What We Learned About the Houston Rockets During Their 1st Half of the Season
The Houston Rockets have established themselves as a work in progress that could develop into one of the best teams in the NBA. After 41 games into their season, we have learned a lot about the league's latest manufactured "super team."
As the team continues to build chemistry, we will get a better understanding for how good this team can be. Despite a litany of injuries, the Rockets clawed their way to the fifth-best record in the Western Conference at 26-15 (as of Jan. 16).
They are 14-12 within the West, including a 3-1 mark against San Antonio and Portland, which are currently the conference's top two teams. Houston has also dominated the inferior Eastern Conference to the tune of a 12-3 record.
The key to this success has been the combination of a high-octane offense and some strong play on the boards. The Rockets are fourth in the NBA in points per game with an average of 104.9 a night. They also average 45 rebounds per game, which is good for eighth best.
The talented trio of Dwight Howard, James Harden and Chandler Parsons have all put together All-Star-caliber seasons, but it doesn't stop there. From Terrence Jones to Jeremy Lin to Omri Casspi, Houston has benefited from a number of breakout performances.
As the team gets set to kick off the second half on Saturday against Milwaukee, let's take a look at what we have learned about the Rockets after the first half of the season.
Houston has managed to keep moving along despite being ravaged by injuries early on. That's because the team has incredible depth at nearly every position.
Patrick Beverley broke his hand and had to sit out four to six weeks. Jeremy Lin and Aaron Brooks stepped up in his place, and the team didn't miss a beat. Chandler Parsons is dealing with back spasms? No problem. Guys like Ronnie Brewer and Omri Casspi are here to save the day.
What about James Harden's foot and ankle woes? Francisco Garcia has it covered.
Omer Asik (thigh, knee) has been out since Dec. 2, and the team still leads the league in total blocks (250) and is second in total rebounds (1,845, which is just nine behind the league-leading Golden State Warriors).
One out. One in. That's been the calling card for this year's Rockets. If they can manage to be this resilient with a depleted roster, imagine how good they can be once they get back to full strength.
In the playoffs, having fresh legs and a roster that goes 10-11 deep is a huge plus. That kind of depth will be one of Houston's biggest advantages going forward, as long it can get everybody healthy by the postseason.
Jeremy Lin Is Legit
Jeremy Lin has been the polar opposite of Omer Asik for the Rockets this season. When coach Kevin McHale opted for Patrick Beverley as the starter at point guard early on, Lin didn't sulk. He didn't take himself out of games or make any trade demands.
Instead, he chose to make the most of his opportunities. The result? The Harvard product has put together arguably the best season of his career. The case can be made that Lin was the team's best player (or, at the very least, 1A behind James Harden) for the first month of the season.
In November, he averaged 15.3 points and 4.7 assists per game. He shot 49 percent from the field, including nearly 37 percent from behind the arc. He did all this while mostly playing as the team's sixth man.
Injuries were the only thing that could slow down Linsanity. Midway into his second full season with Houston, he continues to creep up the point guard rankings. He has proved that all of the fanfare from his emergence with the Knicks wasn't the result of New York media hype.
With Beverley out with a broken hand, Lin has stepped back into the starting lineup. He has shown improvement in his outside jumper and a newfound relentlessness when attacking the basket. He's averaging 13.9 points per game, which is solid for a guy playing in a lineup with this many options.
Lin may not be in Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo territory, but he's moving up the ladder. Before taking over for Beverley, he was making a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year. It will be intriguing to see what he has in store for the second half of the season.
Terrence Jones Is Legit, Too
As good as Jeremy Lin has been this season, Houston's biggest breakout star has been second-year man Terrence Jones. Since being inserted in the lineup in place of Omer Asik, the 22-year-old has established himself as a solid starter and one of the league's best young forwards.
He is capable of doing it all. He can score in the paint or knock down the occasional three-pointer. He is strong on the glass (7.6 rebounds per game). He can also block some shots (1.5 swats per contest this season).
In his last five games, he has averaged 15.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.2 steals. That includes a 25-point, eight-rebound, six-block performance in a comeback win against New Orleans on Jan. 15, as well as a 16-point, 13-rebound outing in a loss to Oklahoma City a day later.
For the season, Jones is putting up 11 points and 7.6 rebounds a night. Those are modest numbers for the fifth-best player in the starting rotation. Role players who can do so many things are invaluable to a championship contender.
