The Houston Rockets have improved immensely as a team over the course of the 2012-13 season, mostly because of the individual improvements of the following five players.
In ranking these five players, I've taken into account their basic statistical lines (points, rebounds, assists) and overall impact on the team's play.
It's clear that a few players have really stepped up their games this season, and the Rockets would not be in the discussion for the No. 7 or 8 seed in the Western Conference had these players not stepped up.
For some players, it was just an increase in playing time that gave them the spotlight necessary to shine. Being buried in the depth chart can often hurt a player's performance (and growth, of course). When given the chance to play quality minutes, the better players will take advantage of the opportunity.
These guys have.
Others make this ranking based mostly off the fact that they simply improved from 2011-12. Another year in the league could have done it for these guys, but the Rockets are just happy that they've received more production than they expected.
All in all, these five players are undoubtedly the most improved Rockets this season.
Second-year big man Greg Smith has spent parts of the 2012-13 season playing with the team's D-League affiliate, but has also spent a good portion of the season as a member of the team's rotation in the frontcourt.
Over 50 games this season, Smith is shooting a stellar 65.1 percent from the floor. His consistency inside has been a key factor during the 13.7 minutes per game he's been on the court.
With consistent outside options in James Harden and Jeremy Lin, having someone reliable down low (especially when Omer Asik is on the bench) is key.
Smith has dropped 5.5 points per game while also pulling down 3.9 rebounds, respectable numbers for a guy averaging fewer than 15 minutes a night.
Last season, Smith only played in eight games for the Rockets. In those 8.6 minutes per game that he played, he shot 63.6 percent from the floor, scored 1.8 points and grabbed 2.5 boards.
Smith has really improved this season on the offensive end of the floor. While his shooting percentages have been extraordinarily high in both campaigns, Smith has improved at getting himself more opportunities to score.
With a guy that has the touch that he does around the rim, more opportunities can only be a good thing.
Carlos Delfino has established himself as the go-to guy off the bench for head coach Kevin McHale this season, something that's remarkable for a guy in his first season with the Rockets.
To his credit, he is used to a fast-paced system coming from the Milwaukee Bucks, but it's still impressive all the same.
He's actually played his fewest minutes per game (25.9) since 2007-08 (23.5) when he was a member of the Toronto Raptors, but he has made those minutes count.
In just under three more minutes per game last season, Delfino shot 36 percent from deep while scoring only 9.0 points per game.
He's increased both marks this season. His three-point shooting percentage has increased to 38.8 percent, and his overall scoring total is up to 10.6 points per game. He's attempting a ton of shots as a product of the Rockets' system, but he's most definitely capitalized on them up to this point.
Not much of a threat in the mid-range department, Delfino has even posted his best field-goal percentage since 2009-10 when he shot 40.8 percent.
Considering this year's mark is 40.7 percent (essentially the same), you'd have to go back to 2006-07 to find a higher mark (41.5 percent).
Delfino is definitely enjoying his first season with Houston.
Chandler Parsons outperformed his No. 38 draft position in 2011-12, showing all those teams that passed on him just how good of a player he had the potential to be.
He ended up starting in 57 of the 63 games he played in, scoring a modest 9.5 points, grabbing 4.8 rebounds and dishing out 2.1 assists per contest.
For a rookie drafted in the second round, it'd be unfair to expect much more.
"Much more" is exactly what he's done this season, however, and he's established himself as one of the most complete young players in the NBA today in the process.
In 36.3 minutes per game, Parsons is scoring 15.1 points (on 48.4 percent shooting), pulling down 5.5 rebounds and tallying 3.7 assists per game. Not to mention the fact that he's improved from the free-throw line (70.6 percent as compared to 55.1 percent) and from beyond the arc (37.9 percent as opposed to 33.7 percent).
Parsons has been a difference-maker in Houston, and that's saying something when Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and James Harden were all new faces entering this season.
Parsons has all the potential to continue to improve, and that's a scary thought for opposing teams in the Western Conference.
Confused is probably the best adjective to describe the feelings of many when general manager Daryl Morey signed center Omer Asik to a three-year, $25.1 million deal this offseason.
Why? Well, Asik really hadn't proved much in his two seasons prior with the Chicago Bulls.
Sure, he proved how durable he can be, playing in all 148 games over those two seasons. But he only played around 13 minutes per game in his time with the Bulls.
Many believed that giving a big man with such little experience more than $8 million a year was ludicrous.
They aren't saying that anymore.
Asik has thrived as a member of the Rockets. His presence in the paint has been invaluable to the rise of this team. Greg Smith's impact on the team is similar to Asik's, albeit in fewer minutes.
Asik has converted on 54.1 percent of his field-goal tries, a number that's crucial when playing for a jump shot-heavy team like the Rockets. When pressured on the outside, guys like Parsons, Jeremy Lin and James Harden have had Asik as a safety net down low.
Asik's individual stats have soared due to overall improvement and increased minutes. He's averaging a double-double with 10.4 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, and he's even maintained a decent presence on defense by blocking 1.1 shots per game.
As underrated as he may be, there's no denying the fact that he has improved tremendously from last season.
Did any of you really expect anybody different to top this list?
James Harden (and his beard, too) have turned the young Rockets from playoff doubtfuls to playoff hopefuls, all in the span of just a couple of months.
Harden was a key cog for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but when the team locked up Serge Ibaka in a big-money deal, Harden was pretty much left out to dry. He was then shipped off to Houston and, well, here we are.
He won the Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2011-12, dropping 16.8 points in 31.4 minutes per game as the third option behind Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
No longer a sixth man or third option, Harden has shown just how valuable he can be to a team with his superstar performance this season.
He's playing a ton of minutes (38.4 per game), but he's taking advantage of his time on the court. His 26.2 points per game is fifth in the league, but he hasn't just been a pure scorer.
Harden has done his best to fill the stat sheet, coupling his 26.2 points with 4.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game.
Had the Rockets entered this season without Harden, there's no way they would be where they are today. A team lacking a true superstar generally doesn't go all that far in this league, and Harden's transformation into a top player in the NBA has been crucial to Houston's success.
Simply put, Harden is the most improved player on the Rockets—and possibly the entire NBA.