Under-the-Radar Houston Rockets Storylines to Keep an Eye on
The Houston Rockets have made national headlines over the last few weeks by trading for superstar-in-the-making James Harden coming to play with newly signed Jeremy Lin.
However, after a fast start heralded the bearded one as the next great thing, progress has slowly started to wane as the team has dropped four of the last five games.
Coach Kevin McHale has been absent the past few days to deal with a personal matter, and the duo of Harden and Lin haven't been strong enough to compete with some high-quality NBA teams.
Omer Asik has been a nice surprise, but behind the veil there are plenty of great storylines that we need to keep an eye on right now.
From offensive strategy to accommodating a struggling draft pick, we've got you covered on all things Rockets that might not make national headlines.
Who Will Emerge Behind Omer Asik?
Omer Asik is playing at an extremely high level right now. His production continues to increase every chance he gets the opportunity for more looks, and he's been the most steady of the team's Big 3.
Behind him, Cole Aldrich and Donatas Motiejunas figure to get the biggest chunk of playing time. As good NBA teams know, it's always a bonus to have a center you can count on when your starter goes out with foul trouble.
So far, Patrick Patterson has been used some here in smaller lineups with Marcus Morris at power forward, but against the big, bruising teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies, that won't be an option.
Aldrich is averaging 10 minutes a game, but I think it's clear the long-term hope is former first-rounder Motiejunas claims a role there. His only game was coincidentally the team's last win, the 96-82 decision over the Detroit Pistons.
Keep an eye on this battle over the next few games. The hot hand will likely get the call from Coach McHale.
Record vs. Southwest Division
The Southwest Division has an argument at being the best in the NBA. Over the last 13 years, five champions have come from this division. Granted, four belong to the San Antonio Spurs, but that doesn't take the edge off facing these teams 16 total times.
So far, the Rockets are 0-1. Losing a tough game to the Memphis Grizzlies is proof that they have some work to do to catch up to the rest of the division.
Rookie Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Hornets come to town on Wednesday night, a game this team has to win if it's going to make a serious push at the playoffs.
The Spurs, Grizzlies, Hornets and Dallas Mavericks are all very competitive teams. Despite what the Rockets do in the rest of the NBA, they can't expect to leave the division with a losing record and still be in a position of power with relation to the rest of the league.
Royce White's Role
White again made headlines on Tuesday after he missed the team's practice. It's been an embattled season for the rookie from Iowa State, the No. 16 overall selection in the draft who was one of the biggest enigmas coming into the league.
Earlier, he let slip that he has anxiety issues and cannot fly on an airplane to games. The team remains committed to finding a solution to this problem, but as Phil Jackson found out in LA, sometimes the candidate with fewer problems wins out.
How much longer can this issue keep a first-round draft pick from being on the court? Despite the abundance of forwards Houston has to play with, it's hard to replace game experience and team bonding if a player never spends time with his teammates.
Although this story has grabbed more headlines than the team has liked, it will go away if White and the Rockets can come to some sort of mutual agreement about his travel situation. If not, this distraction could turn into something far worse entirely.
The Continued Development of Chandler Parsons
It's easy to forget that Parsons was a second-round pick in 2011. Now starting alongside Jeremy Lin and James Harden, he's become a fan favorite while putting up nice numbers from beyond the arc.
However, his growth as a player will really be measured by how much he improves with the amount of time he's being given. At 38 minutes a game, he's second on the team to only Harden, who plays 40.
To play 38 minutes a game, you need to bring some intangibles to the table. So far, he's shooting just 40 percent from the field, while shooting 36 percent from behind the arc. That needs to change in a hurry.
While he's also done some good things from a rebounding and assist perspective, the defense also stands room for improvement in close-out and rotation situations.
I like Parsons, and in the right role I think he will shine for this team. He's been given every opportunity to succeed so far, and has done well with what's been given. Still, with Terrence Jones and Royce White clamoring for playing time, he'll need to continue his growth each game.
Stat to watch: 2.3 turnovers per game so far.
James Harden as a Closer
In Oklahoma City, Harden didn't have to feel much pressure late in games, other than the occasional free-throw line game-clincher. Now, he's going to have plays called for him, defenses scheming to stop his attack and the entire 20,000-fan crowd waiting to see how he responds.
Against Miami, it wasn't a positive result. Harden had three chances to extend the lead or win the game for Houston. He missed badly on consecutive three-pointers with the team still up by four and then one. After Miami extended a late lead to three, it was Harden time in Houston.
The Rockets appeared to run a set where Jeremy Lin came off a high screen at the top of the arc, but Harden wanted the ball in his hands. He forced up a step-back three over the outstretched arms of LeBron James that clanked the side of the rim, and the game was over.
That raises two questions in one play—One, is he the right guy to be closing games and two, if he is, why isn't he looking to attack the rim?
Lin had just airballed a three that would have tied the game. I understand his decision to take the final shot. It's what true closers do—they want the ball. But with the ball in his hands late in the game, Harden turns into a jump shooter almost exclusively.
According to 82games.com, 62 percent of Harden's shots have been jumpers in "clutch" time. The site defines clutch as the last five minutes of a game where neither team is leading by more than five points. His effective shooting percentage is a whopping 16 percent, and he hasn't been assisted at all in those scenarios.
As the season progresses and Harden becomes more comfortable in the closing role, I think those stats will change. Until then, look for McHale and Co. to call plays that cater to the strengths of this team—even when the game is on the line.
Ethan Grant is a featured columnist for the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA and Bleacher Report's Breaking News Team.
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