The Houston Rockets' 45-win season greatly exceeded the expectations of many due to more than just James Harden and his magnificent beard.
A number of Rockets began to develop rapidly and it is no coincidence that the most surprising team in the league features three starters who could all be considered potential "Most Improved Players."
Harden finished fifth in the league in scoring and was a huge part of the team's success. He gave the Rockets a legitimate first option and meshed well with Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin.
Then there is Lin, whose very existence is enough to spark riots on the Bleacher Report comment sections.
Assessing the play of the league's most polarizing prospect and the rest of the Rockets' roster is a task we've given attention to in this year's report card for the Rockets.
No player entered the season with more disparate expectations than Jeremy Lin.
There were those who expected him to pick up right where "Linsanity" dropped off, those who expected an All-Star campaign—and there were those who expected the Harvard grad to just play his way right out of the league.
Fresh off a three-year, $25 million contract, Lin found himself battling pain in his surgically repaired knee during the preseason where his stroke was way off.
The Rockets didn't panic.
Instead, they found help, acquiring James Harden and putting an end to delusions that the Rockets were trying to jump-start their franchise on a guy who was never drafted. Lin's high upside may be that of just a 15-point, seven-assist player, but that's still very good. He's also an above-average defender with surprisingly good lateral foot motion.
Lin must further work on his mid-range jumper and learn to go left better. As he makes these incremental strides, he'll show that the contract he received was about on par with the level of production he'll give.
He posted 13.4 points and 6.1 assists per game this year with a PER of 14.9, about the league average. Lin is a starting-caliber guard with high upside and that's just the kind of guy Morey wants around as he puts parts together.
Because Lin fans come in three varieties, his grade does as well:
Lin Haters Grade: F (Belongs in D-League)
Linsanity Riders Grade: A+ (Should have been All-NBA and an All-Star)
Realistic (Actual) Grade: B (A good NBA starter; what he is)
James Harden had toiled away as a third option on a contending Oklahoma City Thunder team which just couldn't afford to keep its own draft selections.
Because Harden's talents commanded a max-contract, and the Thunder were already entering luxury tax territory, Thunder GM Sam Presti traded Harden to the Houston Rockets in what was the biggest blockbuster of the season.
Daryl Morey of the Rockets took a small wager that Harden's strong per-minute production in OKC could translate to big numbers as a No. 1 option. That gamble paid off, as Harden finished fifth in the NBA in scoring with 25.9 points per game.
Harden made his first All-Star team, and he displayed he has the playmaking and skills to take a team of role players to 45 wins and a postseason appearance. Essentially, the Thunder would have had three players talented enough to be a No. 1 option on a playoff team, while there are a number of teams in the Association without even one.
The fact that Morey was able to do this while only losing one first-round pick and one major starter (Kevin Martin) is astounding. It's why he's in consideration for Executive of the Year. And it's why Harden receives a perfect grade.
It was a mission fulfilled by the Beard to generate some excitement in Houston and get fans believing this young team can make noise and bring the Rockets their first title since 1995.
Chandler Parsons deserved the Most Improved Player of the Year award, but the fact he finished third in voting illustrates notice was taken of his talents.
Unlike teammate James Harden and the award winner Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, both of whom who merely assumed a much larger role—Parsons made genuine improvements in several aspects of his game.
Parsons' defense went from average to exceptional, his shooting from good to superb and his abilities to blend seamlessly with a high-usage guy like James Harden exhibited the value of the former Florida Gator's worth.
Parsons is on a $880,000 contract, which makes him the league's best bargain.
He has the makings of a future All-Star and his development is following a learning curve very similar to Bulls' legend Scottie Pippen. Bucking the trend of comparing white guys to other white guys, Parsons' game is very reminiscent of Scottie Pippen's, and his path to success perhaps even less expected.
The 6'9" Parsons didn't become a full-time starter until late in his NCAA career. The fact that many of the things he does often do not show up in the box score has a lot to do with why he started out on the bench.
However, Parsons does plenty to show up in the box score, too. Parsons shot a true shooting percentage of 58.4 percent.
Parsons' improvement was shown in his PER increasing from 13.3 to 15.3 in his second season. He was a huge reason this Rockets team was able to edge out the Utah Jazz for the eighth seed.
Omer Asik, like James Harden, previously had a smaller role on a contending team.
Asik backed up Joakim Noah in Chicago for two seasons before Daryl Morey signed the Turkish seven-footer to a three-year, $25 million contract.
It drew scrutiny at the time as many wondered how could Morey spend so much on a guy who averaged three points and five rebounds per game in 2011-12.
Asik answered the doubters. He seemingly improved on a night-by-night basis, learning to do things that had plagued him during his first two seasons of backup duty in the NBA. He caught the ball easier, held it together finishing through traffic, hit more free throws and was extremely aggressive on the glass.
Asik averaged 11.7 boards on the year, which wasn't nearly as surprising as his 10.1 points per game. Asik struggled early in the season in finding his touch, but as he grew more comfortable playing in Houston, he improved his field goal accuracy to 54.1 percent.
