In three easy steps, the Rockets can make their young and promising roster a threat to go deep into the playoffs.
We don't know how far the Houston Rockets will go in the playoffs. Heck, we don't know whether the Rockets will even make the playoffs.
Here's what we do know—and like—about the Rockets:
James Harden still scores in bunches. He went off for 39 in the Rockets' tough loss to the Dallas Mavericks, head coach Kevin McHale's first game back after the loss of his daughter. By now, we're growing accustomed to Harden's prolific scoring.
Omer Asik is Hoover-ific on the boards. Despite being limited to seven rebounds in just 20 minutes against the Mavericks, the big man is averaging almost 11.5 boards per game in 31 minutes.
Chandler Parsons continues to emerge at the 3. Parsons is scoring over 15 points a game, his free throw percentage is way up over last year, and when he has a bad shooting night, he fights through it and still finds ways to contribute.
Patrick Patterson had a heck of a streak. Not surprisingly, he fell back to earth last week, scoring just six, 10 and 12 against the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Mavericks (although he did go 6-8 from the floor in the Mavs game). But Patterson went off for 20 or more points in four out of the five contests before Tuesday's victory against the Lakers. No one knows how good Patterson might be, but he has certainly attracted attention with his hot hand.
Intriguing pieces, to be sure. But what's less sure is whether or not this young team can get into the playoffs.
This writer say they can—and make a lot of noise once they do—with the following three-pronged blueprint for success.
All stats are accurate as of 12/9/2012.
It's not like Jeremy Lin's not trying, or that he doesn't have talent.
It's that Lin is not in a situation that fits him.
In New York, in former coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive scheme, the offense ran through Lin. In the uptempo system, Lin shot well, distributed well, and essentially drove us all "Linsane". That's what Houston expected when they signed him.
But the moment the Rockets traded for James Harden and essentially handed him the keys to the offense, Jeremy Lin's game was inalterably affected.
Harden creates plays. He finishes plays. Lin in turn has to look for his shot, instead of creating it or running a pick and roll. As a result, and perhaps not surprisingly given Harden's game, Lin has been a disappointment this year.
Lin's playing time has been dropping. Against the Mavericks, Lin was on the floor a mere 18 minutes, giving way again for the third straight game to Toney Douglas, a late first-round pick just a couple of years older than Lin.
Douglas can only be viewed as competition.
What might encourage Lin more than a battle with Douglas is a veteran presence to inspire him. Both Gilbert Arenas and Baron Davis are sitting in their living-rooms waiting for an in-season NBA call. Though Davis is still recovering from his knee injury, either player might be enthusiastic about tutoring Lin and joining Houston's up-and-coming roster...for very little money.
Delonte West is another free agent point guard. With his attitude, West is no role model, but he might be able to inspire Lin with his passionate play and solid outside shot.
If that doesn't work, general manager Daryl Morey might want to consider a trade.
Lin is extraordinarily popular, so though the swap might positively impact the win-loss record, it might not do the same for ticket sales. However, another team might not blink at Lin's contract for the same reason. Although Lin has not been playing at a level worthy of his salary, the instant fanbase he would provide makes Lin a potential steal from a bottom line perspective.
One option Morey might have in the near future is Sacramento Kings guard Tyreke Evans.
Evans played the point in college, and played it well. Though the knock on Evans was always his jump shot, he's been working hard on it, and the work's paying dividends: Evans' field-goal percentage from behind the arc is the highest it's ever been in his career.
Moreover, since Evans unquestionably has the talent to be a franchise player; he won't for a second be intimidated by Harden's style of play. And since Sacramento failed to sign him to an extension, Evans might well be dealt so the Kings can get some value for him.
Finally, the Maloof family, who own the Kings, care about only one thing: the bottom line. And Jeremy Lin, no matter how he plays, is good for the bottom line.
Houston would be a terrific place for Evans to land. He's perhaps an unlikely complement to Harden in the Rockets' backcourt, but he's certainly a formidable and talented one.
Quentin Richardson could back up Parsons at the 3, and help the Rockets forget the absence of Royce White.
Toney Douglas is acquitting himself well as the Rocket's backup point guard. And undersized center Greg Smith has impressed us several times this season.
Other than those two, Houston's backups are merely adequate.
Carlos Delfino and Daequan Cook are competent at the two but won't make anyone forget Harden's not on the court. Patrick Patterson's backup Marcus Morris hints at potential, but is unproven. And the absence of Royce White denies Chandler Parsons adequate backup.
An upgrade at backup for any of those three positions--shooting guard, small forward or power forward--would help keep legs fresh for the playoffs.
Kenyon Martin or Chris "Birdman" Andersen are unsigned and could contribute at the 4 without greatly impacting the cap. Michael Redd, also unsigned and with less spring in his step at this point in his career, might still pose more of a threat as Harden's backup than either Delfino or Cook. And fellow free agent Quentin Richardson seems like a no-brainer at the 3.
With one or more of these additions, gotten for the NBA equivalent of pocket change, the Rockets could supercharge their depth and make themselves more playoff-ready.
If the playoffs began today, the Rockets would be on the outside looking in, by a mere half-game.
That's impressive, when you consider the team's youth, the Royce White miasma, Lin's struggles, and coach Kevin McHale's tragedy.
The Rockets have had some impressive victories already this season, including the comeback victory against the Lakers. If this team continues to develop and gel, making the dance seems inevitable.
But as they'll probably squeak in near the bottom, they'll most likely have to face a Western Conference powerhouse like the Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder. As things stand right now, a first-round loss seems likely.
One school of thought is that losing early this year is all right. After all, the team is young and not deep. Daryl Morey, the NBA's equivalent of Billy Beane, has built this team for the future, using statistical and monetary metrics to fashion a low-cost, frequently effective roster.
With plenty of cap room left, the Rockets are positioned to sign a big free agent this summer.
But they're also in perfect position to upgrade at the trade deadline.
In today's contract-driven NBA, there is every chance that an impending free agent will be available come trade deadline time. If Morey finds the right guy, this team could upset a high seed in the first round. And once that happens, all bets are off.
Being from Detroit, I often use Pistons parables when appropriate. The 2004 Pistons were 34-22 when, at the trade deadline, general manager Joe Dumars managed to nab Rasheed Wallace. The Pistons went 20-6 the rest of the way, and eventually took home a championship.
If the Rockets can remain within shouting distance of the playoffs come February, count on Trader Daryl to nab a free agent who can fuel the team's run...leaving Morey with the option to sign or not sign his pickup depending on results.
Something tells me with these few pieces in place, the results might surprise a whole bunch of folks.