The Rockets finally made it back home from a trip to Asia last week that saw them twice dismantle the Indiana Pacers, a team that took the World Champion Miami Heat to the brink of elimination in last year's Eastern Conference playoffs. This was without last year's starting center, Omer Asik, who has been battling a calf strain.
What has been notable about the first few preseason games besides the non-issue juggling of the starting point guard position is how comfortable the Rockets seem to be. They turn the ball over a lot, but that is to be expected given the pace at which they play. But they also play with a fair amount of consistency for a team that has integrated someone as important as Dwight Howard, never mind the increased minutes for Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones or the emergence of free agent forward Omri Casspi.
Most teams that have undergone such a dramatic change would struggle early and those struggles would no doubt continue for some time, but this team looks almost fluid and the regular season is still two weeks away.
There is still the significant question of Asik. Will he simply be Howard's backup or will the two be able to log significant minutes on the floor together. Then there are McHale's smaller lineups with both Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley getting time as a backcourt tandem. Finally, how will all this affect the defense, something the Rockets struggled with all of last season, especially when Asik was on the bench?
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The good news is that the core of this team, which is clearly James Harden, Howard, Chandler Parsons, Lin and Beverley, appears to be clicking. Much of that is likely owed to the time they spent hanging out and playing together over the summer -- more of that next week -- but it also speaks to their complementary talents and notable individual improvements from last season. A lot has been made of who will start at point, but it appears Lin's offseason improvements and Beverley's role as a go-to defensive stopper make Lin the odds-on favorite to start. Both players have made improvements over the summer. Both seem to be better shooters. Lin has developed a game going to his left, something he was sorely lacking last year. Beverley is an even more pesky defender than before. Lin is leaner and quicker. In one sequence against Indiana, he took a steal the length of the court for a layup and literally left defenders in his wake like a wide receiver with 4.3 speed burning an old defensive back.
Lin has the advantage in the pick and roll, particularly with Howard, but Beverley is going to push for time and both of them will see extensive minutes together at times all year.
Harden has said he wants to be elite defensively and he certainly has the tools. At Media Day, he said he discussed taking the other team's best defender with the coaching staff and is challenging himself with that task this year. Parsons admitted to taking a step backward defensively last year, but he has increased his workout regimen to give himself more stamina and put more arc on his outside shot to improve accuracy.
But the time they all spent together seems to be paying the most dividends. To a man, they all preach the need for defense, and the combination of Howard and Asik should improve that dramatically, but it is the offense that seems to have benefited the most from those summer pickup games in Aspen and L.A. Now we just have to see if they can sustain it into the regular season.