James Harden is going to produce offense each time he steps onto the court. Between his shooting ability, "Eurostepping" brilliance and knack for getting to the line, the 2-guard putting up points is almost as sure a thing as someone making beard jokes about him. The same can be said for Dwight Howard and his rim-protecting defensive abilities.
But it's Parsons who puts this team over the top.
He might not get as much credit as his superstar teammates. He might not produce the same gaudy statistics while challenging for the league lead in one of the more prolific statistical categories. He might not be a household name.
Despite all that, it's pretty obvious when he isn't on the court.
Such was the case during an 83-80 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 10, a game that ended the Rockets' two-game stretch of undefeated play. Not only did the team struggle to put up points against Atlanta's solid but unspectacular defense, but no one could contain Kyle Korver.
During the 2013-14 campaign, Parsons has been insistent on proving that—so long as he's on his rookie contract—he's one of the best values in the NBA.
The former Florida Gator is averaging 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game while shooting 51.7 percent from the floor, 37.5 percent beyond the three-point arc and 72.1 percent at the charity stripe. And impressive as that line is, it still doesn't come close to encapsulating Parsons' overall value because it completely overlooks his defensive impact.
Parsons is allowing 0.85 points per possession, which leaves him ranked No. 153 in the NBA, but it's a mark that is severely depressed by his post-up defense and surprisingly inability to cover handoffs. The latter can't be explained, but the former is the result of Houston's insistence on playing Parsons at the 4 to cover up for its lack of power forwards.
The Florida product is pretty darn good everywhere else:
|Isolation||PnR Ball-Handler||PnR Roll Man||Spot-Up||Off Screen|
|Points per Possession||0.7||0.73||0.56||0.75||1.1|
|NBA Rank||43||54||Not Qualified||21||60|
Basically, there's a reason the Rockets are a much more dangerous team when he's on the court. And he wasn't against Atlanta, so bear with me as I glean as much information as possible from a one-game sample.
Futility Against Atlanta
During the three-point loss to the team that no longer boasts the services of Al Horford, Houston got its expected production from the superstars.
D12 couldn't quite reach his season average, but he still managed to post a solid double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds on 7-of-11 shooting from the field. The big man also recorded a steal and two blocks while helping contain the new Macedonian sensation named Pero Antic.
As for Harden, he dropped a cool 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists on only 14 shots. Just as we've seen time and time again, the bearded 2-guard made a living at the charity stripe, going 11-of-14 from the line.
Just to put that in perspective, there have now been 74 games this season in which a player has gone for 25 or more points on 14 or fewer field-goal attempts, according to Basketball-Reference. Harden recorded the third in which the player in question has also added at least seven rebounds and assists, and the other two performances of that ilk belong to a certain LeBron James.
So it's not like the superstars struggled.
What gives then?
Well, Parsons was out of the lineup—just like he was during a win against the much-less-impressive Los Angeles Lakers—with an injury to what seems like all of his lower extremities. And as we've established at this point, that's problematic for Houston.
The Rockets attempted to replace their starting small forward with a committee approach, handing extra minutes to Ronnie Brewer (who started), Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia.
It didn't work.
The trio combined for two points, three rebounds and two assists in 54 minutes of action. That doesn't sound much like one of Parsons' lines, especially since they shot 1-of-11 from the field. Throughout the three-season duration of No. 25's career, he has literally never had such a poor shooting performance.
None of those three forwards has any hope at creating offense. They all rely on the passes of other players, and they can't do as much with the ball as Parsons.
Now this would be fine on a stronger team, one with a deeper core of quality offensive players. But Houston doesn't fall into that category, as it can't count on many guys beyond the aforementioned superstars and Jeremy Lin.
Unfortunately, the problems don't end on the more glamorous end of the court.
For proof, you need only look at what Kyle Korver did against the Rockets. The sharp-shooting small forward/shooting guard who now has the all-time record for consecutive games with a made three tortured Houston all night long:
Korver finished with 20 points to go along with his five points, two assists, three steals and a block. And if you've ever watched the Hawks' three-point-shooting sensation, you know exactly how he got open: a lot of spot-ups and running around screens.
You know who's good at chasing shooters around screens and closing out on spot-up shooters?
You know who's not?
The combination of Brewer, Casspi and Garcia.
Before the game, Kevin McHale told the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen:
When you guard a guy who is dedicated to moving, he’s going to get you sometimes. The way most good defenders are, if they get got, they go like, “OK, I’ll get you the next time.” Other guys get discouraged. Ronnie’s not going to get discouraged. He’s guarded enough scorers to chase people around him.
He may not have been discouraged, but he sure wasn't effective.
Just take a look at this sequence by Korver while being defended by Brewer. As it begins, the shooter is just hiking up his shorts and getting ready to put the lesser player on skates.
As soon as Brewer turns his back and sneaks over toward the paint, Korver takes off.
Whoops, fooled you!
Now look how open he is. But Korver knows he can get a better shot.
Brewer overpursues, and Korver changes directions again.
With a clean look, the swingman has no trouble putting the ball through the bottom of the net.
That might still have happened against Parsons, but it surely wouldn't have looked so easy and smooth. We're talking about a player who specializes in keeping up with shooters and closing out on them to the extent that he leads the Association in distance traveled per game, according to NBA.com's SportVU data.
The game against the Hawks may only have been a single contest. It was only 48 minutes of a 3,936-minute season (pending number of overtimes).
But it still made Parsons' value to this organization inordinately clear.
Houston may win games without the rising star at small forward, but it's not going to emerge as a title-contending team without him. There are just too many weaknesses that he covers up.