The Houston Rockets have jumped out to a fast start with a record of 11-5 (as of Nov. 28). However, for the team to live up to their lofty expectations, they will need a select few to improve certain aspects of their game.
The Rockets have established themselves as one of the league's best teams, mainly due to feasting on lesser opponents. Of the team's 11 wins, only four have come against teams that currently have a winning record.
Houston has won six of its last seven games against opponents with a combined record of 51-58. Their next game is a showdown with the woeful Brooklyn Nets (4-11) on Nov. 29.
The team has been lucky to be this successful despite a rash of injuries and some early-season sputtering by some key players. Inspired performances from the likes of point guard Jeremy Lin and forward Terrence Jones have helped out tremendously.
If the Rockets are to realize their goal of winning a championship this season, they will need others to step up. Here are five players that have to raise their game as the season progresses.
With Chandler Parsons (back) and James Harden (foot) banged up, Garcia put on a show in a win over the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 27. He scored a season-high 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting (including 3-for-6 from three) in 33 minutes.
While the big game was a welcomed surprise, it was the first time Garcia had scored in double digits in his last 11 games. In his previous five games, the infamous deep threat is shooting a ho-hum 31 percent from behind the arc. For the season, Garcia's three-point accuracy is at 33 percent.
If Harden's foot and Parsons' back continues to be a problem, the Rockets are going to have to rely on Garcia more often. He proved capable of carrying the load in this last game, but he can't continue to have stretches of ineffectiveness.
Even once Harden returns, the team will need Garcia to take some of the load off Jeremy Lin as the main offensive weapons on the second unit. The hope is that the Garcia from the Hawks game sticks around while the one from the weeks prior is a distant memory.
After battling with Jeremy Lin for the starting point guard spot all summer, Patrick Beverley was given the nod on opening night. He went down early in the season with a rib injury and has been grossly outplayed by Lin since then.
Beverley's chief role is to give the team a defensive boost in the backcourt. So far, he's held up his end of the bargain in that regard. According to 82games.com, opponents are shooting 46.6 percent against the former Arkansas Razorback. He's also managing a steal per game.
It's on the offensive end where Beverley needs some work. He's averaging 9.7 points and a measly 2.2 assists per game. By comparison, Lin is contributing 15.3 points and 4.5 assists per contest.
Beverley has shot the ball better as of late, raising his percentages to 41 percent from the field and nearly 36 percent from behind the arc. While the Rockets aren't in desperate need for more offense, the team could use more consistency from their prized point guard.
After scoring 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting against Minnesota on Nov. 23, Beverley shot a combined 6-of-17 (including 2-of-8 from three) in the two games that followed. With Lin battling a knee injury, Beverley won't feel the Harvard product's breath so closely on the back of his neck.
However, the team still needs Beverley to provide some steady O to go along with his lockdown D.
This may be a tad bit unfair as Donatas Motiejunas hasn't really seen a ton of playing time this season. D-Mo is logging around eight minutes a night and has played all of five minutes in his last four games.
Still, with center Omer Asik "sure to be dealt" (according to ESPN's Marc Stein) at some point this season, Houston will need their young prospect to produce when his number is called.
Motiejunas has all the tools to be a capable big man. He's a 7-footer with quick feet and a sneaky jumper. He just hasn't had the opportunity to truly show off his skills due to a logjam in the frontcourt. Assuming an Asik trade doesn't add to that problem, his time may be coming sooner rather than later.
D-Mo's best game of the season came, oddly enough, the first time he played significant minutes. With Asik taking a seat for personal reasons, Motiejunas scored 12 points (including draining his only three-point attempt) in 16 minutes against the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 16.
A few nights later, the talented Lithuanian played 18 minutes against the Boston Celtics, but scored just five points on 2-of-8 shooting (including missing all four shots from behind the arc). He did add five rebounds, and a block though.
At just 23 years old, the door isn't closed on Motiejunas reaching his potential. It is all dependent on coach Kevin McHale deciding to give his young big man the playing time. At the moment, he's a project struggling to find floor time on a team wanting to win immediately.
However, if the frontcourt gets less crowded, Motiejunas needs to seize the opportunity.
It isn't that Chandler Parsons is having a bad season. In fact, averaging 16.5 points per game on a team with two superstars is actually rather respectable.
It's that Parsons' numbers could potentially be better if he could manage to shoot better than 31.7 percent from behind the arc. With Dwight Howard and James Harden drawing a brunt of the defensive attention, Parsons should be feasting on open looks from the outside.
Instead, he's had to fight to put up points. His 3.3 free-throw attempts per game is nearly double his career average, which indicates he's attacking the basket more rather than relying on his jumper.
Some of Parsons' struggles could be attributed to him battling back spasms, but wouldn't a bad back restrict a man from being more aggressive going to the hoop?
Parsons is still third on the team in scoring behind Harden and Howard, so perhaps all this focus on his poor shooting is nitpicking. However, going forward, the team is going to need guys like Parsons and Jeremy Lin to get them out of jams when the stars run cold.
The biggest part of Parsons' value is versatility. He adds a different dimension when the team uses him as at power forward in smaller lineups. He'll also come in handy on the outside when defenses close in on Howard.
That's why it is imperative that the Florida product regain his shooting touch.
As with Chandler Parsons, dwelling on Dwight Howard's negatives this season may be overreacting. After all, he's averaging 17.3 points, 12.9 rebounds (second-best in the NBA) and 2.2 blocks per game in his first season in Houston.
Still, for all the good that Superman has done so far, opposing teams have seem to found his kryptonite. There's a reason why Howard's 165 free-throw attempts lead the league and his 10.3 trips to the stripe per game is second only to Kevin Durant.
Teams are daring Howard to beat them at the foul line. So far, their risk is paying off. Howard is shooting just 53 percent from the free-throw line as teams have used the Hack-a-Dwight strategy as their last line of defense against the league's best center.
With his work on the glass, in the post and on the defensive end, Howard has shown signs of being his old dominant self again. However, this team will continue to hindered by Howard's lack of reliability at the free-throw line.
Howard has to prove he can be trusted with the ball in his hands late in games. He also has to make opponents pay for constantly fouling him. The only way the Hack-a-Dwight strategy will go away is if Howard renders it useless.
It's unrealistic to expect Howard to be Mark Price at the free-throw line but, for $88 million, can he at least be better than Mason Plumlee (nearly 55 percent from the line)?