With one of the NBA's more prolific rosters, the Houston Rockets' preseason Western Conference-contender aspirations have essentially been confirmed. They stand at 30-17, good for the fifth-best record in the West and the seventh-best record in the entire league.
They are a fast-paced, high-scoring squad with arguably two of the league's top five players in James Harden and Dwight Howard. They place in the top 10 both offensively and defensively, and have won two games each over the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors, and three against the San Antonio Spurs.
Ahead, we grade each player's performance as we put a bow on the season's first half.
Player Grade: B-
Thrust into the starting lineup after an impressive rookie campaign, Patrick Beverley has been responsible for a number of energy boosts on both ends this year.
Though, his effective field-goal percentage has dipped from .413 last year to .480 this season, and his assist rate is down from 24.2 percent to 11.3 percent. However, the second-year man's turnovers have been cut down in half per 36 minutes, and he's holding his defensive assignments to PERs well below league average, according to 82games.com.
The 25-year-old missed a month of action with a fractured hand and has shown a decent amount of rust over his four-game return. He's shot just 26 percent from the field and 31 from three-point range, equating to 8.8 points on 10.5 shots per game. If Beverley plans on keeping his starting job, he'll need to do a bit more to keep Jeremy Lin off his heels.
Player Grade: A-
In a slightly diminished role on offense compared to last season, James Harden is scoring roughly two points less on average, albeit while shooting a bit less than in his inaugural Houston campaign.
He isn't getting to the line quite as often as he did last season—he boasts a free-throw rate (number of free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt) of .539 right now, as compared to .592 last season—but the points are still coming as efficiently as ever. His 1.47 points per shot are just a shade off his crazy 1.51 pace from last season. He's currently fifth league-wide in PPS.
One issue that plagued him last season, however, was his habit of giving the ball away. His 295 turnovers led the league last season, and he's actually turning it over at a higher rate this year—he's at a 15.7 turnovers-per-100-possessions estimate, while that mark was an already inflated 14.9 last year.
Defense has been another Harden downfall, never being one to put the clamps on his opponent, or ever have any desire to in the first place. According to Synergy Sports, he's allowed 1.15 points per play when opponents isolate him one-on-one.
All in all, Harden is great. He's one of the league's best, and he's having another great season. There are just some built-in flaws to his game that could use tweaking as his career moves closer to its prime years.
Player Grade: B+
In his role with the Rockets, Chandler Parsons has provided just about everything Kevin McHale could possibly ask of the third-year man. He's managed to improve his field-goal and three-point clips in each of his pro seasons, while his free-throw percentage hasn't dipped at all, either (his 72.9 mark is identical to last season's).
He's nailing just under 40 percent on threes this season, including 48 percent from the right side of the court. On about 13 attempts per game, he's nearly shot 50 percent from the field, while his defensive rebounding rate has shot up a tick to 13.4 percent this year.
With Parsons on the floor, Houston's offense is nearly six points better per 100 possessions. According to 82games.com, he's held his small-forward counterparts to a PER below league average and a eFG% under .500.
Given the abilities of James Harden and Dwight Howard, Parsons is relied upon as an accessory on the offensive end—a role his skill set fills perfectly.
Player Grade: A
We saw spurts of athleticism and promise last season in limited time, but Houston couldn't have come up with a better solution to the Dwight Howard/Omer Asik frontcourt drama if they tried. Terrence Jones has given the Rockets more than they could've hoped heading into the forward's second season.
After not playing more than 30 minutes in any game as a rookie, Jones has emerged as the Rockets' starting power forward and, at just 22 years of age, has opened eyes. The Kentucky alum is shooting over 50 percent and putting up 12 points per game with 7.6 rebounds.
And, per Michael Pina of Red94:
Since Jan. 1 (eight games) he’s averaging 16.9 points and 11.4 rebounds. He’s already attempted more free-throws than in the entire month of December (twice as many games), bumped his usage rate to 21.9%, and made 53.3% of his field goal attempts.
