Before the NBA season began, I got my opportunity to look into the crystal ball and see how the Rockets would fare this year. With the addition of Dwight Howard and a cast of young, talented players, there were plenty of optimists suggesting the team would soar to the top of the Western Conference. Most, however, were cautious, as was I. As good as the team could be, it still had hurdles to overcome and chemistry to build. Plus, they are in the West, where teams that would be in the top three or four in the East are struggling to maintain position to make the playoffs.
My projected record for them by the end of January was 30-18. The Rockets finished January at 31-17 before winning their first game of February. I'm not going to break my arm patting myself on the back. A lot can happen in the second half of the season, but it does underscore a few things I believed would be a challenge for the team and a couple others no one could see coming.
Before the season, I believed this could be a strength for this team. These young players spent a good chunk of the offseason working out together and becoming friends. In this regard, little has changed. They still seem to genuinely like one another both on and off the court. They have begun to recognize the tendencies of one another. There are fewer and fewer passes being handed to Howard at his waist and more sent up high above the rim, for example. In truth, it will probably take into next year to develop real championship mettle, but as long as this nucleus remains together, plenty of good things can happen.
Learning the Team Game
In my preview of the Rockets, I wrote, "They have to figure out how they're going to play on the floor with one another. The Rockets want to play up-tempo, but it's hard to imagine them leading the league in fast break points yet again with a guy like Howard who can dominate the paint." Unfortunately, they are still a team straddling the fence between their previous run-and-gun offense and a slower, half-court style of play. They can and should eventually have both, but they have just barely learned how and when to throw a good post entry pass. It takes time.
Playing Both Ends of the Floor
With youth comes a love of scoring and tendency towards laziness on the defensive end of the floor. The Rockets are certainly not immune. For all their preaching of how they were mostly concerned with playing defense, they are not the stingy team on that end of the floor coaches have wanted. They struggle most with defending the perimeter. Howard and Terrence Jones have been excellent front court defenders, but they end up in foul trouble too often when guards are broken down by opposing players. This is more about hustle and technique than skill, something they can certainly learn. James Harden must improve in this area if he truly wants to become elite. Dealing with Injuries
One variable in any pro sports season is injuries. In the case of the Rockets, the one guy most worried about, Howard, has been the only guy to play in every game. Every other starter has spent time on the bench with a variety of injuries, some of the nagging variety and others that just needed time to heal. It has certainly held this team back, but most teams suffer their share of injuries during a season. Fortunately, the Rockets have managed to play through them for the most part. But they will need to be at full strength come playoff time if they really want to be a threat.
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Omer Asik is Still a Rocket
Perhaps one of the most surprising statements is one about how a player remains on the roster. Asik seemed destined to be traded once Howard was signed, but he remains a Rocket and GM Daryl Morey has said that he believes Asik will be with the team through the end of his contract after next season despite openly trying to trade him in December. Asik's huge cap number next season makes him tough to deal and he continues to sit on the bench with an "injury" that has gone on for some 30 games. The trading deadline is rapidly approaching, but it's hard to imagine the Rockets getting value for Asik at this point. He'll just have to learn to live with disappointment like the rest of us.
The Emergence of Terrence Jones
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the first half of the season is Terrence Jones. Up until a month into the season, question marks loomed over the power forward position. But, Jones has been a revelation, playing with energy and scoring on a both hustle and a variety of moves around the basket. His defense has improved dramatically as well and he finds himself lost on that end of the floor much less often than he did his rookie season. His emergence means the Rockets need not search for a power forward in trades, which gives them much greater flexibility.