It’s a dubious distinction to say a team won the off-season.
Sure, changing the conversation around your team by pulling in free agents, making aggressive trades, building up bench depth… none of these are bad things. But, if we’re being honest, no one writes books about teams that won the off-season. And quite often those on-paper victories don’t translate into real ones when the schedule starts. So when I tell you that the Houston Rockets have had a hell of a summer, you are fully within your rights to say, “So what?”
But, in fairness, the Rockets didn’t just “win” the off-season. If the NBA landscape is Las Vegas, the Rockets are Clooney, Pitt and Co. at the end of Ocean’s Eleven, walking across the hotel floor with $160 million in duffel bags.
Because Houston stole the off-season, and they stole it good.
Armed with the newly acquired James Harden, the Rockets surprised a lot of people last season by making the playoffs and giving the Thunder a good run in the first round. Their follow-up could have been a wave and a bow, but instead they went out and lured franchise centre Dwight Howard away from suitors like the Lakers and Mavericks. Then they spun off a series of spare parts to fill out areas of need, all without signing a bad contract – always a tough task for a team in a non-marquee NBA market.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the Rockets are without peers or question marks. It simply means that this team is almost certain to outstrip its eighth-place Western Conference finish last year, and, in fact, has continued on its incredible upward trajectory, something like the path of a rocket.
Additions: Dwight Howard, Marcus Camby, Ronnie Brewer, Omri Casspi, Reggie Williams, Isaiah Canaan
Departures: Carlos Delfino, Thomas Robinson, James Anderson, Tim Ohlbrecht, Royce White
Wow. No, really, look at that.
Houston brings in a top-five centre who rebounds, defends and draws constant double teams; a veteran leader who brings rebounding and defence off the bench; one of the premier perimeter defenders in the league; an underused hybrid forward who’s still only 25; three-point shooting and bench scoring; speed, upside and youth. They give up an aging three-point shooter and a few projects with question marks.
Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey is, um, well he’s pretty good at this.
- While Howard was good last year – 17.1 points, a league-leading 12.4 boards and 2.5 blocks per game – he wasn’t nearly on the level of previous seasons. Was the diminished production due to ongoing recovery from off-season back surgery? Was he a poor fit in L.A., either alongside Kobe Bryant or in D’Antoni’s offence? Or – perish the thought, Rockets fans – has the back injury he suffered in 2011–12 limited his explosiveness going forward?
- Who’s going to start at power forward? Greg Smith? Donatas Motiejunas? Terrence Jones? Moving Chandler Parsons – who is six-foot-nine – into the spot could fill the hole, but it’d create a similar-sized opening at small forward as there isn’t a natural starter on the bench. Another option is starting Omer Asik at the four. Which brings us to…
- How do you solve a problem like Omer? Asik comported himself well in his first season as a full-time starter, putting up 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds in 30 minutes per game. But as good as he and Howard are, neither one is the type to step away from the hoop. If these two play together, they’re stepping on each other’s toes and clogging the paint. If they don’t, you’re playing a lesser player more minutes, not to mention leaving a lot of money and ability sitting on the bench for far too long.
Trading Asik for an upgrade at power forward could work, but then that means you’re relying much more heavily on Camby’s old (by NBA standards) legs as a backup centre.
Breakout player: Chandler Parsons. Harden broke out last year. Lin had his moment two years ago. Dwight Howard’s been doing work since ’04. The guy who’s going to make a name for himself here is Parsons.
Lost amidst some of the other Rockets storylines last year was the fact that Parsons, a second-round draft pick in 2011, emerged as one of the better two-way small forwards in the league. He’s long, he can handle the ball, he shoots the three and he can ably defend two positions. He’s the type of player every team in the league wants, and the kicker is that he’s the type of player every team could’ve had.
Did I mention Daryl Morey is good at this?
Scale of decency: Trans-decent. That’s a mix of “decent” and “transcendent.”
The Howard-Brewer additions will help the defence and, maybe more to the point, the Rockets will simply be fun to watch. Expect highlights. Expect threes and dunks. Expect speed. The fastest team in the league last season (96.1 possessions per 48 minutes) has the horses to keep up that pace, and they’ll need all of them if they’re going to hurdle the Spurs, Clippers and Grizzlies—the heretofore elite teams at the top of the Western Conference.
With Russell Westbrook out at least a month to start the season for the Thunder, the Rockets already have a leg up on the team that bounced them from last year’s playoffs.
But, hey, that’s all on paper. Let the games begin.
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