Who are the Houston Rockets?
As they continue to work through an NBA offseason that was once dressed in promise and optimism and grand ambitions but is now steeped in disappointment, it's a fair question. And it's a malleable inquiry at that, not one stringently limited to the scope of how it's phrased.
With one question, we're asking a vast number of different things.
Are the Rockets who they think they are? Is there a crater-sized chasm between where they are and where they're supposed to be?
Can next season's Rockets team be as good as last year's squad, keeping itself inside the top half of the Western Conference, among elite title contenders, within striking distance of its own championship pursuit?
Losses on Losses
Last year's Rockets—the 54-win faction that ranked fourth in offensive efficiency—have been dismantled by scaling visions of peerless power.
Call it ambition. Call it greed. Call it snobbery borne from two consecutive offseasons headlined by superstar arrivals.
Call and see Houston's summer as you like. Varying perception does nothing to distort the underlying theme: The Rockets wagered and lost a lot for very little in return.
Dreams of signing Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or LeBron James became Trevor Ariza and fillers. Painful as that is to accept, it's nothing more than missed opportunity. It's the damage said chase inflicted that leaves lasting impressions.
Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin are all gone. Poof. Just like that. The Rockets prioritized star power over depth, above role players, so they're gone. And despite what James Harden and Dwight Howard say and—more disturbingly—might actually believe, the Rockets are going to feel the wrath of their departures.
"Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets," Harden told Joaquin Henson of The Philippine Star. "The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We've lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we'll be fine next season."
Whatever Harden actually meant—he would later backtrack on Twitter—misses the point.
Even if his peculiar comments aren't taken as a cheap shot directed at teammates both new and old, Harden fails to acknowledge that the Rockets aren't in this to be fine. They're supposed to be great.
Role players—depth—helps make teams great. It can be the difference between playing for a title and an early playoff exit.
It can be, as the San Antonio Spurs showed this past year, the difference between winning and not winning a championship.
What the Rockets have now isn't as secure as last year. Relying on Harden and Howard to lead the Rockets on their own isn't overtly impressive. A supporting cast featuring Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Trevor Ariza isn't going to inspire confidence.
Asik, Lin and Parsons rank as the sixth-most efficient three-man combo that logged at least 400 minutes for the Rockets last season, according to NBA.com. Separately and together, they were valuable weapons.
Parsons is an especially big loss. There's merit to the argument that Asik and Howard could not coexist. Their skill sets overlap, as do many of their shortcomings, offensive spacing being the most prominent one.
No such comfort can be found in Parsons joining the Dallas Mavericks. He was one of only four players to average at least 16 points, five rebounds and four assists per game while knocking down 37 percent or more of his treys.
The other three? LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love.
Replacing him won't be as simple as hoping multiple players can account for his per-game production. The impact he had on Houston's offense was bigger than that.
When he was on the floor, the Rockets offense scored at a rate that exceeded the NBA's top offense. When he was off, well, it wasn't as pretty:
|Houston 2013-14||Off. Rtg.||Off. Rtg. Rank Equivalent||Net. Rtg.||eFG%|
Though Parsons' middling 15.9 player efficiency rating is bound to fool some, he was imperative to the Rockets' offensive success, doing everything and anything asked of him, as Bleacher Report's Jared Dubin deftly describes:
If Houston needed him to score, he scored. The Rockets went 27-11 in games where he scored at least 17 points.
If the Rockets needed him to be a distributor, he distributed. Houston went 20-6 in games where Parsons had at least five assists.
If they needed Parsons to rebound, he hit the glass. They registered a 18-7 record when he recorded at least seven boards.
Teams like the Rockets, that depend heavily on offensive output, cannot withstand losing a Swiss army knife such as Parsons. He didn't help their defense—though they allowed fewer points with him on the floor—but Parsons fit with the Rockets. He succeeded. He thrived. And their offense thrived with him.
The same cannot be said of Lin. The Rockets' offensive and defensive efficiencies were markedly worse with him on the floor, in part because he and Harden go together like steak sauce and gelatin-based desserts.
But Lin was also their second-best playmaker. And Parsons was third-best. Now the Rockets are left with the shoot-first Harden, court-vision-impeded Beverley and, um, yeah. (Here's to Isaiah Canaan doing big things, right?)
These are losses. Big losses. They cannot be seen as anything else.
Nine of the Rockets' 10 most used five-man lineups lineups included Parsons. Seven included Lin.
Six included Lin and Parsons.
