Jeremy Lin giggles before the games set in (Getty Images)
For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the ultra-weird Houston Rockets.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
On paper, given a series of unremarkable names that even the diehards will have a tough time differentiating from, these Houston Rockets look like they could be fighting to avoid the league's worst record in 2011-12. Not even the star power of one of the NBA's biggest names — free agent acquisition Jeremy Lin — can make up for the sheer anonymity of the current construction of the Houston Rockets.
General manager Daryl Morey has been attempting to continuously shift his team's roster for over half a decade now, to little success and only one postseason appearance that meant anything — an impressive 2009 run that sadly more or less ended Yao Ming's career. February-in and July-out Morey brings in well-researched assets with the hope of turning those over into players worth building around, and because of bad timing and other teams' unwillingness to dance on the other end of that line he keeps falling short. Even his closest attempt — legitimately dealing for Pau Gasol last December, before the NBA illegally voided the deal — wasn't exactly overwhelming. Gasol is one of our favorite people in the game and one of our favorite players of all time, but building around Pau at that point was no panacea.
"Panacea," of course, is Spanish for "he was 31."
As it stands during the most recent fallout, as it was during the previous four or five, the Rockets are left with a deep team full of players to admire, and assets everywhere you can look. This time around, though, the playoffs aren't just a few lucky breaks away.
What is in place is a massive experiment. Morey where your mouth is-time for those of us that love to herald the lesser lights.
(That was terrible. I'm sorry.)
Omer Asik, as much as those legs can handle, will be given starter quality minutes in Kevin McHale's system. The former Bulls center's fouling rate dropped significantly in his second season in 2011-12, and his defensive presence improved, somehow. This is a player that, by himself, could halve Houston's 17th ranking in defensive efficiency — and yes, we're aware that the Rockets field a backcourt of Lin and Kevin Martin amongst a group of rookies and youngsters. If Asik can play around 2600 minutes in total this season and come through with an approximation of his Chicago effectiveness in spite of the fatigue that comes from the minutes increase, you could have a real haughty column in his defense on your hands come May, when Dwight Howard walks away with another Defensive Player of the Year award.
Dealing with the same role at one million times the exposure rate is Jeremy Lin, who will be asked to turn in his month-long, possessions-heavy turn as New York Knicks superstar into a season-long run as an improving third-year man on a rebuilding team. With the ball in his hands and the world as his oyster, Lin was mostly masterful for the Knicks during that February run last year, but 82 games with the defense locked in is another story altogether. The fatigue, at times, was crippling for Lin last year (he played more minutes in February than he did in his year and a half NBA career up until that point); and this mixed with a summer spent carefully monitoring his action while rehabilitating last March's knee injury could spark a rough season that may never get on track.
(Followed by a killer 2013-14; because Lin truly is the real deal. Perhaps not an All-Star, but a hell of a player.)
From there, endless amounts of scoring forwards with good touch abound — from rookie Terrence Jones to high-flyer Chandler Parsons and sweet-passer Royce White. Patrick Patterson sometimes works well from the post, and Marcus Morris hits little bankers from 12 feet away. Jon Brockman rebounds and gets fouled, and Carlos Delfino just sort of sops up minutes at this point, and can barely keep up defensively. All nice, nothing great, nothing to put this team over the top.
Which is by design, we should note. In this league, though, it's off-putting to see a rebuilding team so devoid of awful players; because usually these start (over) ups are an untidy mix of hotshot top lottery picks and awful veterans on their last legs. The Rockets are a Triple-A club, almost exclusively, without either the awful or the high-end lottery goodness. As a result, it's hard to find a name on this roster that Morey likely wouldn't want in some part of a rotation, once he finally finds a way to deal for All-Star Number One and All-Star Number Two.
That's why — with the curious and effective coaching style of Kevin McHale, Kevin Martin's expiring deal, and the odd ascension of poison pill guys like Lin and Asik — this club remains so intriguing. Even if they'll be an easy out until the next turnover takes place.
Projected record: 25-57
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: Um ... a deep young frontcourt? Including wings Gary Forbes (imported from the Toronto Raptors in the Kyle Lowry trade) and rookie Jeremy Lamb, there are 13 players listed as forwards or centers on the Rockets' roster. Only two -- Forbes (27) and free-agent acquisition Carlos Delfino (30) -- are older than 26. With the roster at 18, Houston's still got three cuts to make -- given the glut up front, it's likely at least two will come from there, with reserve bigs Jon Brockman (still recovering from a freak offseason eye injury), former D-League All-Star Greg Smith (whose contract is only partially guaranteed for this year and next, according to ShamSports.com's salary database) and former Boston Celtics first-round pick JaJuan Johnson (whom I'm not entirely sure even Daryl Morey remembers he has on the roster) seeming to be likely candidates.
Even if those three get the axe, it's looking like the lion's share of the Rockets' frontcourt minutes will be occupied by players ages 26 or younger -- starters Omer Asik (26), Patrick Patterson (23) and Chandler Parsons (23), reserve rookies Royce White (21), Terrence Jones (20) and Donatas Motiejunas (22), and sophomore 2011 lottery pick Marcus Morris (23). Coach Kevin McHale will probably spend a fair amount of time grinding his teeth at his young frontcourt charges as inexperience rears its ugly head, but over the course of a long season, the ability to continually toss out lineups composed of fresh legs and athletic bigs could wear down older opponents, especially if Houston's able to turn up the pace (11th among 30 NBA teams last year) and get out in transition. On those nights when the youngsters are feeling themselves, coming at the opposition in waves and getting spoon-fed easy buckets off new point guard Jeremy Lin's screen-and-roll penetration, sheer tenacity and athleticism could be enough to eke out a few surprise wins.