Omer didn't really protect the basket quite like Morey may have anticipated, but limitations in his athleticism curb the prospects of Asik ever being a very effective shot blocker or finisher.
In fact, though he improved on his abilities to finish at the rim, he still needs a lot of work in that area. Asik averaged 30 minutes per game this season.
Unless Morey makes some specific moves to acquire guys who may start in front of him, he should see an increase up to around 34 minutes per game. That four minute increase may give Asik the edge in leading the league in rebounding.
Donatas Motiejunas' rookie season gave a lot of reasons for hope.
Those who watched the No. 20 overall pick of the 2011 draft saw a guy whose ambidexterity and skills could render him as successful as Pau Gasol eventually.
Motiejunas has soft touch and range which extends all the way to the three-point line and he's reasonably tough for a seven-foot Euro big man.
He can also flat-out score.
Motiejunas assumed an awkward role within the offense, unsure of how many shots to take from Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and James Harden. After he got a little more comfortable, it enabled him to average 16.7 points (per-36), although he will have to learn to stay out of foul trouble (4.9 fouls per-36).
D-Mo also has to work on his three-point shot before he can use it more (28.9 percent this season), but his upside is enough to make Morey believe he may not need to pursue a free-agent power forward this summer quite as badly if D-Mo can develop rapidly enough.
Argentine swingman Carlos Delfino is essentially a more affordable version of his international teammate Manu Ginobili.
A consummate sixth man, Delfino's skill set helped the Rockets stay in games on nights when they may not have otherwise.
The Rockets were 8-9 when Delfino scored at least 15 points. At first that wouldn't be considered a good thing, until one considers what it actually indicates.
Delfino has filled the gaps when Harden and Jeremy Lin have struggled all season. Delfino hit 37.5 percent from behind the arc this season and averaged 10.6 points while also coming up with a steal per night.
Delfino's abilities to play passing lanes in addition to having good hands and long arms help Delfino play solid defense.
Delfino is one of the more-underrated sixth men in the league. When the Rockets draw nearer to contention, we may hear the 6'6" swingman's name thrown into the conversations for the sixth-man award more often.
Patrick Beverley is a solid backup point guard who is capable of running the offense in stretches.
At several junctures this season, his infectious hustle helped the Rockets ignite scoring runs. He posted a PER of 15.4—higher than that of starter Jeremy Lin.
The fact that the 6'1" former Arksansas Razorback is able to keep his turnovers down while creating turnovers from his defensive assignments is what gives him value as a backup point guard.
Beverley's play relegated newly acquired Aaron Brooks to the bench. In Beverley, Rockets management sees a steady player who is heady and has a high basketball IQ. He was taken in the second round in 2009 by the L.A. Lakers, but it looks as though he could have a home in Houston.
He'll need to continue to work on his shooting to take the next step, but he should have a future in the league as a guy who can control tempo and help second-units hold it together until the starters get back on the court.
He did that this year.
Francisco Garcia played just 319 minutes in 18 games for the Rockets, but did start five games in which he averaged 9.6 points.
He is has a team option for $6.4 million, which the Rockets are almost certain not to exercise for next season.
Garcia was a 24-year-old rookie so finds himself exiting his prime before it really ever started in Houston. His career-high scoring average was 12.7 points per game in 2007-08.
Entering that territory as a useful reserve again is somewhat unlikely, especially given the fact that the Rockets have far better options in the second unit who can do the same thing, except better (Carlos Delfino, that means you).
Greg Smith wasn't drafted in 2012 and the Fresno State second-year starter hadn't done anything overly impressive at the NCAA level, averaging 11.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in his sophomore season.
However, his 6'10" big body and decent athleticism drew the attention of some scouts. It's just that none of them were high enough on the center to spend even a second-round pick on him.
Smith didn't care. He had a tough rookie campaign last year. He wasn't able to keep his feet on the floor and just couldn't seem to stop reaching.
The result was that, per-36, Smith averaged 8.9 fouls, a figure which improved to 5.7 this year. His per-minute production is good, though with 13.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 62 percent shooting.
Smith ended up starting in front of Donatas Motiejunas and Thomas Robinson as the season concluded, but before the trade deadline, he was finding himself in the D-League often. The Rockets had far better options at the four- and five-spots before Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris were jettisoned.
Grade: B -
Aaron Brooks made his return to Houston with very little fanfare.
The 6'0" water bug had an excellent season in Houston in 2009-10, which now seems like an eternity ago to the Rockets and to Brooks.
That's mainly because that season he averaged 35 minutes a night while this year, he appeared in 35 minutes all season over seven games after being acquired from the Sacramento Kings.
Even in Sacramento, though, Brooks wasn't doing much.
Averaging eight points and two assists in 20 minutes a night don't grab the eyes of GMs. At the time when Morey acquired Brooks as a throw-in, only a few observers thought the former Oregon Duck would see court time. He didn't and you can't grade a guy on one game's equivalent minutes stretched over seven games of garbage time.