Three rotation players—who all started at one point or another—are gone, supplanted by only one legitimate cog in Ariza. There is going to be regression, as Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wittily writes:
The Rockets may wrest away the pole position in the 'worst bench' competition from the Indiana Pacers and Rip City, barring any late veteran additions that can make significant impacts.
Not only did missing out on Bosh prevent the Rockets from building an elite starting five, even if Ariza is a better fit than Parsons, but the entire sequence kept Houston from securing any sort of depth. In fact, it gave up the few quality players it did have coming off the pine, all in chasing Bosh unsuccessfully.
How big of a step back the Rockets take depends on Harden and Howard's ability to lead, to perform like megastars.
Some of it, though, is out of their hands.
Wild, Wild West
Western Conference, thou art cruelly competitive.
Where the Rockets lost talent, other teams, other juggernauts, stood pat.
The Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are still the West's top two teams. There is no debate here. The Spurs are still the Spurs, and Kevin Durant is still Kevin Durant enough to offset the harm Oklahoma City's simplistic offense creates.
Then you have additional teams that improved. After adding Spencer Hawes, the Los Angeles Clippers are firmly fixed to that No. 3 spot, leaving that fourth and final top-half slot up for grabs. And there will be plenty of teams grabbing at it.
The Memphis Grizzlies are going to be right there, as per usual. The Portland Trail Blazers—who finished with the same record as Houston—are still intact. The Mavericks are better after the additions of Tyson Chandler and Parsons.
Then there are the Golden State Warriors, who could feasibly add Kevin Love to the fold before summer is out; the Phoenix Suns, who, assuming Eric Bledsoe returns, still look pretty damn good; and the Denver Nuggets, who hope to be healthy following a disastrous 2013-14 crusade.
There are even the New Orleans Pelicans, with the newly acquired Asik and the rising Anthony Davis, who was (apparently) put on this Earth to block shots, grab rebounds, score points, break records and look like a first-ballot Hall of Famer less than three years into his career.
Will the Rockets be better than any of those teams? With two top-15 superstars still in tow, the odds are in their favor.
Will they be better than all of them? All seven of them? Without Parsons, Lin and Asik?
No. No they won't.
Searching for Leadership
Much about Houston's status is still up in the air and predicated on the one thing Harden and Howard rightly observed: It's up to them.
This isn't a Rockets team that will win games because of its depth. It will win in spite of depth's absence. It will win because the starting lineup stays healthy while logging heavy minutes.
It will win because Howard and Harden are two incredibly talented basketball players.
Leadership, in addition to a shallow rotation, will be the Rockets' most prominent obstacle. Camaraderie among the core helped carry them this far.
Select players excelled, but there was always a strong sense of fellowship and togetherness, despite Daryl Morey's itchy trigger finger. Parsons played a major role in luring Howard to Houston, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears. The Rockets navigated Asik trade rumors as a team. Nothing appeared detrimentally wrong with the culture.
Then Lin and Asik were gone, and the Rockets struck out on targeted superstars. Then Parsons' departure happened. Then Howard's and Harden's comments happened.
With the comments Dwight and Harden have made recently, it's not all that hard to see why Chris Bosh didn't want to be part of that culture.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) July 24, 2014
Then the Rockets missed out on Jameer Nelson, too:
Jameer Nelson balanced finances and winning in free agency. Dwight Howard made multiple calls recruiting Nelson to Houston, sources say.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) July 24, 2014
None of this can be ignored. Like Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher explains in the below video, Howard and Harden's dearth of leadership qualities are challenges the Rockets must overcome:
Mike Prada of SB Nation also expands on this theory:
On the other hand, the words when presented this way, don't help the growing perception that Houston treats its players like fungible assets instead of human beings. Without knowing it (or maybe he does know) Harden is separating himself and Howard into a higher class and his teammates into a lower one. It certainly can't make Beverley, Jones and the other Rockets feel good about their abilities.
Over the course of an entire season, everything comes into play. Every loss, every misstep, every flaw, every failure.
The Rockets, for their part, are bogged down by faults, more so than last season.
More so than Howard or Harden may care to admit.
Where will the Rockets rank in the Western Conference next season?
"It won't affect us at all," Howard said of Parsons' departure, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
Common sense suggests Howard was being partially facetious or articulating his feelings poorly. But he, like Harden, still seems to think the Rockets are fine, because they probably are.
Fine just isn't good enough to remain within the top four of a Western Conference that won't readily forgive an offseason of losses, missteps, flaws and failures.