Obviously, the plan behind accumulating all these first-round picks and young pieces was to be able to combine them into a package enticing enough to net a top-flight superstar, specifically Dwight Howard. But that plan didn't pan out, and while Morey continues to explore other options and look for ways to bring another foundational piece into the fold, he might as well see what he's got in the cupboard. With so little firmly established for the Rockets organization, McHale finds himself in a similar position as first-year coach Mike Dunlap with the Charlotte Bobcats -- leave no stone unturned, try anything and everything to see what sticks, and let the kids show you what they can do.
What Should Make You Scared: The staggering lack of experience and established talent on this team. Here's the flipside to that "exciting and fresh young legs!" coin: Only five players on the Rockets' roster have three or more years of NBA experience under their belts:
-- Eight-year vet Kevin Martin, whose $12.4 million expiring contract makes him a virtual lock to be moved before the trade deadline;
-- Seven-year vet Delfino, a complimentary 3-point gunner who didn't get too many sniffs in free agency, perhaps due to the fact that, as noted in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13 and detailed by BasketballValue.com, the Milwaukee Bucks allowed 11.3 more points per 100 possessions with Delfino on the floor than when he sat last year;
-- Seventh-year point guard Shaun Livingston, whom I love and about whom I will say nary a disparaging word;
-- The aforementioned Brockman, who might not even make the opening day roster;
Houston's two primary offseason acquisitions, the restricted free-agent duo of center Asik and point guard Lin, have made a combined 30 starts and played a total of 3,461 combined minutes in their NBA careers -- what kind of production and consistency they'll provide as first-time, full-time starters remains a very open question. Hardworking power forward Patterson, who will take over for the amnestied Luis Scola at the starting four-spot this season, might seem like a safe-ish bet to those who remember his three-year run at Kentucky and how impressive he was as a rookie, but that means you probably didn't watch him last year -- as his minutes, role and usage rate increased, his shooting percentages, rebounding rates, assist and block percentages all decreased.
Small forward Parsons showed flashes of a 3-point stroke and play-making instincts as a rookie, but he'll need to improve in all facets (especially from the free-throw line, where he hit just 55.1 percent of his attempts) before he can be considered a bankable commodity. Morris barely got on the floor as a rookie and was largely heinous when he did. Forbes was the 10th man on a 23-win Raptors team last year.
Basically, the Rockets will need Lin to be something approximating the primary scorer and facilitator that he was during his epic run in New York; Asik to be the same sort of paint-dominator and rim-protector for 30-plus minutes a night as he was in less than half that floor time for Chicago; both Patterson and Parsons to take across-the-board leaps; and at least two of their four rookies to play well enough to merit the kind of floor time they're going to see. If all that goes well, they might avoid being the worst team in the Western Conference and worse than the Bobcats.
It's going to be a long year, Rockets fans. Hold fast.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
Daryl Morey is an extremely intelligent, inventive general manager with a special ability to maximize value. That makes him a dangerous trading partner, and it's difficult to think of recent deals and signings where the Rockets didn't come out ahead. He's an admirable executive.
Unfortunately, it's becoming increasingly less clear what he intends the Rockets to be and how he'll go about doing it. By all impressions, Morey has plans to use the considerable assets on his roster in a package to land a superstar. The problem is that, in every instance, either that player has shown little interest in playing in Houston or the trading partner hasn't much liked Houston's offer. (Though, to be fair, Morey's reported offers often seem pretty good, and Pau Gasol — definitely a star, if not super — was on the verge of becoming a Rocket before David Stern vetoed Chris Paul's trade to the Lakers.) What we have, then, is a team with the possibility of turning into something and nothing more. The Rockets, by virtue of their ability to exceed expectations, have earned the 14th pick in the draft — the last in the lottery — each of the past three seasons. For all Morey's inventiveness, his team has neither improved nor regressed enough to earn a particularly valuable draft pick. Morey has lots of plans, but the Rockets increasingly look like a team without a long-term vision.
It is beginning to look more and more like Morey is a once-in-a-generation basketball analyst with deficiencies as a general manager. It's possible, as Ethan Strauss has argued, that Morey simply isn't especially persuasive when it comes to convincing top-tier players to come to Houston. But there are other issues, as well, including that many Rockets, most notably current Raptor Kyle Lowry, grow tired of being mentioned in trade rumors every other week. Plus, on a much broader level, it's tough to play for a franchise that doesn't know quite what it will look like in a season. If the future is dependent on a major trade, who's to say any one player is untouchable?
In Morey's defense, the Rockets have made strides to define themselves by adding Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik and jettisoning the old core of Lowry and Luis Scola (although Kevin Martin, supposedly unhappy, remains). With less reliance on veterans, it's also likely that the Rockets will be bad enough to pick in the top 10 next June, which could yield them a building block rather than another brick in the wall. But these moves only matter if Morey has a clear path in mind — otherwise, the Rockets look set to follow even more possibilities to even hazier conclusions, and we'll all be here again next fall with the same questions about where they're headed.
There's another possible explanation, one that we've seen more often in rumors and hypotheses over the past year. According to many, owner Leslie Alexander has directed Morey not to tank, which means he's tasked with putting together the best team he can given his resources. If that's the case, then Morey has done quite well. On the other hand, it would also be a good reason to start looking for another job. For a man who prizes flexibility, there doesn't seem much point in limiting potential avenues to success.
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