Maybe you haven't been watching the Rockets for a while. Maybe their abject mediocrity over the last, oh I don't know, 15 years, has left you complacent. Maybe you grew up during a time when the Rockets weren't winning titles and contending for championships. Or maybe you just didn't care that much...until now.
No one is going to judge you for hopping on the bandwagon now that the Rockets appear to be relevant (and perhaps good even) again, particularly since the Texans season is (unofficially) over and what else are you going to do, talk about the NFL draft? I know that is what sports radio wants from you, but you're a smart sports fan and you like teams that win. So, welcome back...or for the first time...to the NBA and your hometown Houston Rockets.
For those who haven't been around for a while, a lot has changed in the last 10 years. So, I'd like to act as your official tour guide to the 2013-14 team, show you around the roster, introduce you to the GM and the coach, give you some insight into what to expect from this team this year. Hint: it's going to be interesting.
The Long Timer
You'd think a list of guys that have been with the team for a while would be longer than one guy, but, in the span of just over two years, the entire roster has been turned over and only Chandler Parsons remains. Parsons is in his third year after being taken in the second round of the draft. He's primarily a small forward though he will slide to power forward in smaller lineups. He has surprising athleticism and runs the floor well. Two seasons ago, he was one of the team's better perimeter defenders. That slipped a bit last year and he's trying to get back to that form. He is a streaky three-point shooter who can light it up on occasion, but will go through several-game shooting slumps, but he is probably the third best player on the team and is one of the leaders on the floor.
The H-Town Stars
At the end of training camp last year, the Rockets had a gift dropped into their laps. The Oklahoma City Thunder, desperate to clear some cap space, decided to move talented sixth man James Harden. The Rockets picked him up for a steal and he has rapidly become one of the best shooting guards in the NBA. Don't let his trademark bushy beard fool you into thinking he is some gruff, surly, punk. He's a quiet, thoughtful guy who is supremely gifted. Though he has struggled early this season from distance, he is a great three-point shooter to go with one of the more devastating middle-range games in the NBA. He also has a slow, deliberate long step move referred to as the "Euro Step" which is a signature for him and allows him to get to the basket with ease. He is always near the top of the league in free throws attempted and made, and is an outstanding passer. His biggest challenge will be to become a better defender. At the moment, it might be a stretch to call him mediocre as he sometimes seems lost on that end of the floor, but he is the team's best player and he's still in his mid 20s with plenty of time to improve.
This offseason, the Rockets managed to woo free agent big man Dwight Howard away from the LA Lakers. Howard is a prototypical center with tremendous upper body strength and stellar athleticism. He gives the team a terrific interior defender and is always near the top of the league in blocked shots and rebounds. Howard has been criticized for being a little too happy go lucky, particularly in LA, but his struggles there were more likely about his injury issues than his attitude. Where Howard struggles is from the free throw line, where he frequently shoots below 50 percent. That allows teams to employ a "Hack-a-Dwight" strategy late in games to force him to score from the line. So far this year, he has looked better from the charity stripe, but it could be argued that his misses have cost the team at least one game.
The Lin and Yang
One of the biggest controversies in the early part of the season -- at least among hard core fans, particularly fans of Jeremy Lin -- is who should start at point guard. Lin is a great distributor, an improving shooter and has the star power thanks to his star turn in New York, but Linsanity was not enough to land him the starting job. Patrick Beverley, a pick up from a league in Russia, won the starting job thanks to his strong, tenacious defense and shooting touch. In reality, both will get minutes together on the floor when the Rockets go small, which they will likely do often, but who will get time will be heavily dependent upon match ups any given night.
The Rockets don't have a lot of firepower coming off the bench, but they do offer a pair of shooters, one that also brings some defense. This year's free agent acquisition Omri Casspi, the first NBA player from Israel, has been a bright spot early in the season. The 6'9" forward can play both forward spots and is an excellent outside shooter. Francisco Garcia came over in a trade last season and immediately demonstrated his outside shooting touch, but also surprised with some excellent defense in the playoffs. Both are the best offensive threats off the bench after Lin.
The Trade Bait
It's almost unfair to categorize Omer Asik with this title. Last season the free agent big man became one of the biggest surprises in the NBA. Not only did he rank second in the league in rebounding (behind Dwight Howard), but he singlehandedly made increased the Rockets defensive rank by 14 spots when he was on the floor. He might be the team's best defender. But, the experiment of Asik at center with Howard at power forward has been, at least in part, responsible for the Rockets slow starts. When the Rockets brought in Howard, it was fairly clear that Asik's days in a Rockets uni were numbered. He deserves a chance to start somewhere. Don't be surprised if he is starting elsewhere by the trade deadline.
For all their strengths, the bench is still a bit of a mess. After Garcia, Casspi and Lin, there is a mix of various players that have yet to contribute much. The most promising is Terrence Jones, someone many believed would be the starter at power forward in training camp. His defensive struggles have limited his playing time, but don't be surprised if his minutes gradually increase throughout the year. After Jones, the next most likely off the bench include forward Donatas Monteunas, who shows promise but has struggled when the lights are on, Aaron Brooks, a former Rockets starting point guard who provides a veteran backup and good shooting, backup center Greg Smith and veteran defensive presence Ronnie Brewer. They have some talent, but the bench is not considered a strength.
If you don't know about Rockets GM Daryl Morey, he is gradually changing the way the league measures player strengths and weaknesses. Always gifted at finding diamonds in the rough and getting them for next to nothing, he was routinely criticized for not landing the big fish before Harden and Howard both starting wearing Rockets red. He is now considered on of the best -- if not THE best -- at his job in the NBA. He's like a crazy fantasy league owner who makes moves willy nilly, but there is a method to his madness as evidenced by the talent he has assembled on this team.
In the 1980s, Kevin McHale drove Rockets fans nuts as he won titles with rivals the Boston Celtics. Though he had limited experience as a full-time coach (and not a ton of success) before joining Houston, he has shown himself to be a hard-nosed, no nonsense coach that works to the strengths of his players. He has done a terrific job over the last couple years molding this young roster. Now, it will be interesting to see if he can manage the star power of Harden and Howard. In fact, Howard said playing for McHale was one of the reasons he joined the Rockets in the offseason.
The Rockets were one of the best offensive teams in the NBA last year and all they did was add Dwight Howard, so it will be no shock if they continue their offensive exploits. They love to run the ball and there is plenty of up and down, back and forth play by this young squad. They want to rebound and run, grab the ball out of the net and run, create turnovers and...yes, run. They are a fun team to watch and they are unselfish as a whole. They love to shoot from distance and though they haven't been great this season so far, that should improve with their shooters.
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As good as they were last year offensively, the opposite was true on the defensive end. Like so many young teams, they seem to lose their focus on the defensive end of the floor more often than they should. They must improve on that end of the floor if they want to go deep in the playoffs. The Rockets are also turnover prone. They expect to turn the ball over more than most teams because they also expect to have more possessions, but anything below middle of the pack will result in some serious struggles. They can also be a streaky shooting team from distance and from the line.
What to Expect
This is a very fun team to watch and you will be entertained most nights. But with their youth and lack of experience playing together, there will be some serious growing pains. The Rockets have enough talent that they should beat most bad teams, but they are still learning how to play together. The goal is to be better in March than they are in November, hopefully much better. I'm still not convinced this is a contender this year, but they are very close and with some chemistry developed over the long season, I wouldn't count them out either. The best part is that they are young and have the potential to be good together for quite a few years.
For more info, check out All Systems Go, our Rockets season preview.