Will Brooks return to the form that had many calling him a poor man's Allen Iverson, or is the end of the bench where he'll spend the rest of his career? Brooks is still just 28.
Terrence Jones has a unique skill set that is reminiscent of Josh Smith, who is oddly enough a guy who he may end up being teammates with if Smith chooses to head to Houston this summer as a free agent.
While 317 minutes aren't a huge sample size to go on, Jones showed he does a few things well this season, not the least of which is blocking shots.
Per-36, Jones averaged 2.5 blocks and 1.6 steals. He also did a job on the boards with 8.5 per-36. These strengths are all areas in which the Rockets are deficient.
He blocked five shots in the victory against the Sacramento Kings on April 14 and the next night, he swatted six more in Phoenix, as the Rockets lost.
He scored in double figures in six of the seven games in which he saw at least 20 minutes of playing time. Jones should end up being worth the No. 18 overall draft selection he cost the Rockets in 2012.
James Anderson is a former No. 20 overall pick in 2010 by the San Antonio Spurs.
The 6'6" two-guard didn't see a lot of time this season, but he played reasonably well when he did, averaging 13.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per-36.
He struggled with his shot and hit just 40.6 percent form the floor and 32.7 percent from three-point range. The Oklahoma State three-year starter didn't see meaningful minutes, so drawing deductions based on this sample size is hard.
Those pointing to the Rockets for not having the depth to match up with teams in the 2013 postseason need look no further than the Thomas Robinson trade to see the reasons as to why.
The Rockets sacrificed their third-rotation guard in Toney Douglas and starting power forward in Patrick Patterson (in addition to Cole Aldrich and a first-rounder) in order to obtain Robinson, the No. 5 overall pick of the 2012 draft.
Robinson showed immense talent at the University of Kansas, leading the Jayhawks to the 2012 national title game where they were soundly defeated by his new teammate Terrence Jones' Wildcats.
While Jones walked away the victor in that game, Robinson had posted an impressive double-double and began to make his case as a high draft pick.
He moved further up the board during workouts leading up to the draft, but ever since donning an NBA uniform, he's been a bit of a disappointment. Robinson's stats have been lackluster, but he's made several standout plays this season that the Rockets are hoping are real silver and not just highlights and flashes in the pan.
Robinson didn't really ramp up his play at all after joining the Rockets, as he averaged 4.5 points and 4.1 rebounds in 19 games in 13 minutes a night.
The upside is noticeable when watching Robinson, but there have been plenty of premier athletes who never panned out. The fact that the Kings were willing to surrender a high lottery pick so soon into his rookie season indicates that they thought he would be just that.
It was a move on Sacramento's part to clear $3 million in cap room by the Kings, but surely if he had shown more potential, they would have kept him in purple and black.
At the trade deadline, Daryl Morey dealt away Patrick Patterson, Cole Aldrich and Toney Douglas for Thomas Robinson while Marcus Morris was dealt to Phoenix for a second-round pick.
Before they were dealt, all but Aldrich were featured players.
Let's look at the four departed Rockets' grades:
Patrick Patterson did a fine job as a starter and is clearly a starting-caliber power forward in the NBA. Trading him away hurt and he's starting now for Keith Smart in Sacramento. The Rockets may live to regret trading Patterson, who is tough on the interior for a stretch-4.
Typically, big men who can shoot tend to be soft, but Patterson is an exception. He averaged 11.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game with the Rockets.
Marcus Morris never really lived up to the hype of having been a late lottery pick. So Daryl Morey traded him to play with his brother, Markieff, in Phoenix. The Rockets obtained a second-round pick for their troubles.
Morris: C -
Toney Douglas is a very valuable guy off the bench and losing him badly hurt the Rockets. He can score in a hurry, play aggravating and pesky defense and typically brings a lot of energy in his short minutes. Douglas also served as a great backup to Lin because he could come in and play at the same level or higher if Lin was having an off-night.
Per-36, Douglas averaged 15.7 points, 3.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals. Comparatively, Lin averaged 14.9 points, 6.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals. Lin is better, but Douglas is a bargain-basement kind of guy who makes a team better.
Cole Aldrich didn't see much time in Houston, but he'll be able to tell his grandchildren that he retained his spot on the roster when the eventual starter (Greg Smith) was optioned to the D-League. Aldrich is a big body who will be an effective backup 5-man, but nothing more and nothing less.
Aldrich saw just 213 minutes in Houston before being dealt, but his per-36 averages of 8.5 points and 9.6 rebounds indicate he has beastly potential. Then again, the aspect of garbage time and its inflated numbers do come into play here.
Aldrich has seen an increased role in Sacto (very slightly increased, that is) and done pretty well, posting a league average PER of 15.7 in 12 minutes of play a night.
Statistics accurate as of the conclusion of the 2012-13 regular season and sourced from Basketball-Reference.com