Last season, the Rockets surprised the NBA world by acquiring James Harden and then letting him lead them into the postseason. They looked to be just one piece away from being real contenders, and D12 is a pretty darn good piece.
Now Howard and Harden form a terrific one-two punch, and Chandler Parsons is by no means a bad third wheel. He could very well keep improving and compete for an All-Star berth during his third professional season.
The rest of the roster is quite solid as well, but there are still three main roster flaws going into the 2013-14 campaign.
Established Point Guard
The Rockets have a dangerous trio of point guards (a quartet even, if you feel like including Isaiah Canaan), but none of them are established as upper-tier starters at this point in their respective careers.
Linsanity feels like forever ago, and while Jeremy Lin has continued to remain a capable floor general, he's by no means the star Houston thought it was getting when they inked him to a massive contract. Patrick Beverley is a solid athlete capable of becoming an elite backup, and Aaron Brooks is just really fast.
There are no standouts, and that forces James Harden into maintaining almost complete control over the rock.
At first glance, that doesn't appear to be a bad thing.
Harden is an insanely-good ball-handler capable of breaking down just about anyone off the dribble. He can get into the lane in the blink of an eye, and he possesses floor general-type passing skills that allow the offense to run completely through him.
However, Harden wore down last year.
That decline may not have been particularly evident on the offensive side of the ball; but his defense was just incredibly porous, especially at the end of the year when all the extra possessions were weighing him down.
It's up to Lin to take some of that pressure off, and he can do that by becoming even more potent in the pick-and-roll, while getting a better handle on his transitions.
The former Harvard floor general was by no means bad running pick-and-roll sets last season. In fact, the opposite is true. Kind of.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Lin scored 0.85 points per possession as the ball-handler for those type of plays. He also racked up the majority of his assists in such situations.
However, his turnovers still ran rampant.
Lin displayed much more care for the ball than he did with the New York Knicks, as you can see below by looking at his turnover percentages in each type of play.
That said, turnovers were a massive problem in Madison Square Garden, so an improvement doesn't necessarily mean that he's good in that area yet. He's not.
Lin still has plenty of work to do, and that chart also shows that pick-and-roll sets and transition plays are the ones causing him the most grief.
There are two main problems here: Lin's lack of a left hand and his tendency to get overaggressive.
Both of them reared their ugly heads during the Rockets' first-round playoff series with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
After coming up with the steal, Lin recovers along the sideline and initiates the fast break. With Chandler Parsons running alongside him and James Harden far enough ahead that he's out of the picture, the Rockets have a three-on-two situation.
Those are great odds, especially since Lin is capable of either scoring or passing in transition, and the two players joining him are both superb athletes with great spot-up abilities.
Everything looks stellar at this point, and the Rockets appear ready to cut the lead down to 11 or 12 points.
At this stage, Lin finally has to make a choice.
With Chandler Parsons cutting to the basket on the weakside and no one guarding him, the proper decision is to split off to the left, using his left hand in the process. By doing so, he'd be forcing Kevin Durant to stop the ball, especially because the defense can't afford to help and leave Harden open for three.
If he continues using his right hand, he drives straight at Durant, which doesn't pull him far enough to the side to open things up for Parsons.
But Lin has no confidence in his weaker hand.
He drives directly at the defender, which allows Durant to keep the passing lane closed off.
As a result, Durant is easily able to challenge the alley-oop attempt rather than struggling to contest a layup after an easy bounce pass.
Lin turns the ball over, and the Rockets remain down 14.
Earlier in the game, Lin's overaggressiveness posed problems.
Up above you can see Greg Smith setting a screen while Harden hangs around to create what is essentially a bunch formation.
It's a screen that Lin eventually rejects, but Smith still rolls to the basket to initiate the pick-and-roll.
The point guard ends up driving into the corner, where he's immediately trapped by two defenders.
At this point, Smith should flash back out to the perimeter and give Lin an out. At the very least, he takes one more defender away from the baseline, as opposed to further trapping the floor general.
