COMMENTARY | For the first time in years, the city of Houston is hoping for an NBA championship for its beloved Rockets.
When a team has 2 of the best players at their position in the NBA, as the Rockets arguably do with James Harden and Dwight Howard, they are instantly thought of as a title-contending team, on paper that is. However, in the early weeks of the season, the Rockets have shown that they still have many weaknesses.
Here are 3 things the Rockets must fix to contend for an NBA title:
1) The Twin Tower Combination
When Howard was signed in July, reports immediately came out that incumbent starting center Omer Asik was not happy with the deal, and even demanded to be traded as he didn't want to be a backup. Asik was a backup center with the Chicago Bulls to Joakim Noah for 2 years before signing a 3-year, $25 million contract with the Rockets. In his first season as a full-time starting center in the NBA, Asik put up staggering defensive numbers, averaging 10.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, 1.1 blocks per game and ranked in the top 10 for centers in overall defensive efficiency.
With arguably the best center in the league on board, Asik was most likely going to have to take a back seat once again. However, the Rockets made an effort in training camp to maximize both players by putting them in the starting lineup together.
The title was perfect for the script to be written: Dwight Howard and Omer Asik to become the next great Rockets' Twin Tower Tandem. How great of a story it could be from an organization that once had its great Twin Towers in Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson in the '80s, along with other great big men in Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, and Yao Ming.
But so far, it looks like that combination is not working, at least with the two of them together on the floor at the same time. Both players are severely flawed offensively, both cannot score posting up (although Howard has shown signs of improvement from years past), and neither player can knock down a jump shot to stretch the spacing.
Through the first 7 games, the Rockets have begun games struggling offensively; losses to the Clippers (twice) and Lakers have resulted in double-digit deficits in the first 6 minutes of play. Even with the struggles of starting both centers together, Asik will remain in the starting lineup. This will either give him as many minutes as possible, or for the Rockets to showcase him to other teams for a potential trade. Whatever the case may be, I don't expect the two to start together by the second half of the season.
2) The Search For A Power Forward
This is a hole that hasn't been filled since Luis Scola was amnestied 2 years ago. Howard starts at the power forward position for now, while Omri Casspi, who serves only as a stretch-4, comes off the bench. Head coach Kevin McHale also inserts Chandler Parsons, a natural small forward, into the power forward spot for the Rockets' best offensive lineup of Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin, Harden, Parsons, and Howard.
But Parsons' size, or lack there of (227 pounds), won't allow him to last an entire season banging in the paint with the traditional power forwards. Casspi is a very capable role player and has scored in double-digits 3 out of the 6 games he's played in so far, but he isn't the answer as a starter if the Rockets hope to advance deep in the playoffs.
I expect general manager Darly Morey, who's made an in-season trade in each of his first 7 years with the Rockets, to acquire a starting-caliber stretch-4 near the trade deadline.
Three major advanced stat categories that was telling of the tempo that the Rockets played with a season ago were PACE (number of possessions per 48 minutes), Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions), and EFG (effective field goal percentage). Houston led the NBA with 98.6 possessions per game, 6th in the league in Offensive Rating (106.7 points per 100 possessions) and 5th in EFG% (52.5 percent).
As of now, the Rockets are in the top 5 of all 3 categories this season again, which correlates to their struggles on defense. Opponents are getting more and more possessions, easily penetrating lanes against defenders who are resting on defense, and receiving plenty of open 3-point shots. Not to mention, the break-neck tempo is a factor in the Rockets turning the ball over 19 times a game, which ranks them 5th overall.
While the fast-breaking nature of the Rockets is what has made them effective and dangerous, it could eventually backfire later in the season when legs begin to get tired. Dwight Howard worked all summer with McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon in the low post; it'll be interesting to see if the Rockets eventually slow down offensively and give the ball to Howard more in the post.
Michael Ma covers the Houston Rockets as an editor for Rockets blog Space City Scoop, and as a columnist for Rocketssocial.com. He's been a basketball junkie since the Illegal Defense rule was still in effect. You can follow Michael on twitter @RealMichaelMa.
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