5 Questions Left Unanswered After Houston Rockets Training Camp
The Houston Rockets are finished the preseason with an impressive 6-1 record and looked like the contender many pegged them to be. However, heading into the start of the season, there are still a few issues that need to be addressed.
Houston seemed to handle the pressure of being the NBA's newest superteam quite well in exhibition. They hammered fellow contenders San Antonio and Memphis in back-to-back nights and their lone defeat came at the hands of a surprising New Orleans Pelicans team (7-1).
One of the biggest takeaways from preseason was the improvement in Houston's defense. It led by as much as 22 points against the Spurs and held the Grizzlies to just four points in the paint in the opening 22 minutes of the game.
With the addition of three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, the Rockets have a dominant rim protector to complement last season's second-highest scoring offense (106 points per game).
Still, as the team nears closer to playing games that actually matter, there are still some questions left unanswered as coach Kevin McHale tries to iron out the wrinkles.
Who's Starting at Power Forward?
The starting power forward spot has been an issue for the Houston Rockets for quite some time now. The team has a number of candidates that bring different things to the table.
Second-year man Terrence Jones appeared to have the inside track after an impressive Summer League showing. The former Kentucky Wildcat was working on his mid-range game to become a better sidekick for Dwight Howard. Howard has played his best with a forward that could space the floor and give him space down low.
However, Jones strained his shoulder early in camp and it hampered him throughout preseason. Just when it seemed like he was making a full recovery, he re-injured his shoulder in practice diving for a loose ball. He played in just four games, averaged a meek 7.5 points and five rebounds per contest.
European prospect Donatas Motiejunas didn't fare much better. He played in all seven games, but managed to notch just nine points and five boards a night.
The best of the bunch turned out to be free-agent addition Omri Casspi. Normally a small forward, Casspi saw some time at the 4 and turned a few heads. He shot an impressive 38 percent from behind the arc, while contributing 13 points a game.
The downside to giving Casspi the nod at power forward is his struggle to guard the position. That's where the much-discussed Dwight Howard/Omer Asik tandem comes into the conversation. Defensively, this is the pairing that makes the most sense, but the team hasn't seen enough to know if the experiment will work.
For now, Casspi has distanced himself from the lot with his outstanding play. He may not be an ideal fit and may be a liability on defense, but he's certainly earned the right to be in the running.
Filling this void has been a priority all season and it will be interesting to see which way coach Kevin McHale leans.
Will Playing Dwight Howard and Omer Asik Together Work Out?
When Houston signed Dwight Howard during the summer, speculation began as to what this meant for last year's starting center, Omer Asik. Would he go back to the backup role he held in Chicago? Would the team dangle him as a trade bait? Could they keep the big man happy?
As it stands, the team seems poised on playing their twin towers together. The thought process here is that having Howard and Asik on the floor at the same time gives Houston a sizable (no pun intended) advantage on the boards and the defensive end.
There are drawbacks, of course. Asik and Howard playing together can be a bit redundant and would clog up the lane for teammates that want to attack the basket (particularly a slasher like James Harden). However, if given time to work out the kinks, the good could outweigh the bad.
The problem is the team hasn't had much time to see if this lineup can flourish. Asik was slowed by injuries early on and didn't get a chance to start alongside Howard until they played Dallas late in the preseason.
The little time the two spent on the floor together was promising. Defensively, opponents struggled to score on Houston in the paint. In the 12 minutes they played side-by-side against Memphis, the Grizzlies managed just nine points.
I thought the guys played well, Rockets coach Kevin McHale said, per The Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. We came out and really defended. It was nice having Omer and Dwight out there, a much better match up on those guys than we had in the past. There was a lot of good stuff out there, especially defensively.
The jury is out on whether this pairing will work out long-term, but the sample size is too small to pass judgement right now. As it stands, things are looking up and the Rockets have potentially the best defensive frontcourt in basketball.
Time will tell if they can keep up the momentum.
