, especially now that he’s purportedly bulked up.

Those are the individual pieces, but there are greater macro issues at stake too. For one, what will the offense look like? We know they’ll eschew the midrange opting for 3’s and paint shots, but will they run as many pick-and-rolls as they did a year before? The numbers say that Houston should be at its best in that two-man game but one wonders just how much of the offense will shift to the post now with Dwight Howard in town. Similarly, Houston had the highest pace in the league last season. Now, with more talent, will Coach McHale look to slow things down? That might not be a bad idea given that the team went 6-15 last year on the second night of back to backs.  

And finally, is there perhaps a better way to utilize Jeremy Lin? As you noted, Lin made tremendous strides as the season progressed, peaking out at 17 and 7 in the final month and hitting 40% on 3’s. But I’d really like to see him play a greater role in the offense (USG% of 20.8), especially given that James Harden (USG% of 29.0) seemed to wear down at the finish line. Each player fared better statistically while the other was not on the court, so perhaps staggering their minutes a bit more might be the answer.

Jason: There are, undoubtedly, plenty of looming questions to answer and issues left to be addressed -- as there are at the start of every club’s season, of course. One topic I’d like to discuss in more detail, however, is the subject of small-ball.

You mentioned the team’s need to have one (or both) of either Jones or Motiejunas take a step forward this season to solidify the club’s starting power forward spot lest the Rockets find themselves having “to resort to small-ball for extended durations yet again.” My question is this: Would that necessarily be a bad thing? Last year Houston’s best, most consistently productive lineup featured Parsons and Delfino manning the three- and four-spots, respectively. If the Rockets find similar success this season with a Parsons/Omri Casspi pairing (or Parsons/Francisco Garcia, or even Parsons/Robert Covington), I don’t think the club would hesitate to give them plenty of playing time -- nor should they, in my opinion.

Teams have to play to their strengths. For Houston, that will entail making sure the floor is perpetually spaced with shooters who will make defenses pay for the attention that they must give to Harden and Howard. Conceptually, it’s not much different than Miami’s decision to embrace small-ball for the entirety of the 2012-13 campaign when the Heat employed Shane Battier as their power forward of preference. The ensuing results speak for themselves. And when Miami came up against an opponent actually able to make them pay for going small -- as Indiana did in the Eastern Conference Finals -- the Heat adjusted by leaning on a more conventional lineup. Well guess what? Houston should be similarly malleable in that regard. If certain teams are able to punish the Rockets’ small-ball tactics, McHale can easily switch course and summon Asik off the bench to play alongside Howard in a supersized pairing of paint protection and rebounding prowess.

That, to me, is the beauty of this Rockets’ roster at this early juncture: It should have the ability to play any style -- big or small, fast or slow -- and to do so on its terms. How many other teams can say that?

Rahat: You’re absolutely correct in saying that those small lineups were the team’s most prolific. I looked back again to check and realized I had forgotten just how prolific. The quartet of Asik-Parsons-Delfino-Harden (I left out Beverley/Lin because they usually played depending on matchups) had an offensive rating of 112.1 and a defensive rating of 101.9. In fourth quarters, that defensive rating improved to 90.3 (with the offensive rating coming down just slightly to 110.4)!  

I guess I’m being unnecessarily idealistic in wanting more of a traditional lineup for crucial stretches. If the Rockets’ power forwards could consistently knock down their shots, they could put up the same offensive output while not needing to double the post or sacrifice so many rebounds. (Indeed, that aforementioned Delfino-led quartet grabbed just 46% of available fourth quarter rebounds compared to 54% by the same lineup anchored by Patrick Patterson, the team’s last “veteran” traditional power forward.) But as you correctly noted, and as the numbers cited indicate, if you’re lighting up the scoreboard, the rebound battle becomes a little less relevant.

As I said earlier, I think ultimately you’re going to see McHale close out games with Parsons and Harden at the forwards. Losing Delfino is tough, but I think they really stumbled onto something in realizing that Harden could adequately match up with Ibaka. And of course, having Howard cleaning things up makes it all the more doable.

Small-ball or traditional, I think this roster is set. You have Asik, you have the two sophomores you hope can crack through for spurts, and then you can close out small if need be. Not too many teams have greater advantages than forcing big guys to guard James Harden.

Jason: I agree that this roster appears set -- for now. For all the optimism drizzled within this dialogue, I think the greatest reason for Rockets fans to view the future with red-tinted glasses remains the fact that this team still has myriad ways with which it can improve itself going forward -- both in-season and on through next summer. Possessing a smorgasbord of trade chips, first round picks and financial flexibility, Houston has positioned itself in such a way that it can be a contender now and be even better in the future. That’s a rather rare and rewarding place to be.

Of course, it’s one thing to be in this position; quite another to actually capitalize on it. The days of being the plucky underdog are officially over. This team will have a target on its back from day one. And there remains, of course, the small matter of overcoming a Western Conference gauntlet that somehow seems to grow more daunting by the year. San Antonio and Oklahoma City aren’t going anywhere, the Clippers and Grizzlies won 56 games apiece last season, and Golden State will be looking to build off its playoff momentum and a summertime splash signing of its own.

The Rockets have their work cut out for them and they’ll require ample amounts of good health and good fortune to overcome their Western Conference brethren. But they’re back in the mix and that in and of itself is quite an achievement given the path that’s led them to this place. Now we get to find out where it takes them next.