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The Young Ones: Rockets Season Will Be Infused With, Complicated By Youth

Um...literally.
Um...literally.

Back in the late '90s, when the Rockets had real championship aspirations, the team was consistently one of the oldest in the NBA. They routinely filled the end of the roster with guys like Charles Jones, who Rockets TV play-by-play man Bill Worrell affectionately called "Old Man River." By contrast, the 2012-13 Rockets roster is so filled with young players, there are guys from those '90s teams that could literally be the grandfathers of current players.

The team marketing slogan for this season is "A New Age," a play on both the turnover of the roster (there are only two returning players who spent significant time on the roster last year) and the fact that this is the youngest team in the NBA. With the swapping of Kevin Martin for James Harden in a trade yesterday, the gap between them and the rest of the league in terms of youth grows even larger.

With youth comes athleticism, energy and excitement. It also brings inexperience, inconsistency and the occasional train wreck. All of the above will no doubt be on display for the Rockets this season.

Fearing the beard.

Before getting too deep into the roster and prospects for the season, it is worth noting that the Rockets' recent trade for James Harden is a significant move, arguably the biggest since trading for Tracy McGrady. Harden was the NBA Sixth Man of the Year last year. He averaged almost 17 points while shooting 50 percent from the field in only 30 minutes per game. Oklahoma City couldn't afford the luxury tax hit they would take signing Harden to a max deal, so they sent him to Houston for the veteran Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb.

Harden can score with the best of them and is an excellent ball handler and playmaker, which should allow Jeremy Lin to spend some time playing off the ball where he could excel. At 23, Harden is still young -- witness his frustrating disappearance during the NBA Finals last year -- and has a lot to learn, particularly defensively, but even after the team signs him long term, they will still have money available to go after yet another max dollar player.

If Lin can live up to even moderate expectations, they could create a dynamic backcourt tandem for a lot of years in Houston and form at least the beginnings of a serious nucleus of talent for the Rockets. If they play well enough, don't be surprised if they get a shot to play in the All Star game in Houston in February.

Out with the old...literally.

Gone from last year's roster is, well, almost everybody. The team's starting and reserve backcourt including Martin, Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee. The team's starting front court of Luis Scola and Samuel Dalembert is also gone along with rotation players Chase Budinger, Marcus Camby and Jordan Hill. Those players combined for an average age of 29 (of course, that includes 38-year-old Camby). The guys that replaced them combine for an average age of 22, with the oldest of them at the ancient age of 30.

This is all in addition to the fact that basically the entire roster was turned over this summer. It's tough enough to make massive changes, but to do it with youth is going to make for a very interesting and complicated season. No doubt Coach Kevin McHale and General Manager Daryl Morey will do a lot of cheering and a lot of hair pulling before it is all said and done.

 

Who are these kids? A quick roster primer.

The Returns:

Chandler Parsons Parsons has gone from second-round rookie to the second-longest tenured Rocket in a few months. He surprised a lot of people with his solid defensive skills and better-than-advertised offensive game. Should continue to make strides in his sophomore campaign.

Patrick Patterson With two years under his belt, Patterson has played for Houston longer than any other player. He struggled in his sophomore season thanks to injuries and inconsistent play. On a team with some new, exciting talent at his position, he'll have to earn his starting spot all season long.

Marcus Morris The first-round pick last season spent most of his first year in the developmental league and most of this preseason out with an injury. Morris will need to prove he was worth that first-round pick this season.

Greg Smith After spending most of last year in the D-League, Smith will have the opportunity to be an end-of-the-bench member of the team in 2012. He's a kid with a big body, but it will be tough for him to get minutes in a packed front court.

The Newbies:

James Harden Harden joins what could become one of the most exciting backcourts in the league. He has a lot to prove transitioning from sixth man to starter, particularly on defense, but he adds legit scoring and playmaking to a team lacking both last year.

Jeremy Lin Linsanity died a quiet death towards the end of last season thanks to an injury, but it ramped back up when he signed with Houston. He will need to shake his inconsistency, improve his work ethic and develop some defensive skills, but his upside and pairing with Harden are intriguing.