Since his surprisingly scorching start from beyond the arc, his long-range clip has cooled off to a modest 29 percent. It hasn't much mattered, though, as their O-Rating is two points better, per NBA.com/Stats (subscription required) with Jones on the floor.
Player Grade: A-
At last, a healthy Dwight Howard. Many detractors would be quick to bring up Howard's relative struggles last season with the Los Angeles Lakers—a season in which he was never fully recovered from offseason back surgery and shoulder issues.
This year, fully healthy for the first time since he was manning the middle for the Orlando Magic, Howard is putting up more points than he did in 2012-13 in less minutes. The defense worsens by three points per 100 possessions while he's off the floor, and he's grabbing more rebounds than he did, on average, when he led the NBA last season with 12.4.
The way Howard is playing, it's easy to see why Houston carved out the space to sign him this past summer, as the grand prize for years of meticulous planning.
He's already logged more 30-point games this season (four) than he did in all of 2012-13 (three). He's matched his total of 20-rebound games from last season (four) and has even put his three-point range on display by hitting two treys over the first half—although probably much to Kevin McHale's dismay.
Player Grade: B
For a young player who has recently lost his starting job to an even younger player, Jeremy Lin has performed pretty admirably in 2013-14.
He's raised his field-goal percentage up to 46 percent and has improved his jump shot, which was perceived as the biggest hole in his offensive game. The turnovers—the next-biggest weakness—have been kept at a modest 2.7 per contest.
Lin's defending, while not elite by any stretch, has been improved and solid. He has the athleticism to hang with quicker guards and is grasping the concept of team defense well. According to 82games, his point guard opponents have logged only a .434 effective field-goal clip and haven't posted a league-average PER.
He leads the Rockets in drives per game, according to NBA player tracking, and has connected on the highest percentage of those shots of any Houston player with at least 50 attempts. His 54.5 clip ranks 13th in the league (minimum 50 drives).
Player Grade: B
Omri Casspi has one primary role: to space the floor for the rest of Houston's weapons. In order for this strategy to work, the 25-year-old needs to be a viable threat from long range, which he has been to this point. He's hit on .353 of his attempts from long range, which matches his career average.
Over the last 15 games, however, heading into play Tuesday, Casspi had been drilling them at a .375 percentage, which certainly warrants attention from defenses along the outside, effectively carving out space for James Harden, Jeremy Lin or even Dwight Howard to work in close.
His defense has left a little to be desired, with bigger opponents at the 4 posting a PER of 18 and grabbing 11.8 rebounds per 48 minutes to Casspi's 9.2.
In his 20-minute-per-game role, Casspi has done fine. He's shooting a tad better from the field than his career averages indicate, but other than that, this is pretty much what to expect from the Israeli combo forward. Not a bad player at all for the minimum salary.
Player Grade: C+
Francisco Garcia was brought on in a similar capacity to the one Omri Casspi holds. Garcia is an athletic three-and-D wing who can stretch the floor while contributing sturdy defense along multiple wing positions.
It all makes sense in principle. The only problem is that Garcia hasn't hit many shots.
He was shooting just .385 from the field before going down with knee troubles on Jan. 16. His .342 three-point clip doesn't come off as terrible, but it's been trending downward ever since the beginning of December. He's barely shot over 30 percent from deep since the first month concluded.
He has held his end of the bargain on defense, though. 82games has his small-forward opponents posting a mediocre 10 PER, while quicker 2-guards have posted slightly better but relatively in-check figures.
According to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, Garcia has been dangled in trade rumors recently, though it's unlikely Garcia alone would attract much attention on the market.
Player Grade: B-
The third member of Houston's point guard rotation, Aaron Brooks has been, in a word, unobtrusive in his 17-minutes-per-game role.
