Huge expectations follow the Houston Rockets into the 2013-14 season.
The team took great strides in their last season, breaking through some franchise rust to make the playoffs for the first time in years.
But the roster moves they made over the summer have fans and pundits clamoring for more.
2012-13 Houston Rockets
- 45-37 record in the regular season
- Third place in Southwest Division
- Eighth place in Western Conference
- Lost in Western Conference first round to the Oklahoma City Thunder (4-2)
Getting to the playoffs in itself was a big success last year.
Even more significant, though, was the team’s establishing a wing core, in James Harden and Chandler Parsons, that promises to be one of the best in the league for years to come.
But their roster was a bit more muddied in terms of facilitators.
Harden often handled the ball as if the team's general, and many wondered if the role of a classic, more pass-first point guard might not have suited them better at certain turns.
Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley were both good at the 1 spot last year but only in flashes.
Lineup confusion of a different kind is likely to be the dominant point of conversation in Houston, however.
Speculation already runs abound regarding whether—and how—Dwight Howard and Omer Asik, two natural centers, can share the floor.
Talks of trading Asik for a player who more clearly works with the team will accelerate as the season progresses.
Dwight Howard’s signing with the Rockets was not just Houston's biggest move of the summer; it was the league's biggest move of the summer.
Howard's presence means that the Rockets are now perceived as a title-or-bust project—whether it be this season or one of the following three, the championship expectation is clear.
In Howard and James Harden, the Rockets now boast the best inside-outside combination in the league.
The team also added Marcus Camby, who is likely to be something of an extra assistant coach.
Omri Casspi was another signee, and he may have a more significant role. His height and shooting mean that the Rockets could try squeezing him into the much coveted stretch-4 spot.
Reggie Williams left the Charlotte Bobcats for Houston, and he may or may not see significant minutes with the team. It depends on how well potentially more versatile players—like shutdown defender Ronnie Brewer, also a new Rocket—are able to stretch the floor on offense.
The Rockets' important offseason losses amount to one role player: Carlos Delfino.
Delfino was a nightmarish shooter against the Thunder in the 2013 playoffs, and his absence may sting a little if Casspi, Williams or even Brewer can't find their stroke from beyond the arc in clutch moments.
Biggest Storylines from Preseason and Training Camp
Talk of the playing shape of Dwight Howard has championed all other chatter coming out of Houston.
Early signs are positive: Howard seems to have spent much of his summer working on his shooting range. Extending his accuracy even one foot further from the hoop could make his team frequently unguardable.
He's also been said to have put in a lot of extra practice from the free throw line.
The buzz around Asik's imminent shopping-around has also been noisy, but it's generally understood that general manager Daryl Morey is not about to pull the trigger.
The team will first bear out its Howard-Asik experiment and then let market pressures rise to their advantage as many center-strapped teams feel the anxiety of the playoffs near midseason.
The Rockets have some questions at the point guard position, as well.
Coach Kevin McHale recently stated that, in Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin, he has two starting quality point guards to work with. However, he made it clear that neither player is a lock to start on opening night or ever.
Depth Chart Breakdown and Grades
|2013-14 Houston Rockets Depth Chart|
|Point Guard||Shooting Guard||Small Forward||Power Forward||Center|
|Jeremy Lin||James Harden||Chandler Parsons||Terrence Jones||Dwight Howard|
|Patrick Beverly||Francisco Garcia||Omri Casspi||Donatas Motiejunas||Omer Asik|
|Aaron Brooks||Reggie Williams||Ronnie Brewer||Greg Smith|
Any appraisal of the Rockets depth chart relies on the notion that they'll be primarily using traditional position distinctions.
And while there numerous signs that they're thinking otherwise—Howard and Asik, as well as Lin and Beverley, sharing the floor in preseason—such a breakdown is telling of the team's strengths and deficits.
Houston's complicated Lin-Beverley duality at the 1 spot is only exacerbated by Aaron Brooks, their third point guard.
Brooks has been a near-elite scorer in seasons past, and he should have enough playing time at some point this season to re-prove his abilities.
Brooks has averaged as many as 19.6 points per game before, so he may be a desirable fill-in if one of the team's core scorers goes down with an injury.
That the Rockets have such depth at the position is a good sign, but are their options the creme of the league?
The NBA is too loaded with prodigious talent at this spot for the Rockets to even come close.
Until Kobe Bryant comes back to take the crown, James Harden is and will be the league's best shooting guard.
With two effective floor-spacing shooters behind the left-handed dynamo in Reggie Williams and Francisco Garcia—both of whom know and execute their role to a T—this just may be the the Rockets' strongest position.
Chandler Parsons is a great scorer in large part because he embodies Coach McHale's shooting philosophy: If it's not close to the basket, it better be a three.