What's even better is that Jones' best days are ahead of him. With his inspired play, he has filled a void in the lineup and has given the team one of the NBA's best rotations from 1 to 5. He's somebody to keep an eye on going forward.
The Omer Asik-Dwight Howard Experiment Didn't Go as Planned
Of course, Terrence Jones wouldn't have emerged if Omer Asik didn't initially flop. Asik's 2013-14 season has been a bit of a nightmare.
He's been hurt. He's been benched. He's been disgruntled and largely unproductive.
The team tried to make all parties happy by pairing Asik with Dwight Howard in the starting lineup but inevitably pulled the plug on the experiment after a couple of weeks. In fairness, it never really had a chance.
Asik and Howard didn't play together much in the preseason due to Asik being banged up. Once he became healthy, the team aborted the Twin Tower strategy before it could ever get a good look.
Did the tandem have its flaws? Sure. Both big men clogged up the paint, which made it difficult for the team's slashers to attack the basket. Another problem is both Howard and Asik are most effective around the basket, and neither has the outside game to give the other some space.
Thus, the team opted for Jones, who has a more polished outside game than Asik, as Howard's sidekick. The aftermath has been well-documented. After failing to trade the Turkish 7-footer, the team now awaits his return from a knee injury.
What happens once Asik is healthy remains to be seen. For now, it appears that the Asik-Howard experiment was something that was better in theory than actuality.
The Rockets Love the Three Ball
Despite having a number of different weapons, Houston has become a team infatuated with shooting three-pointers. No team in the NBA has attempted more treys than the Rockets, who have shot 57 more threes than the next team, Phoenix.
It's hard to blame Houston for hitching its wagon to the three ball. The roster is saturated with long-range shooters. Seven Rockets are shooting above 33 percent from behind the arc, with Aaron Brooks leading the way at nearly 41 percent.
Even big men such as Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas are capable of stretching the floor from time to time.
Ultimately, the team's success from downtown will tell the story of its 2013-14 season. If the Rockets get hot, it will be tough for any team to keep up with them. If the shooters go cold, their high hopes could get dashed quickly.
The team could safeguard itself by adding a little variety to its offensive attack. Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and James Harden are all capable of aggressively attacking the basket. Houston also has one of the league's premier interior scoring machines in Dwight Howard.
How much could it hurt to commit to becoming a team that routinely takes it to the rack and tries to get opposing teams into foul trouble early on? Wouldn't that somewhat hinder the "Hack-a-Dwight" strategy that teams have been utilizing all season?
The Rockets have fancied themselves as gamblers. Living and dying by the three-pointer is basketball's biggest crapshoot. By continuing to use this strategy, Houston is pushing all of its chips to the middle of the table.
That could lead to the team becoming ultimate winners or heading home empty-handed.
The Defense Still Needs Work
An inability to stop opponents on the defensive end has been the Rockets' undoing for quite some time. The team hoped to fix that by bringing in three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard and opting for Patrick Beverley at point guard.
Instead, the defense continues to be a work in progress. The combination of Howard and Terrence Jones has helped shore things up on the inside, but the Rockets have had the most trouble on the perimeter.
Currently, Houston is 19th in the NBA in points allowed per game with an average of 101.7.
The team's struggle with opposing wings has become obvious in the last few games. Houston got behind a battered New Orleans team early, thanks to Pelicans guard Eric Gordon having his way with the Rockets defense. He finished with 35 points, 22 of which came in the first half.
In the team's most recent showdown with Oklahoma City on Jan. 16, Kevin Durant put up 35 points, and Reggie Jackson scored 23. That, combined with a second-half collapse that saw Houston score just 19 points in two quarters, led to a 104-92 loss.
The absence of Beverley is partially the reason behind Houston's defensive issues. However, beyond him, there aren't many guys on the roster capable of making life hard for opponents on the outside.
Ronnie Brewer has some defensive chops, but for some reason, coach Kevin McHale has shied away from using him. After making a couple of starts in place of the injured Chandler Parsons, Brewer has played just five minutes in the last three games.
The Rockets need to find an answer and fast. The Western Conference is littered with premier scorers on the wing. Houston won't win many playoff games if guys like Reggie Jackson are scoring on the Rockets with relative ease.
A great offense is nice to have. It glues eyes onto TV screens and puts fans in the seats. However, as the old adage goes, defense wins championships, and the Rockets are lacking on that side of the ball.