You know the incredible feeling you sometimes get after throwing on a pair of no-longer-blue jeans that were hanging in your closet for months? You stretch down to fold your wallet into your back pocket and something’s already there. You reach back and it feels like paper. A movie stub? To large. A receipt? Too grainy. You drag it out then swing it past your eyes. Dear lord in heaven, please, yes, thank you. It’s $20.
That moment right there is how some people would describe how it felt to watch Omri Casspi play basketball in November. He was incredible, a nightly pleasure twice as enjoyable because nobody expected it. He made 42.9% of his threes that month, and posted a 59.9 True Shooting percentage, good enough to tie Kevin Love for 18th overall right now.Casspi was so much more than a shooter; almost everything he did was unconsciously brilliant. He passed, ran, dribbled, shot, rebounded, and competed. Houston’s offense scorched the Earth in his 341 minutes of action. But the numbers said something totally insane about the other end of the floor: Houston had the second best defense in the league whenever Casspi the Great played. When he sat the Rockets played down to a Brooklyn Nets/New York Knicks level of atrociousness.The offense was nice no matter what, sure, but it also scored more points per 48 minutes with Casspi on the court than any other player on the team. He kicked the season off as Houston’s “Break In Case of Emergency” secret weapon of sorts, even if few recognized it while it was going on.To say Casspi slipped closer to his original expectations in December would be fair. But it’s not like he decomposed in a horrible crash or anything. All he did was stumble. A crash would not translate to successfully converting two thirds of all his attempts in the restricted area, but a slumping three-point shot would qualify as a slip.He’s still impacting the game everywhere else, but for someone who only gets 20 minutes a night to mark his tree, if Casspi isn’t knocking down threes in an offense designed around the point creation of Dwight Howard and James Harden, then he’s not coming through in what still amounts to one of his foremost offensive responsibilities. (Another pleasant surprise: he’s exceptional when Howard and Harden are both on the bench, according to NBAWowy.)Casspi signed with the Houston Rockets back on July 16, a few days after the team acquired Dwight Howard. The team’s primary attraction to the player was probably value. Casspi will make about $21,000 more than Chandler Parsons peanuts this season, and has a non-guaranteed second year on his deal that’ll either cost Houston $1.06 million or zero million.Over the team’s past 10 games Casspi barely shot 40% from the floor. As of late the Rockets are depressing on offense when he plays. They’re scoring a measly 103.6 points per 100 possessions, 7.0 points worse than when the team’s running without him. In the long run offense isn’t where Casspi creates concern. He has such wonderful feel with the ball in his hands in the open floor, knowing when to push with a pass and when to dribble it up himself—it’s not a coincidence that Houston averages 2.0 more points off turnovers with Casspi on the floor. He’s already proven to be so much more than the spot up shooter many people thought Houston was getting.But defensively? When Howard plays with Casspi the Rockets all perform like they’re wearing jerseys made of Kevlar. The defense is impenetrable. The numbers: 96.6 points per 100 possessions have been allowed by units with Casspi and Howard over the past 10 games. That drops even lower to 94.0 when you add the 24 games before that.There should be two questions that immediately come to mind: 1) How is this possible, and 2) Why doesn’t Kevin McHale play Casspi more often? Casspi hasn’t been impressive defending the post (opponents are shooting 48.6% on post-ups, according to mySynergySports), but that’s expected. He’s constantly going up against bulkier monsters who outweigh him by more than one or two trips through Wendy’s drive thru.But he’s disciplined down there. He stays low, doesn’t fall for fakes of any kind, and typically musters enough strength to force his man into a shot over the top and outside the restricted area. Casspi works hard down there, fighting for position. He does a good job denying the ball and making his man work. In the end, that shooting percentage he allows is too high; more problems exist beyond it. Oftentimes Howard will leap over to help Casspi out and try to block his man’s shot. This leaves Howard’s man wide open with first dibs on a possible rebound.He’s a solid defender on pick-and-rolls though. He can hedge up high then recover back to his man. Here are two clips from the same game that show how versatile Casspi can be out there.Right now Casspi’s PER, True Shooting percentage, and usage rate are all career highs. The Rockets are obviously better in several numerous and important areas with him on the floor. There are flaws and slumps, but he’s constantly tweaking his own game, in the precious minutes he has, to get things right. (For example: As his struggles behind the three-point line persist, Casspi’s increased the percentage of his shots that come in the restricted area.)Should he play more? Probably, but it’s tough to rationalize removing Terrence Jones from the floor now that he’s The Terminator. It wouldn’t hurt Kevin McHale to play Jones, Casspi, and Howard together, though. They’ve logged just seven minutes at the same time all season.Casspi is still an integral member of the team, even if his per game numbers don’t indicate it. He’s fantastic at finding open space when Howard’s posting up, and could be a strong pick-and-pop partner for Harden, Jeremy Lin, or Chandler Parsons this postseason.Michael Pina has bylines at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth, and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.