Lin has other ideas.
He spots Beverley open for a corner three, but he neglects the fact that Durant is waiting on the baseline to intercept any pass he throws.
And that's exactly what happens.
Point guard isn't a completely pressing concern due to the presence of a certain bearded shooting guard, but it's still problematic that turnovers come about so often when Lin is handling the ball. He must improve that weak hand and start playing the percentages in order to avoid beating the Rockets rather than helping them.
The backcourt problems don't end with turnover issues. Defense is a more pressing concern, even though the presences of Dwight Howard and Omer Asik guarantee that there's always a strong rim-protector on the court.
There's porous, and then there's whatever Houston's backcourt was during the 2012-13 campaign.
According to Basketball-Reference, Houston allowed 4.2 more points per 100 possessions when the man with the follicular forest was on the court. And when Lin played, the defense was similarly bad, allowing 106.7 points per 100 possessions. As a reference point, only 10 teams allowed more scores over that given time frame.
Below, you can see how Lin and Harden stacked up at each type of individual defense, as shown by Synergy's ranks among all qualified players.
There's only one word to sum up that chart.
While Harden was actually a solid isolation defender and Lin thrived going around screens (albeit on only 61 plays), those numbers are still just awful.
Take this one against the Sacramento Kings, for example.
Harden begins the play correctly by giving Tyreke Evans space to work.
The former Kings point guard/shooting guard/small forward isn't even remotely dangerous as a jump-shooter, so it's important to play off him and take away the ability to get to the basket off the bounce.
That also means that it's important to go under screens, not over them so that you're left trailing one of the league's best attackers of the rim. Yet Harden fails to play according to the game plan.
Asik is left trying to stop Evans, and that's an almost impossible task for a center in the open court.
Evans easily beats Asik with a crossover, and there's nothing but open space between him and the basket. Meanwhile, Harden is still trying to get around DeMarcus Cousins' screen.
This was by no means the only defensive failure, but it accurately represents the problems that Houston has guarding other teams. Far too often, Harden and Lin fail to make the proper decisions, even if both of them have the athletic abilities necessary to be at least competent defenders.
They have to realize that having a security blanket like Asik or Howard doesn't excuse them from their point-preventing responsibilities.
The Omer Asik Issue
What happens to Asik now that Dwight Howard is on the roster?
In some ways, it's a major positive to have the Turkish center backing up D12—but it's also problematic.
Having an unhappy Asik could end up hurting the chemistry of this team, especially since he's definitely not going to earn minutes at the expense of Howard. For all of Asik's defensive prowess, he's not even remotely on the same level as a healthy Howard.
The other way for him to get on the court involves playing at power forward alongside Howard, but that's not exactly a good decision.
Can you imagine the lack of floor spacing if both centers played together?
Of Asik's 354 makes during the regular season and postseason, only 10 of them came outside of the paint. He was by no means a potent mid-range shooter, and there have been no signs that he'll be able to change that as his career progresses.
Howard also made just 10 shots from outside the colored area, and he took far more attempts.
While the defensive potency of a Howard-Asik frontcourt is extremely intriguing, it would completely wreck any semblance of offensive ability.
Houston's offense stems from pick-and-roll plays and Harden's knack for penetration. Crowding the center of the court is a terrible idea.
Asik could render this problem moot by agreeing to play limited minutes off the bench, but that's unfair to him. Can he really play only 15 to 20 minutes per game?
Still, it's a nice problem to have in the grand scheme of things. I'm sure plenty of other teams wish they could worry about having two great defensive centers' minutes to balance rather than trying to find even one competent starter.
Houston is in great shape going into the 2013-14 campaign, and the roster is almost without holes. There are great starters and backups across the board, and the flaws are fixable.
No roster is perfect, and Houston doesn't provide an exception here.
The Rockets should be right in the thick of things from start to finish, especially if they can figure out their defensive problems on the perimeter, improve upon Lin's shortcomings and figure out what to do with Asik.
This team is not to be slept on.
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