Parsons turned that approach into 49 percent shooting last year, good for 15.5 points per game.
Behind him are Omri Casspi—who could be more of a 4, depending on how McHale uses him—and Ronnie Brewer.
The two reserves boast contrasting skills: Casspi shoots, Brewer defends.
Neither can do both, but the Rockets are lucky enough to have two terrific role players behind Parsons.
This is easily the Rockets' weakest position.
Terrence Jones is a promising young talent and so is Donatas Motiejunas. But both are just 21 years old and can't be depended upon for solid rotation contributions until they prove themselves by taking the next step.
Expect McHale to put players who are more natural as wings (Casspi) or as centers (Asik, Howard, Greg Smith) into the 4 slot throughout the season.
Such tinkering is necessary when there's not a real fit on the roster.
Dwight Howard, Omer Asik and Greg Smith: This is what we call an embarrassment of riches.
Howard is the best in the NBA at this spot, and from a defensive perspective, Asik can't be any worse than top five as a center.
Greg Smith is a serviceable reserve and will likely see his minutes go up in the event of an Asik trade.
For now, the Rockets are essentially perfect in the 5 hole—but we'll see who's on the team by the time 2014 comes around.
(Previously on Bleacher Report: Power Ranking the 2013-14 Houston Rockets)
What to Watch For
Breakout Player Prediction
Patrick Beverley took many by storm in last year's playoffs.
His defense and general tenacity against the Thunder had many wondering how Beverley had gone so long without an NBA contract. The 25-year-old came to the Rockets midseason, after playing in China for a few years.
With a full season under his belt—and McHale’s confidence to boot—Beverley should blossom even further.
Team MVP Prediction
Dwight Howard was the best acquisition of the NBA offseason, and he's the best athlete at his position by a mile.
James Harden, however, is still the engine of this team.
More than anything, his relentless attack on offense is what emboldens this crew. No player is more important to their swagger or to their ability to run fearlessly against any opponent.
Most Disappointing Player Prediction
Jeremy Lin's 2012-13 season was a bit over-maligned by much of the media.
His bottom line, statistically, was virtually the same as in his infamous 2011-12 run with the New York Knicks—14.6 points per game and 6.2 assists per game in New York compared to 13.4 points and 6.1 assists in Houston.
But Lin was still considered a letdown by many.
Such is the still-lingering shadow of Linsanity; he can never live up to the legend, and thus, he’s destined to disappoint.
Player Most Likely to be Traded
Omer Asik has been considered trade bait since months before the season began.
This is not about to change.
Whether Asik is definitely traded depends on how well the experiment of him and Howard sharing the floor goes.
But most expect it to fail, as it should create tremendous overlap and spacing issues for lineups.
Asik simply won’t have enough minutes behind Howard to justify his considerable ($8 million per year) salary.
More important are the gains the Rockets stand to lose by not swapping the Turk. His value in a league with a deficit at the center position is high enough to bring back a trade piece that could tip Houston more into championship-caliber territory.
The Rockets’ exciting series with the Thunder last season looked like the beginning of something bigger.
The teams fought tooth-and-nail once Russell Westbrook dropped out of the playoffs with a torn meniscus, and Houston’s exciting surge was a coming-out party enticing enough to lure Howard to town.
Now that he’s there, these two teams—further antagonized by the ever-controversial Harden trade—seem quite evenly matched.
They should have some epic showdowns in the regular season, and hopefully in the playoffs, too.
Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios With Predicted W-L Record
The best-case scenario for the Rockets is that all of their unique moving parts fit together swiftly.
Their go-go aggression from last year is a mode still available to them, but they're also able to hunker down into half-court sets when it’s required for a win.
Omer Asik is traded for an effective stretch-4 (perhaps Ryan Anderson of the New Orleans Pelicans), and he becomes yet another role player who meshes functionally with the core of Harden, Parsons and Howard.
The Rockets win 60-plus games and win the championship in a chaotic year without a clear favorite.
Harden’s game takes a step back as he’s asked to be more deferential to Howard, and leadership confusion and personality distractions ensue.
The media becomes a member of the team.
Howard is unable to reclaim his old form and is clearly past his peak due to permanent problems with his back.
The team wins 43-48 games and is a mid-to-lower seed in the stifling Western Conference.
They exit in the first round.
From what’s been seen in preseason and training camp, neither of these extremes seems likely.
The team has exhibited no serious personality dysfunction, and all of their players have played as well as anyone could expect them to.
The Rockets’ serious concerns mostly center around finding the right chemistry together and adapting the appropriate team sets and philosophies to maximize their talent.
This takes time, so a serious title run is probably a project for future seasons.
But this team will be frightening.
Projected Record and Outcome, 2013-14 Houston Rockets: 56-26, 2nd Place in Southwest Division, Lose in Second Round of Western Conference Playoffs