The start of a new year is a time when we all make a list of things we'd like to see happen going forward. The same holds true for the Houston Rockets, who enter 2014 with a new set of expectations.
Houston closed out 2013 by going 8-8 in the month of December and finishing with a record of 21-13 (as of Dec. 31). They are currently second in the Southwest Division and are holding down the sixth spot in the Western Conference.
Like any newly assembled "superteam," the Rockets have had their ups and downs. New addition Dwight Howard has shown signs of returning to his old dominant form. James Harden continues to be a scoring machine, while Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons continue to develop into potential stars.
On the flip side, injuries have ravaged the team, and the distraction of Omer Asik's trade demand has grabbed more headlines than it probably should have.
Luckily, 2014 brings with it a clean slate and, with that, come a number of things we would like to see from Kevin McHale's boys in the new year. Some may call these "resolutions," but here are 10 things we would like to see from the Houston Rockets in 2014.
What a difference a year makes. Around this time last year, Omer Asik was in the midst of a breakout season that would end with the Turkish big man averaging a double-double in his first season as an NBA starter (10.1 points, 11.7 rebounds).
Entering 2014, Asik is a disgruntled employee who has fluctuated between being injured, unhappy and on the trade block. He looked like a goner in mid-December when the team set a Dec. 19 deadline to make a deal. That date came and went with Houston unable to find a trade it liked.
The time has come for some closure. The Rockets don't HAVE to trade Omer Asik, but the team and its ex-starting center need to find a happy medium. Houston has to either commit itself to moving him or incorporate him back into the rotation. All of the flip-flopping is driving everyone crazy.
When healthy, Asik could give the team a defensive boost, even as a backup playing 15-20 minutes behind Dwight Howard. If the Rockets can find a way to keep the 7-footer happy, he could be a valuable asset to the team down the stretch.
Regardless of how it ends, it needs to end. It might not have derailed the team yet, but continuing to allow this cloud to loom is unfair to everyone involved.
Part of the reason Omer Asik can't find a spot in the Rockets starting lineup is the emergence of second-year power forward Terrence Jones. Since taking over for Asik a couple weeks into the season, Jones has developed into a quality role player.
He's contributing 10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. He's also shooting just under 51 percent from the field, including nearly 31 percent from behind the arc. The Kentucky product is averaging 14.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in his last five games.
That includes a 21-point, 14-rebound, three-block performance in a win against San Antonio on Christmas.
The hope is that the soon-to-be 22-year-old can keep the momentum going. While not a perfect fit as a "stretch 4", Jones is a good enough shooter to help space the floor. His work on the boards and on defense also make him a fine complement playing next to Dwight Howard.
As the season progresses, he is someone to keep an eye on.
After spending the offseason working on his game, Jeremy Lin got off to a fast start this season. He showed considerable improvement in his jumper and was more aggressive attacking the basket.
The result was a November stat line of 15.3 points and 4.7 assists per game. He also shot 49 percent from the field, including nearly 37 percent from behind the arc. He had 30-plus points in back-to-back games against Toronto and Philadelphia (the latter saw him hit nine threes).
As has become the theme for the early part of the Rockets' season, the injury bug eventually got a hold of Linsanity. He's missed time at different points of the season, sitting out 10 games total so far. That took a little bit of the wind out of Lin's sails.
Now, he's back healthy and is currently the team's starter at point guard with Patrick Beverley dealing with a fractured hand. Lin is an adequate starter, but he seemed to really carve his niche as the team's sixth man.
He did a good job of keeping momentum going on the second unit as one of the focal points of the offensive attack. Whether a starter or backup, Lin should continue to play with the aggression and confidence he showed earlier in the year.
If Omer Asik thinks he has it bad, he should try switching places with Donatas Motiejunas. The once-promising European prospect has found playing time to be scarce this season.
Making matters worse, he's literally the only healthy 7-footer on the roster not named Dwight Howard. How much does it have to hurt to have the two guys in front of you sidelined by injury and you STILL can't get decent playing time?
D-Mo finished the month of December playing all of 88 minutes. He's averaging 8.4 minutes per game so far this season.
Whether it's Montiejunas' limitations on defense or on the glass, coach Kevin McHale has been reluctant to play the 23-year-old. The best thing for both parties may be to find someone willing to give him some quality time.
Once Asik and Greg Smith return, Motiejunas' best chance of seeing the floor will be becoming a member of the Launch Crew. He deserves a fresh start, perhaps even more than Asik does. If the Rockets don't think much of his talent, they should cut their losses now and see what they can get for him.
The Houston Rockets have been fortunate to not let a bad rash of injuries completely throw them off track. They have managed to stay afloat thanks to some quality depth. Still, as the season progresses, the team is going to need those ailing bodies to make a speedy recovery to keep the current guys from wearing out.
At the top of the list of the walking wounded are center Greg Smith and point guard Patrick Beverley. Smith has played in all of eight games this season and hasn't been seen since Dec. 21. He's missed extended time at different points of the season due to a knee injury.
His return is important, as the team is also without Omer Asik and doesn't have another option it feels completely confident in to spell Dwight Howard. Given Howard's own struggles with staying healthy last season, it is imperative that Houston find ways to keep him fresh for a playoff run.
As for Beverley, he was initially sidelined in November by a rib injury, but returned quicker than expected. As proof that no good deed goes unpunished, he fractured a bone in his hand and was expected to miss four to six weeks.
Luckily, Aaron Brooks has filled in admirably as the team's backup point guard while Jeremy Lin has fit right back in as the starter. The team also has rookie Isaiah Canaan at its disposal in case of emergency.