Omer Asik Asik, signed as a restricted free agent from Chicago, came in known for his stellar defensive skills and limited offense. So far, his defense appears to be everything we suspected -- he can block shots and rebound on an elite level -- and he's been surprisingly good offensively. He will benefit from the Rockets' up-tempo game and backcourt playmakers.

Carlos Delfino Delfino comes in as the oldest Rocket at 30. His job will be to knock down outside shots, which he has done throughout his career, but hasn't in the preseason. If he hits open shots, he'll get minutes.

Toney Douglas Toney was brought in over the summer as part of the Camby trade with the Knicks. He's a tough, young point guard who became the starter in New York when Lin went down with an injury. He should prove to be a capable backup at the point.

Cole Aldrich Aldrich, part of the Harden trade, has had limited minutes his first three seasons since being drafted in the first round out of Kansas. If he sticks, he'll probably spend his time as a spot backup for Asik.

Daequan Cook Cook, also part of the Harden deal, is a solid perimeter scorer entering his sixth season. Much like Delfino, he will need to hit open shots if he wants to get playing time.

The Rookies:

Terrence Jones No Rocket rookie has had a better preseason than Jones, averaging 10.5 points and 5 rebounds in about 24 minutes per game. He has terrific athleticism and an NBA build. Don't be surprised if he sees substantial playing time off the bench.

Royce White White might be the most intriguing rookie in the NBA. His skills were enough to merit a top five draft position, but his struggles with anxiety disorder, which led to him missing much of the preseason while he negotiated travel arrangements (he's afraid of flying) with the team, dropped him to the middle of the first round where the Rockets nabbed him. If he can keep his off-the-court issues in check, his mix of jaw-dropping ball-handling skills and size could be a potent weapon.

Dontas Montejunas "Monte" has gone under the radar this preseason, but he was widely considered one of the best young European players before the Rockets bought out his contract. He has size and skill in the post along with a bit of a nasty streak.

Scott Machado Machado led the nation in assists as a senior at Iona, but went un-drafted thanks mostly to his average shooting skills, but his pass-first talents at point are unmistakable. If he can improve his offensive liabilities, he could get a shot as a backup, but he'll most likely spend most of his year in the D-League.

 

Full of character(s).

One thing everyone should love about this team is that the roster is full of interesting people. Parsons is a quote machine. Lin has a dry sense of humor and the knack for the dramatic. White reminds me of Arian Foster, with his philosophical bent. And then there's "The Beard," which will no doubt inspire many a promotional item.

Teams are more fun to root for when the players on them are interesting and likable. The Rockets should have no shortage of guys who fans will love.

Final Analysis

As usual, the western conference is stacked as is the Rockets' division. Add to that the core of extreme youth and you have the recipe for a disastrously ugly season. Granted, in many ways, that is what hardcore fans wanted, which would give the team a chance at drafting high in the first round of next year's draft. Still, with the addition of Harden, the Rockets should be in a lot of games and with their up-tempo style of play, they will be fun to watch.

They will no doubt be exciting at times and exasperating at others and the record will likely reflect that. The goal this season is for the team to learn and grow together, shake off some of that youth and continue to develop for the future. The upside would be the surprise of a borderline playoff contender and a new, rising crop of talent. The downside would be a mess of youthful mistakes and a lot of money spent on players who underperform.

Predictions

Vegas Over/Under Wins: 30.5 Record: 35-47 MVP: James Harden Rookie MVP: Terrence Jones

A word on Comcast SportsNet

I know many of you are probably concerned that no deal has been announced yet to have the new Rockets/Astros channel appear on U-verse, Dish Network and DirecTV, among others. There may be some good news on that front as the Lakers' new station, also in the Comcast SportsNet family, recently agreed to be distributed on U-verse and one of the other major cable networks in L.A. They are certainly cutting it close, but that's what I predicted a couple weeks ago.


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