Houston Rockets: 5 Things Rockets Must Do to Fulfill Their Potential
After tonight's (Sunday, Nov 18) loss to the L.A. Lakers, the Houston Rockets had some serious weaknesses exposed. Though they are just a 4-6 team now after the loss, the potential to be a playoff squad is still there if the team continues to gel and works on improving deficiencies.
The talent level in Houston is not on par with the juggernauts in the Western Conference, but they have enough talent to win half their games and make a push for the eighth seed this year. Sitting well under the cap, the Houston Rockets can then make a play for a top free agent to strengthen their lineup around the foundation piece of James Harden.
Acquiring Harden didn't make the Rockets contenders overnight, but it dramatically increased expectations, particularly after Harden put up 37 in his first night as a Rocket against Detroit, then followed that game up two nights later with a 45-point buster in Atlanta.
Harden came down to earth after that, but he was averaging 26.7 points per game going into tonight's contest against the Lakers, and he's scored 20-plus in all but two stinkers in back-to-back games against Memphis and Denver.
Here's a look at five things the Rockets can do to fulfill their immense potential.
1) Strengthen Interior Defense
Omer Asik has been a great presence on the boards, but he's not protecting the basket defensively. Last year, as a member of the Bulls, Asik blocked 2.5 shots per 36 minutes. This year, he's blocking only 1.3 shots per 36.
Asik has been great on the defensive boards, but the lack of shot-blocking reared its ugly head tonight against the Lakers, as Dwight Howard battered Asik and the rest of the Rockets' weak frontcourt. The Lakers also shot 28 free throws to the Rockets' 18.
Not having a shot-blocker could be a problem all year for the Rockets, as the only player outside of Asik capable of blocking shots is Greg Smith, who isn't even seeing many minutes.
The problem with this "request" of asking the Rockets to strengthen the interior defense is that it isn't a problem that can be addressed by players simply doing things better. They need to fortify the roster.
Asik should be blocking two-plus shots per game, but he's not. Until they land themselves a shot-blocker, teams are going to abuse them around the basket, shoot a lot of free throws and finish a lot of takes to the hole that should have been changed or swatted shots.
2) Less Isolation, More Motion
As good as James Harden and Jeremy Lin are as isolation scorers, there is a time and a place for it, and "all game" isn't that time and place. The Rockets are still best, as most teams are, when the ball remains moving.
The talent level surrounding their dynamic backcourt isn't the best, but Patrick Patterson, Chandler Parsons (more on him later), Marcus Morris, Terrence Jones, Toney Douglas and Omer Asik all have the capability of performing a greater role within the offense.
Okay, so maybe not so much for Asik, but the rest of the clan can contribute more than they currently are.
Patterson has a very effective mid-range jumper that can be worked for more than just an occasional opportunity basket.
Morris is a great athlete that still has a lot of potential to fulfill, as he showed at Kansas that he has the makings of an above-average power forward.
Jones is quick and is going to be a great transition scorer in the NBA, and Douglas and Parsons are both capable of filling it up quickly.
Douglas showed in New York he can be a great sixth man and punch off the bench, but so far he's averaging just five points per game, which is less than half his output as a Knick in 2010-11, when he posted 10.6 points per night while hitting almost two threes per game.
The Rockets' mainstays are Lin and Harden, but they won't crack .500 by playing their offense exclusively through the talented tandem. The roster may not be stacked with double-digit scorers, but they have to find a way to get more out of it.
3) Feature Chandler Parsons
Chandler Parsons is quickly entering the discussion of the best second-round draft picks in the last five years. Taken 38th overall in 2011, Parsons came out of Florida with a reputation as a guy who played hard and could fill it up.
He's done just that this year, and entered tonight's game against the Lakers with a 13.1 point per game scoring average, while grabbing nearly seven rebounds per game in addition to that.
Then, there was tonight.
Parsons hit 8-of-10 from the floor and 4-of-5 from downtown, while also getting to the line five times (hitting four) en route to a team-high 24 points. He didn't do his usual job on the boards, grabbing just one rebound, but the shooting exhibition that Parsons put on shows that he is capable of a more featured role in the offense.
What is Parsons' ultimate upside? That's hard to say.
People would be quick to dismiss the notion that Parsons could be a 20-point-per-game scorer, but until he is given an increased workload and his usage goes up significantly, it's really hard to get a gauge on what he can do.
The only thing that is clear is that he can do more.
Leading into tonight's game, he was taking 11.8 field goal attempts per game. That figure should climb up to at least 15 shots per game, in light of the fact that he is the clear-cut third option behind Lin and Harden.
It's also worth noting that Parsons could easily be the second option behind Harden if he were utilized properly in the lineup. And that's no disrespect to Lin.
4) Keep Pushing Transition Buckets
The one positive that can be drawn from tonight's game against the Lakers is that the Rockets did an excellent job of pushing the ball in transition. Several instances of Dwight Howard lagging after making plays led to easy Rockets buckets in transition.
Houston has the speed to take advantage of when defenders fall asleep and don't hurry back in transition. Terrence Jones is going to be a great player in transition, and Marcus Morris should fall right in line with that.
Add the aforementioned Parsons and Lin into the mix, along with one of the best transition players in the game in Harden, and the Rockets have the kind of core that can take advantage of teams that just don't react well on the fly. They did this well against the Lakers tonight, despite not being close to a win.
5) Sign Top Free-Agent Big Man
The best thing the Rockets have going for themselves is the cap flexibility they have. They sit over $7 million beneath the cap right now, and that's with a full roster. After this season, they'll have a committed payroll under $39 million*.
That means they'll be able to get just about any free agent they want, and No. 12 is still smiling away in Los Angeles, knowing he'll have teams like the Rockets throwing a max contract at him this summer.
But if the Rockets strike out on Howard, there are three other very good big men they can spend their cap room on: Andrew Bynum, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.
The Rockets have been exposed as a weak team on the interior, and getting someone like Bynum or Jefferson would create the shot-blocking presence they sorely need. Adding the 6'8" Millsap wouldn't cure that as much, but even Millsap blocks more shots than anyone on the Rockets' current roster.
If Bynum or Al Jeff were added, it would likely result in the Rockets playing a twin tower lineup. It would be either that or render Asik an overpriced backup (reasonable scenario, really).
Now that the Rockets have Harden and Lin, there likely will be free agents wanting to play in Houston. It's a big market and the team is on the rise. Seeing which free agent chooses to take the bounty the Rockets offer this summer should be interesting, as it will shape the destiny of this team moving forward.
* It's worth noting Lin's contract is back-loaded, so in 2014-15, they will owe the Harvard gunner $14.8 million, but that won't count against their cap room this year. If they strike out and sign the wrong free agent, they're in dire straits...like most teams.