Nailing more than 40 percent of his threes has certainly helped. He's asked of very little with the overload of talent at the top of the backcourt depth chart and can donate a few threes when the situation calls.
His net rating has proved to be fairly disastrous, with the team's offense slowing down by three points per 100 possessions with him on the court, and the defense improving by five points per 100 possessions with him off.
Brooks' play hasn't been bad enough to warrant severe criticism, considering his role, nor has it been good enough to command praise. In other words, Aaron Brooks has basically been Aaron Brooks.
Player Grade: B-
It still isn't easy to analyze Donatas Motiejunas' play at face value just yet. The 23-year-old 7-footer is still very much a project, and Houston is taking steps to develop and integrate him without risking productive minutes this season.
He's been a successful, skilled offensive forward overseas, with most of his baskets coming from in close. He's attempted to branch away from the basket, adding a mid-range game and a three-point shot to the arsenal, but nothing has materialized, at least consistently, just yet.
He has shot over 83 percent at the rim this season, which is encouraging, and has shot near 65 percent from the field in first quarters. That could mean that Motiejunas takes a liking to getting involved right off the bat, or it could be a completely random statistic. The sample is small, after all (just 17 shots).
We can expect to see more of the Lithuanian big as the season develops, and in future seasons as he develops—the Rockets are inclined to hang onto Motiejunas, according to ClutchFans.
Player Grade: D+
Obviously, with the addition of Dwight Howard this past summer, Asik's starting role with the Rockets essentially vanished—it was evident to nearly everyone speculating on the Howard signing. Except Kevin McHale, of course, who seemed convinced that an Asik-Howard 4-5 pairing would somehow work.
Asik asked for a trade immediately after the move, as ESPN reported at the time. Houston didn't want to accommodate.
“With Omer, he had a great year for us last year and really became one of the top centers in the league,” McHale said. “It’s just when you have an opportunity to get Dwight, it’s hard not to. I’m sure Omer right now is a little down in the dumps, but we’ll pick him up.”
Yeah, that never really happened.
Asik was demoted to a bench role after eight games starting beside Dwight. Averaging only 22 minutes, six points and eight rebounds per game, Asik wasn't exactly thrilled.
Asik hasn't played since Dec. 2 due to a right thigh bruise and knee troubles, but according to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, the center could return in the near future.
Clearly, the ideal route would be to move Asik. Rarely do teams have a surplus of 7-foot talent at the center position, so it'd make sense for Houston to cash in on its asset. But at its absurd asking price, at least as it was reported by MSG Network's Alan Hahn earlier in the season, it doesn't seem likely that a deal will get done during the year.
Asik's contract expires following the 2014-15 season.
Ronnie Brewer: D
Ronnie Brewer was brought on to bolster the bench and provide some spot minutes of defending, but the 28-year-old just isn't capable of much while on the floor.
The Rockets get outscored by nine points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and outscore their opponents by six with him sitting. Not all that surprising, considering he's shooting 20 percent from the field and 12.5 percent from the arc.
Greg Smith: Incomplete
Greg Smith suffered a leg injury early on against the New York Knicks, which forced him to miss a month. Since, he's been sporadically in and out of Kevin McHale's lineup, exceeding 14 minutes just once.
Smith is a 23-year-old big body with promise on both ends, but the depth chart seems to be a bit too top-heavy for the 6'10" center to make a real push.
Isaiah Canaan: Incomplete
As a rookie and the fourth point guard on the roster, Isaiah Canaan won't be seeing much time unless something really, really bad happens to Houston's backcourt.
The rookie out of Murray State has logged 20 minutes over five games this season and shot 1-of-4. But he is shooting 100 percent on two-pointers. Not bad!
Robert Covington: Incomplete
Robert Covington is another 23-year-old who watches most of the games from the far end of the bench. Maybe you see him every now and then.
He made the Rockets after playing for their summer league squad and has spent most of the season in the D-League. Here's half of his face.
All stats gathered from NBA.com/Stats or Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.