What to Do at Point Guard?
The battle at point guard is equally as important as the team's power forward debate. Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley spent the last few weeks going head-to-head for the right to be Houston's floor general.
The team has tried out a bunch of different looks, including playing the two point guards together. Lin, the much-maligned former New York Knick, averaged 11.2 points and 4.5 assists per game during the preseason. He shot nearly 48 percent from the floor, including 38.5 percent from three.
Beverley, who filled in admirably after Lin went down with a chest injury in last year's playoffs, contributed 9.1 points and 3.4 assists per game. He shot 50 percent from the field and showed considerable improvement from long-range by converting half of his attempts from behind the arc.
The winner of this fight comes down to what Kevin McHale favors more. Beverley is a better defender and can be effective as a catch-and-shoot scorer from outside. Lin is an aggressive slasher that likes to attack the basket and can make plays when the defense breaks down.
Beverley won the turnover battle in exhibition. His 1.1 turnovers in 24 minutes per game is significantly better than Lin's 2.6 per contest in roughly the same time frame.
Lin started all 82 games last season and, while not a world-beater, was still good enough to help this team nab the eighth seed in the West. Beverley, for all of his upside, has very limited experience as an NBA starter.
McHale's decision could come down to the matchup or whoever has the hot hand. The bright side is he has two starter-caliber point guards on his roster. The downside is he can only choose one of them.
Can the Team Stay Healthy?
Injuries are going to have an effect on every team. That is just the nature of business. Dwight Howard can certainly attest to the impact injuries can have on a team after playing on a battered Los Angeles Lakers squad last season.
Early on, it appears the injury bug has enjoyed the taste of the Houston Rockets' flesh. Big men Omer Asik and Terrence Jones have battled injuries all through camp, with the latter still dealing with a shoulder issue.
Franchise shooting guard James Harden suffered a knee injury after colliding with Memphis' Quincy Pondexter. The blow was later downplayed as a bruise and "The Beard" was a full participant in the team's most recent practice.
The most serious of injuries happened to veteran Marcus Camby. Much to the surprise of no one, the oft-injured shot-blocker was slow to recover from a torn plantar fascia tissue. According to Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears, the injury will require surgery and the team opted to release the 39-year-old.
For all of this team's potential, nothing can derail their championship hopes more than injuries. Fortunately, they haven't had to deal with anything major early on. Howard is the healthiest he's been in years and Harden escaped with just a contusion.
If this team can stay healthy, they'll be in the mix in a wide-open Western Conference.
How Good Can This Team Be?
The Houston Rockets have the components to be a basketball Swiss-army knife. They have an elite interior presence in Dwight Howard. They have one of the league's most versatile scorers in James Harden. They have an abundance of shooters.
On the defensive end, Howard and Omer Asik could be dominant, whether they are playing together or splitting time. They have a remarkable amount of depth and youth at each position. They also have a coach in Kevin McHale that is no stranger to winning championships (albeit not as a head coach).
It is far too early to put this Rockets team on the same level as a Heat team that has appeared in the last three NBA Finals and won the last two championships. However, the potential is there for this Rockets team to be dominant.
Howard and Harden can be a great inside-outside duo. Parsons is only going to get better. Even with uncertainty at power forward and point guard, there's enough talent there to be passable at both spots. With Howard and Asik up front, there's enough defense to make Houston a complete team.
The key will be chemistry. The pecking order must be established early and this team must learn how to play together. The wild card is the possible Asik-Howard pairing. If it works, Houston will be formidable on the inside.
If it doesn't, the team will have to draw up a plan b.
Right now, the Rockets have as good a chance as anyone in the West. Oklahoma City is surprisingly thin, both due to injuries and free-agent departures. San Antonio is a year older and could see their window closing. The Clippers have to get better defensively.
Teams like Golden State and Memphis also have a puncher's chance.
On paper, the Rockets have nearly everything you'd want in a potential champion. The time has come for that promise to translate on the court.