The continued development of Chandler Parsons is the biggest key to the Houston Rockets establishing themselves as championship contenders. Opponents already know what to expect out of James Harden and Dwight Howard, but Parsons is the team's biggest X-factor.
Parsons is coming off of a breakout season. The 24-year-old averaged 15.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in his second year out of Florida. He also stepped it up from the outside considerably, raising his three-point percentage from 34 percent in 2011-12 to 39 percent in 2012-13.
The Rockets use Parsons in a variety of ways. Normally, he holds down the small forward position and picks defenses apart on the perimeter. However, at 6'9", he also has the size to slide over to the 4 in a smaller rotation.
As he keeps improving, Parsons will solidify himself as a bona fide third option. In today's NBA, having a third wheel that can take pressure off of your lead horses is imperative. We will get to some guys that the former Gator can model himself after later in the piece.
For now, let's take a look at a few of the things that make Parsons so effective. In this video from Game 4 of last year's first-round series against Oklahoma City, we see everything he brings to the table.
At the eight-second mark, you'll notice what Parsons does best. He's an excellent shooter from the outside. With his size and quick release, it is tough for defenders to stop him when he catches the ball and lets it go. His ability to shoot opens the door to make plays in other ways.
Sixteen seconds into the clip, Parsons gets the ball near the top of the key. Omer Asik sets the pick, leaving a slower defender to guard Parsons. The defender has to respect Parsons' shot, so he steps out in anticipation of the jumper. This leaves the paint wide open, and Parsons leads Asik with a perfect pass as he cuts to the basket.
At the 35-second spot, you will see more of Parson's sneaky court vision. He attacks the basket coming off the baseline, but as the defense closes in on him, he manages to make a nice pass in mid-air to Francisco Garcia for the three.
At just over a minute into the highlight reel, we see Parsons on defense. He stays with his man the entire time he's driving to the basket. As he sets up for the shot, Parsons closes in for the block. This is an area that Parsons can still improve in, but this clip shows that he has the potential to be an adequate defender.
Game 4 was Parsons' shining moment of the playoffs. He nearly finished the game with a triple-double (27 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists). He also shot 52 percent from the field (11-of-21), including 50 percent from behind the arc (3-for-6).
Throughout the clip, you'll notice that Parsons' reputation as a good shooter sets up a lot of what he's able to do on the floor. He routinely beats defenders with pump-fakes that lead to scoring opportunities for either his teammates or himself. His willingness to get others involved will also come in handy now that Dwight Howard is in the fold.
Some of the best teams in recent history have had a third man step up as a key contributor during championship runs. The Miami Heat have Chris Bosh (although last season's Finals isn't the best example of this point), but they have also gotten contributions from guys like Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Ray Allen in the past.
During Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant's first championship in 1999-2000, sharpshooter Glen Rice was the team's third-leading scorer. He averaged 15.9 points per game and shot nearly 37 percent from behind the arc. In the playoffs, Rice contributed 12.4 points on a nightly basis and converted just under 42 percent of his three-point attempts.
With all of the focus paid to O'Neal and Bryant, Rice was able to feast on open jumpers and take some of the scoring load off the team's two main stars.
The year before, in the 1998-99 season, the San Antonio Spurs rode Tim Duncan and David Robinson to a championship. Helping them along the way was small forward Sean Elliott, who shot 41 percent from the field and added 11.2 points per game during the regular season.
In the postseason, Elliott came alive from the outside. He hit 40 percent of his three-pointers and had a slight uptick in his scoring output to the tune of 11.9 points per game. Much like Rice, Elliott was able to take advantage of the attention paid to his more-heralded teammates.
A more recent example is something that one of Parsons' teammates should be very familiar with. In his final season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, James Harden flourished as the third wheel to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
He mainly came off the bench as the team's sixth man, but still managed to score nearly 17 points a game during the regular season. He also shot 49 percent from the field and nailed 39 percent from three.
While the team's loss in the Finals doesn't fall solely on Harden, his poor performance against the Heat (particularly in Games 3 and 4) forced Durant and Westbrook to shoulder more of the load.
That example is why it is crucial for Parsons to step up in his third season. Nobody is expecting him to be a superstar, but he must be able to hold his own enough to keep defenses honest. With Howard and Harden, the team knows what they are getting.
Howard is going to dominate the glass, get his 20 points a night in the paint and provide superb defense. As for Harden, he's going to relentlessly attack the basket and get to the line as much as possible (led the league with 792 free-throw attempts last season). He'll also hit a few big threes when the mood strikes.
In the case of Parsons, he's still an emerging talent. If he continues to improve, the Rockets will have one of the most formidable trios in the NBA. With his ability to contribute in different ways, Parsons can be an effective jack-of-all-trades.
If Parsons falters, however, the Rockets become a two-man show. Howard, coming off a high-pressure situation with the Lakers last year, will once again feel the burden of having to carry a team with huge expectations. Harden, meanwhile, will be charged with picking up the slack and having to force himself to make more plays.
The skids are greased for Parsons to excel. He doesn't need to be a superstar. He just needs to follow in the footsteps of guys like Glen Rice and Sean Elliott to give the Rockets the same storybook ending that those gentlemen experienced.