With the All-Star break on us, it seems logical to talk about where our local NBA team stands at the season's figurative midpoint. I say "figurative" because the Rockets passed their actual midpoint in January at which point they were 21-20 coming off the last game of a season-long seven-game losing streak. Since that loss to Minnesota, they've gone a very respectable 8-6.
At the beginning of the season, I told a friend of mine I'd be surprised if the Rockets won 40 games this year. I imagined, with this young roster and even with the addition of James Harden, I would expect them to be at around 36 wins when the 2012-13 season came to a close. At this point, they would have to go 7-20 to make that prediction come true and that seems highly unlikely.
With the massive overhaul to the roster and the complete youth movement, it's remarkable they are this good, holding fast in that eighth playoff spot in the seriously deep Western Conference. Here's how I see them so far, noting that the grades are certainly tempered by my original expectations.
Jeremy Lin: B+ It's been an interesting season for Linsanity. Unlike some, I didn't expect him to come in here and light it up, but the honest truth is he would probably be scoring and assisting more were it not for the addition of Harden. Lin struggled with recovering from an offseason injury early, but his explosiveness is clearly back and he can get to the rim against any guard in the league and he's a better defender, particularly as a helper, than I thought he would be. He and Harden are a dynamic pair in the backcourt and I only expect Lin to improve. He'll need to start with improving his shot from distance and his overall consistency, but if he can do that, he and Harden will be seriously dangerous.
James Harden: A+ When I interviewed former Rocket Kenny Smith a while ago and asked him about Harden, he said everyone thought he was good, but no one knew he was this good. Harden has proven through 50-plus games that his name belongs among the elite of the NBA. He's ridiculously efficient, gets to the free-throw line better than anyone in the game and leads the league in and-ones. He's in the top five in scoring as well. The Beard is a beast and he's not even 24.
Chandler Parsons: B The sophomore season for Parsons is building on what he did as a rookie. He's a much better defender than most would think and has serious hops around the basket. His numbers are up in every statistical category. He still needs to improve his free-throw shooting. As good a shooter as he is, shooting below 50 percent from the line is unacceptable. He also needs to improve his overall consistency, but his improvement is marked and he has plenty of room to grow.
Patrick Patterson: B- I hesitate to criticize Patterson a ton because it is clear that he is one of the stabilizing forces on the team. He's increased his scoring in his third year and has miraculously developed a three-point game. He is still undersized at his position, though the Rockets appear to believe that to play the four in the NBA, you need to stretch the defense, but that has also kept Patterson's rebounding numbers down -- under five per contest. It will be interesting to see if any of the youngsters push him for playing time down the stretch.
Omer Asik: A- Many believed the free agent signee from the Bulls could improve if he just had more playing time, but I'm not sure anyone thought that he could improve this much. His minutes have doubled from last year with the Bulls and his rebounding numbers have increased to match -- he's one of the league leaders in that category. But he's tripled his scoring average, an impressive feat for someone no one thought could actually score. He has soft hands and, no doubt under the tutelage of both Kevin McHale and former Rockets GM Carroll Dawson, has developed a jump hook. I'd like to see his shot blocking improve, but overall, he's been impressive.
Bench: C It's not terribly surprising that the Rockets bench has been so inconsistent this season. Their only consistent bench player has been Carlos Delfino, who has shot well from distance and brought a calming influence as the team's elder statesman. Marcus Morris has shown great improvements in his second season and the battle for back-up point guard between veteran Toney Douglas and rookie Patrick Beverley has been interesting. For a time, Greg Smith seemed ready to take a huge leap at center, but some apparent work-ethic issues have seen him demoted to the D-League recently with Cole Aldrich filling the void. Unfortunately, we've seen virtually none of the young power forwards that showed promise in camp yet this season.
The Rookies: Incomplete When the Rockets drafted Jeremy Lamb, Terrence Jones and Royce White, and signed Dontas Montejunas from Europe, I'm certain no one thought the only rookie getting serious playing time this season would be Patrick Beverley. But Lamb was dealt as part of the Harden deal, Jones and Montejunas have ping-ponged back and forth between the Rockets and the Vipers, and Royce White is just starting his young career in the D-League after going #AnxietyWarrior on Twitter. It appears Montejunas may be pushing for a little more time and fans certainly hope to see more of Jones, who lit it up at times in preseason. No one has a clue what the Rockets have or will have with the talented but troubled White. At this point, the rookies are mostly a mystery.
Coaching: A- I'll admit I was uncertain of the McHale hiring. My soon-to-be father-in-law, a HUGE basketball and baseball fan for many years and a Celtics fan dating back decades (I forgive him for that), thought it would be a disaster. But McHale has been exactly what a team could want from a coach. He doesn't take any crap but is flexible enough to allow young players a chance to learn and grow. He has tailored his approach to his players rather than forcing them to fit a specific system and he's shown patience in developing their games. If there were any argument to be made about his choices, it would be that he hasn't given more time to the rookies, but when you consider that practically the entire team is barely old enough to be out of college, it tempers that slightly.
Front Office: B Daryl Morey's patience must have been wearing thin. He tweaked the roster for several years thinking that this would be Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady's team. That fell apart. Then, he tried to re-build using solid if unspectacular pieces and a coach who would prefer to play veterans to rookies. That failed. So, he blew it up and started over, and wouldn't you know it, a genuine star fell in his lap. There is still a long way to go and the trade deadline is fast approaching, but the roster overhaul is so far a success -- Asik alone is proof Morey is right more often than not. The Royce White sideshow was tough to watch and I can't help wondering if there wasn't more the team could have done early to see it coming. But, overall, the Wizard has had the magic touch. He still has a little more work to do.
Overall: B+ For the youngest team in the NBA to be this good this soon is surprising. Last year, it could be argued that the Rockets were a mismatched team without a star or a real direction. By the time this season started, they were young and athletic, but no one thought they would also be this fun to watch (assuming you can watch them) and one of the league's up and coming teams. They have a long way to go and they are still wildly inconsistent at times, but the early results are encouraging.
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