HOUSTON - Like every other NBA team, the Rockets came into training camp with a laundry list of questions they’d be looking to answer over the coming weeks and months. Near the top of that checklist: Who would emerge to fill the role manned so capably by Carlos Deflino a year ago?
A quick refresher course on what Delfino brought to the club last season: essential floor spacing, veteran smarts and savvy, and enough versatility to play an integral role in the Rockets’ most consistently productive five-man lineup. With Delfino and Chandler Parsons manning the three- and four-spots, James Harden and Jeremy Lin in the backcourt and Omer Asik holding down the fort down low, Houston was able to roll out a small-ball lineup that blitzed opponents on a regular basis. For the season, that quintet outscored the opposition by nearly nine points per 100 possessions while producing a top-3 caliber offensive rating and a defensive efficiency mark that would have been good enough to rank in the league’s top-10.
Those are obviously big shoes to fill. But just three games into the Rockets’ preseason schedule, summer free agent signing Omri Casspi is making a strong early statement that he may very well be up to that task. The 25-year-old’s numbers during that stretch are as remarkable as they are ridiculous. In 22 minutes per game he’s averaging 16.7 points and 7 rebounds per contest while hitting nearly 77 percent of his shots from the field, including a 50 percent mark from beyond the arc.
While that sort of marksmanship is obviously unsustainable over the long haul, it does speak to the fact that the fit between player and team is so far on course to be as ideal as both parties hoped it would be when they joined forces this summer. The Rockets have had their eyes on the Israeli national team member for a number of years now, believing his size, shooting (for his NBA career, Casspi is a 44 percent 3-point shooter from the corners) and ability to run the floor would mesh well with the style of play they employ. So when Casspi became a free agent this summer, they made their pitch. Turns out, it was an easy sell.
“This team with its style of play really fits my game,” Casspi says. “I wanted to play for Coach McHale and as soon as Dwight signed here it was a no brainer for me.
“I feel pretty comfortable playing with this group. Our offense is very free-minded and guys are sharing the ball … I’ve always been a guy that wants to be the first one down the court, sprinting the court and not taking any plays off. I feel like it really fits my game here.”
For so many players, finding a system and style of play that suits their particular skill set can mean the difference between success and failure – a reality with which Casspi is all too familiar. After bursting onto the scene with a promising rookie campaign in Sacramento, the last several seasons were tough – and occasionally agonizing – for the former first round pick. He readily admits his confidence was shaken as his playing time and production plummeted during two seasons spent with the Cavaliers. Last year was rock bottom. A fresh start was needed.
So too, it seems, was a new position. The Rockets have moved Casspi from the wings to the power forward position, giving him more of an opportunity to use his shooting, quickness and rebounding ability to his advantage. The results thus far speak for themselves. It's as if he has been reborn, transformed from a struggling role player into a weapon.
“I love it. I enjoy every second of it,” he says of playing the four-spot. “It really gets me into the flow of things. I get the ball a lot more so I can do a lot more things and kind of facilitate some of our offense. I feel really comfortable on the offensive side. I need to still get comfortable on the defensive side with some of our terminology and stuff like that, but this is the third game of my career playing the four so I’m just going to keep getting better everyday in practice, do what the coaches ask and stay humble.”
As Casspi mentioned – and as Head Coach Kevin McHale is quick to reinforce – the defensive end of the floor still holds plenty of room for improvement for him. Then again, there also exists a little more margin for error in that area when you have a pair of Defensive Player of the Year caliber defenders as teammates. Casspi hasn’t yet had an opportunity to play with Asik since the Turkish big man is still working his way back from a calf strain, but he got his first opportunity to play with Dwight Howard during Sunday’s game in Taipei. Near the midway point of the second quarter, the Rockets rolled out a lineup featuring Lin, Harden, Parsons, Casspi and Howard, and the results looked awfully familiar for those who saw Houston achieve similar results with Delfino last season. During that five-minute stretch, Houston’s lead ballooned from eight to 15 as the Rockets’ pace-and-space attack reached full throttle.
Yes, the sample size is smaller than small and there’s still so far to go and so much to learn amid this grand experiment that is preseason basketball. But Casspi’s rapid emergence has, at the very least, hinted at an answer that could yield big dividends for the Rockets going forward.
“He’s been playing great,” says McHale. “He’s been rebounding the ball so well. He’s hustling all the time. There’s nothing not to like about what he’s done so far, that’s for sure.”
And-1s: For the first time since initially suffering the strained calf that has thus far prevented him from playing this preseason, Omer Asik was able to take part in the non-contact portions of Tuesday’s practice. McHale says the 27-year-old center will not play in Wednesday’s contest against Orlando, but he’s hopeful Asik will be able to make his preseason debut next week.