The Houston Rockets have had a strong start to the 2013-14 season with a 7-4 record after just a few weeks. While stars like Dwight Howard, James Harden and Chandler Parsons will garner most of the headlines, there is another trio that is equally responsible for the team's early success.
Through 11 games this season, the core has done their part. Howard is averaging a double-double with 17.8 points and a league-leading 14.2 rebounds per game. Harden is fifth in the NBA is scoring with an average of 25.2 points per night, and Parsons is contributing 17 points per contest as well.
However, it has been the surprising production of role players such as Jeremy Lin, Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia that has raised a few eyebrows in the first month of the season. Let's take a look at each of these unsung heroes and see why they have been so vital to the team's fast start.
Francisco Garcia started the season off strong by notching double-digits in scoring in three of his first four games. Since then, he has cooled off a little, partially due to battling the flu for the last week or so. When healthy, the 32-year-old is a solid reserve capable of providing quality minutes in relief of Harden or Parsons.
He's scoring 7.2 points while logging around 21 minutes a night. His three-point percentage is down from his career average (36 percent), but he's still shooting a respectable 34 percent from behind the arc. He's also good for the occasional steal or block every now and then.
Like a lot of the members of Houston's supporting cast, Garcia benefits from defenses paying so much attention to his higher-profiled teammates. As seen in the following clip, the former Kings sharpshooter will be enjoying plenty of open looks this season.
In this video, Utah's Richard Jefferson decides to sag off of Garcia to try to stop an easy bucket in the paint. The result is nobody within shouting distance of Garcia when he unleashes a three off the dish from Parsons.
By the time Jefferson realizes the mistake he just made, Garcia is making him pay with an easy trifecta. In this next highlight against Charlotte, Garcia just drives right by his man on the baseline for a quick two points.
I'm willing to write off these last few games as Garcia simply being under the weather. He's proven early in this season and throughout his career that he can be a solid contributor. As the season progresses, he should continue to provide an offensive spark off of the bench.
Anyone who saw Omri Casspi in the preseason shouldn't be shocked at how well he has performed when the games actually matter. The versatile forward shot 55 percent from the field (including 38 percent from three) and finished exhibition with an average of 13.2 points per game.
During the regular season so far, he's averaging 8.2 points per game while shooting 40 percent from the field (including 36 percent from deep). He may not dominate on a nightly basis, but he's productive when he gets his fair share of touches.
He put up 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting and was perfect on all three of his attempts from behind the arc against Dallas Nov. 1. He had a big game Nov. 4, notching 19 points and nine rebounds in a loss to the Clippers.
In this video, we take a deeper look in his big night against Los Angeles. In the first minute of the clip, Casspi had a hand in 12 straight points. He nails three straight shots from deep, with the first two bracketing a sweet pass to Chandler Parsons for a three of his own.
At the 1:40 mark, he gets the ball on the perimeter and then turns on the jets as he attacks the basket. What makes Casspi so valuable is his versatility. He can play either forward spot. He can also rebound and is effective in the post or from the outside.
Another underrated skill can be seen at the 1:45 spot of the clip, when he makes a nice pass to a wide-open Dwight Howard down low for one of his four assists on the night.
Going forward, Casspi will give the Rockets a lot of what Carlos Delfino gave them last year, except with better production on the boards. He can be a stretch 4 in a lineup with Parsons and Howard and help space the floor.
Defensively, he'll have his troubles trying to stop opposing power forwards. However, you'd take that trade-off in exchange for having another weapon that will exploit defensive lapses on the outside. After a quiet last two years in Cleveland, this has the makings for a huge year for the talented Israeli.
Jeremy Lin has made a career out of being a tireless worker that has an insatiable desire to get better year after year. After a ho-hum first season in Houston last year, the Harvard product spent the offseason working on ways to improve his game.
He made some changes to his jumper, as initially reported by The Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, and pushed to get better on defense.
However, even the most staunch Lin supporter couldn't have seen these first few weeks coming. Lin is second among all Rockets in scoring with an average of 18.2 points per game. He's shooting nearly 53 percent from the field and an eye-popping 44 percent from behind the arc.
In his last four games, Lin is averaging 25.5 points per game. He lit up the Toronto Raptors for 31 points in a double-overtime win Nov. 11. He followed that up with a 34-point performance in a loss to Philadelphia two days later.
While Lin has clearly outplayed fellow point guard Patrick Beverley through 11 games this season, he's seemed to have found a comfort zone as the team's spark plug off of the bench. He's an early contender for Sixth Man of the Year.
Here's a look at Lin's aforementioned big night against the Sixers. Early on, he feasts on some open looks from behind the arc. The next few plays are vintage Lin. At the 25-second spot, he drives and makes a crazy pass to Dwight Howard for the dunk.
A few seconds later, Lin gets to the paint, cutting through three defenders before dishing to Casspi for the score. The play at the 55-second mark is something Rockets fans hope to see a lot of over the next few years. Lin lofts a long pass to Dwight Howard for the emphatic alley-oop.
The biggest takeaway from the Sixers game is how well Lin shot the ball from behind the arc. He hit nine three-pointers against Philadelphia—most of them were the result of defenses focusing on other guys. If Lin can continue exploit defenses that leave him alone on the outside, this offense becomes even more dangerous.
In some ways, Lin is similar to Boston's Rajon Rondo in his first season playing with the Celtics' Big Three in 2007-08. Teams were so focused on Boston's big names that they were willing to let an unheralded star beat them. The result was the start of a brilliant career for Rondo.
With the improvement to his stroke from outside, Lin is now a better shooter than Rondo (although Rondo's the better playmaker). He can build on his legacy simply by taking advantage defenses sagging off of him.
It doesn't matter if he starts, comes off the bench, runs the point or plays off the ball. If defenses are going to ignore Jeremy Lin, he is going to make them pay. The skids are greased for Lin to reap the benefits of all the hard work he put in this past summer.
It is too early to forecast how the rest of the season will go for the Houston Rockets. The Omer Asik trade dilemma still looms, and they have looked bad in two meetings with the Clippers already.
However, they are coming off back-to-back wins against two of last year's playoff teams (New York and Denver). They have also proven to be a formidable opponent when they manage to avoid silly turnovers and unleash their litany of weapons.
As important as a good core is to a team's championship hopes, it is the role players that set contenders apart. They provide an intangible that can make a huge difference, especially during the playoffs (where quality depth is crucial).
The Big Three of Howard, Harden and Parsons is great enough to get back to the postseason, but they'll need the contributions of this season's biggest surprises to stand a chance of bringing home the title.