Why? Their roster is excellent, yet all the ceaseless chatter about them making another move makes it seem like their assemblage falls short of the franchise’s championship aspirations.
First and foremost, in the slew of unaddressed Rockets personnel issues is the looming presence of Omer Asik. The disgruntled defensive specialist has been begging for a trade ever since Dwight Howard came to Houston in July and largely eliminated the Turk’s role on the team.
Now Asik is sitting out the majority of games as the team figures out just what to do with him, after it balked on its assurances of trading him in mid-December.
With all the minutes Howard plays (34 per game), and considering how poorly lineups with both Howard and Asik playing together have fared, it certainly behooves both parties to move Asik as soon as possible. Greg Smith is a serviceable backup to Howard, and the team could use help elsewhere.
What the Rockets need in return—and what’s most stopping them from more definite mentions among the likes of the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs—is extra defense.
They currently give up 102.5 points per game, putting them at 24th in the league in that category. They’ve been able to win plenty of games by counteracting that flaw with their generous scoring, but such a balancing act will be far less achievable in the postseason.
However, it’s a bit difficult to gauge just how soft the team’s defensive aptitude really is, as its court philosophy stresses offense first. No team leaks out more, as the Rockets are constantly looking for turnovers and easy transition baskets.
When this is the case, defense, as a result, suffers. Luckily, the team has the horses in James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lin to usually make up for this with their tremendous success pushing the ball.
But bating the Thunder or Golden State Warriors into their preferred style is a formula for a swift exit from the Western Conference playoffs. Both of these likely opponents simply have too many weapons—and too much discipline—to be knocked out of such a fight.
Thus, the Rockets’ ideology casts a cloak over how good of defenders they may be and how close their talent core is to contending for a championship.
This is especially the case when we consider that many of their primary players—Parsons, Lin, Jones and Patrick Beverley—are young by league standards and have spent the lion’s share of their NBA minutes within this offense-loving system.They haven’t had enough of a chance to show us what kind of defenders they are.
What would they look like in a D-first culture like that of the Pacers?
Dwight Howard’s 2013-14 performance illustrates the importance of culture in evaluating a player’s abilities—he’s more than proved himself to be an elite presence near the opponent’s rim, but only under the guidance of Stan Van Gundy with the Orlando Magic. As part of the Rockets’ score-first blitzkrieg, his defensive rating is his worst since the sophomore campaign of his 10-year career.
The question of whether Houston has the right pantry of talent to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy is unanswerable until its discipline alters.
In order to capitalize on their ultimate advantage in Howard—the best center in the Western Conference—the Rockets need to be more comfortable with a slower style of basketball. Such a pace should also allow their perimeter defenders to develop and show us who they are.
Only then can we know exactly what the team should be shopping in exchange for Asik, the ace up its sleeve.