Were you so inclined to look up the Best Rocket category from previous Best of Houston® issues, you would find these honorees for the past ten years:
Yao Ming (2003-2004, 2006) Tracy McGrady (2005) Shane Battier (2007, 2009-2010) Rafer Alston (2008) Luis Scola (2011) Chuck Hayes (2012)
Let's start by saying that if Rafer Alston and Chuck Hayes are on your list of your best players over the past ten years, it has been a tough decade. Just one year ago, we anointed Hayes, the tough, undersized defensive-minded power forward, as our Best Rocket. Today, he is playing ten minutes per game for the 1-5 Sacramento Kings.
To say the Rockets are on the upswing would be an understatement even if Shane Battier hadn't been their best player three of the past ten seasons, but given that fact (and Alston because, what the hell?), it's damn near miraculous.
It should be no surprise who is in our top spot this season. It should also not be a shocker that all of our top 5 this year would be in the argument for Best Rocket over the past decade, and illustrative of just how bad the Rockets have been. Well, onward and upward.
5. Omer Asik
To go from a back-up in Chicago to one of a handful of the best centers in the league last year was something very few outside of GM Daryl Morey expected. Without Asik on the floor last season, the Rockets were at the very bottom of the league defensively. With him, they were middle of the pack. That's an incredible accomplishment for one player. Unfortunately for Asik, he is stuck in a now-crowded front court with Dwight Howard. Don't be surprised if he is on the list of top players for another franchise come the trading deadline.
4. Jeremy Lin/Patrick Beverley (tie)
Admittedly, this is a cop-out, but it is also reasonable considering that combined, had their DNA been stitched together at birth, they would make an awfully ugly human but an extremely good point guard. Beverley is a tough, in-your-face defender, the kind of player you love to have on your team and hate to play against. Lin is rapidly becoming a terrific offensive player, someone who can get to the basket at will and a devastating compliment to Howard in the pick and roll. The Rockets obviously can't morph them -- even Morey in all his mad genius hasn't managed to solve that complex biological equation -- but the two of them on the floor together make for an intriguing combination of tenacity and skill.
3. Chandler Parsons
If this were a looks contest, Parsons would hands down be No. 1. As is, he is still in the top 3. Parsons is a better defender than you might think and a streaky shooter, but his best skill is his ability to slash to the basket, which perfectly compliments James Harden, Howard, Lin and Beverley. It makes him the ideal teammate because they don't have to run plays for him to be an effective scorer. If he can gain greater consistency with his perimeter shot and improve his defense, he is going to be a very good player for a very long time.
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2. Dwight Howard
It's tough to imagine a team where Howard is the second best player, but he got his first taste of that last year in L.A. with Kobe Bryant. Fortunately, this year seems to be working out better for him in both terms of chemistry and injury status. Howard has an old-school combination of size, strength and quickness. He instantly makes the Rockets a better interior defensive team and can still run the floor with the gazelle-like roster assembled. Now, about those free throws...
1. James Harden
From sixth man in OKC to one of the best offensive players in the NBA, Harden's ascension has been as dynamic as it has been surprising. Everyone knew the Beard could score, but his ability to carry a team was in question. He clearly answered all those doubters last season and continues this year. He still must become a better defensive player to reach the elite status of some of the other best players in the NBA, but if he does, he would start to be mentioned among the greats, and not just of this era.