The main need for Beverley's return (and Smith's, as well, to a lesser extent) is his contribution on defense. Beverley is arguably the team's best defensive guard, and his presence will be needed to shut down a Western Conference littered with elite point guards.
Also, putting Beverley back in the starting lineup allows Lin to continue in his role as the team's sixth man, where he has excelled at this season.
The fact that the Rockets have the record they have is a great testament to the depth they possess. However, the team can't afford to keep playing games short-handed. It needs Beverley and Smith back sooner rather than later.
The main focus for the Houston Rockets coming into this season was defense. It was one of the biggest benefits of bringing in a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Dwight Howard. It was also a huge factor in giving the less-accomplished Patrick Beverley the starting nod at point guard.
After allowing 102.5 points per game last season (28th in the NBA), the Rockets' best chance of living up to the hype was showing some improvement on defense.
In 34 games this season, the Rockets are allowing an average of...wait for it...wait for it...102.5 points per game. The good news is that they've moved up to 25th in that category, but only because other teams have found a way to be even worse than Houston at hindering opponents from scoring.
On the bright side, opponents are shooting around 44 percent against the Rockets, which is good for sixth best in the NBA.
Houston can't expect to make a deep postseason run by relying on overwhelming opponents on offense. There are too many good defensive teams in the West for that to happen.
The Rockets must find a way to make scoring harder for opponents. They will get a boost from the eventual returns of Omer Asik and Patrick Beverley, but they will need better defensive efforts from the other guys as well to avoid another early playoff exit.
Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Houston Rockets tend to turn the ball over a lot. After finishing at the bottom with an average of 15.8 turnovers a game last year, the team finds itself in the basement once again this season.
The Rockets' 15.7 turnovers per game is third worst behind Golden State (16.9) and Philadelphia (17.5). In the individual category, you can find the usual suspects. Only Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook average more mistakes per contest than James Harden's 3.8.
Dwight Howard isn't too far behind The Beard with an average of 3.3. Point guard Jeremy Lin is a little further down the list with a nightly clip of 2.8 turnovers.
It goes without saying, but excessive turnovers will cripple any team. It is especially bad when the team committing the turnovers struggles to stop opponents on the opposite end.
This team does a lot of things well. It has a great inside-outside combo in Howard and Harden. It has a bevy of shooters, from Chandler Parsons to Omri Casspi, and when they get hot, this team is incredibly difficult to beat (just ask San Antonio).
That being said, this team has become its own worst enemy in the last season-and-a-half. No matter how much talent and depth is on this roster, the Rockets aren't going to go very far if they continue to hinder themselves by constantly coughing the ball up.
For a man that calls himself "Superman," free throws sure are Dwight Howard's kryptonite. In fairness to the big man, his inability to convert from the charity stripe has been his Achilles' heel since he entered the league.
Since being drafted in 2004, Howard has shot above 60 percent from the free-throw line just once in his entire career. That came during his rookie season, when he was attempting around five freebies a game and nailing 67 percent.
The closest he's been since his debut was in 2010-11 with the Orlando Magic when he shot 59.6 percent from the line.
The book on stopping someone as big, strong and athletic as D12 is to hack him as often as possible and send him to the line. Howard's 55 percent from the line trails only DeAndre Jordan's 39 percent for the worst mark among qualified players in the NBA (although it is considerably better than the 49 percent Howard has managed in each of the previous two seasons).
Still, Howard needs to get closer to his 2010-11 form to make the "Hack-a-Dwight" strategy less effective. There's a reason he leads the league in free-throw attempts. Teams know he's putrid at the line.
He doesn't have to be the second coming of Mark Price, but he has to improve enough to keep the late-game fouling out of the opponent's playbook. Otherwise, he's an $88 million liability in close games.
One of the big things the Rockets have lacked so far this season has been a lot of quality wins. They are 21-13, but a good chunk of those victories came against the NBA's bottom feeders. To their credit, Houston has won both meetings against San Antonio as well as pulled off W's against Portland and Golden State.
That's about it, though.
Houston is 0-1 against Oklahoma City, 0-1 against Indiana and 0-2 against the Los Angeles Clippers. Even lowly teams like the Kings have had recent success against the Rockets. In fact, Sacramento is currently 2-0 against Dwight Howard and Co.
The road to respectability starts with pulling off a few big wins against top competition. Luckily for Houston, it has a tough stretch coming up that will allow it to test its mettle.
It starts Jan. 16 at home against the Thunder. After that, Houston gets to feast on Milwaukee before hosting the Blazers. Then, Sacramento comes calling before a home-and-home with the Grizzlies. Finally, the Rockets cap it off with showdowns with their Texas rivals: at home vs. the Spurs and on the road against Dallas.
The best chance for the team to prove itself will come during those 13 days. A good showing there will help build confidence that it can hang with the big boys when the games matter the most.
The addition of Dwight Howard catapulted the Rockets into immediate title contenders. When teams look this good on paper in the preseason, the hype machine tends to jump the gun.
That being said, the improvements made to the roster almost mandate that the team fare better in the postseason than it did last year. What constitutes as "better" is dependent on your expectations for this team.
For me, anything less than a trip to the second round renders this season a failure. There is too much talent on the roster for the Rockets to finish the same way they did before the Howard acquisition.
If the season ended today, Houston would square off in an entertaining first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers. A healthy Rockets team might be able to pull off the upset there. From there, it could make a run.
The Rockets have played well so far against the Spurs, who would be a possible second-round opponent. Until they can prove they can beat the likes of the Clippers or Thunder, it's tough to like their chances of bringing a title back to Houston.
As always, time will tell. Injuries and momentum will be key come playoff time, and we have yet to see this Rockets team play to its full potential. In a wide-open Western Conference, anything can happen.