Grading Chandler Parsons

Chandler Parsons wasn’t Houston’s flashiest player, or Houston’s best player, or even Houston’s most famous player. Parsons wasn’t the primary scorer, or the defensive anchor, or the team’s distributor. Despite all that, Chandler Parsons was something even more important. Chandler Parsons, despite being only a sophomore in the NBA, managed to become the soul of the brand new Houston Rockets.

Before bringing up numbers, before rattling off individual plays and rotations, before any of that is what Chandler Parsons means for the Rockets. He’s the only link between the “New Age” Rockets and the team that preceded them (with the exception of Greg Smith, who played only 69 minutes last year). Chandler Parsons arrived at the same time as head coach Kevin McHale, and neither could have succeeded without the other.

McHale saw a defensive game-changer in the second round pick out of Florida, dethroning Chase Budinger from his starting position and giving Parsons a chance to shine. The Rockets may have missed the playoffs last season, but Chandler returned the favor to McHale this year in an unexpected and impressive playoff push. Rather than slide into a sophomore slump, Parsons elevated his game and improved his shot, becoming so much more than a decent player on a tiny contract.

Chandler Parsons first became famous for his defense, earning praise from pundits and players alike. After his excellent work on Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant last year, Chandler’s name recognition rose with rare praise from Kobe himself. But this year? Chandler Parsons took on the identity of McHale and Morey’s team, running and gunning all the way to the playoffs. Once he got there, he capped off a season of improvement with an amazing line against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game 4 of the first round: 27 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists. He made it to the next stage.

We know he’s not merely the decent role player he was predicted to be. And we know he’s grown to that next stage. We just aren’t sure what that is. He looks like a future all-star to the hopeful eye, but a more cynical take pegs him as the beneficiary of Harden’s skill. It’s not even clear where he fits in the echelons of Rockets players; is he better than Lin or Aşık? How important is he to Houston’s future? All we know is how important he is to Houston’s present. And it’s a lot.

The Rockets gained fame for their belief in Shane Battier, famously described as a “No-Stats All-Star. In Chandler Parsons, Houston has found another defensive small forward, another “glue guy” who’s known for his positive influence on locker rooms and win totals. The difference here is that Chandler Parsons has stats, too. He averaged 15.5 points per game on 12.4 shots, 48.6% shooting from the field, 38.5% from deep, 73% from the line, 5.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 turnovers a game. So we know he’s not just a defender. He’s a starting caliber forward.

The good here is that he improved his shooting and distributing from last year. He was shooting a lackluster 33% from three last year, and he came back with an improved shot that made him a legitimate threat from the arc. He’s an improved ball handler, and he’s shown flashes of creating and distributing. He’s bought into the run and gun system, happily leading fast breaks and not settling for low efficiency looks. It wasn’t clear in November how much of an offensive game Parsons would have. It’s clear now that he can score.

The bad comes in two flavors. First is a bland taste of stagnant numbers in his peripherals, with rebounds, steals, blocks and turnovers per 36 minutes staying the same or dropping slightly. His non-scoring stats are integral to Houston’s team, and while it’s good that he’s kept their efficiency up while playing more minutes, that’s far behind the improvement he showed in his offensive stats. Secondly is the relative souring of his acclaimed defense. As the team defense gambled more often and paid the price, so did Parsons follow the pack, allowing trips to the rim and open threes more often.

Parsons and the Rockets are interlinked in their defensive woes, with a new roster and a new offensive look confusing and disrupting what was already a mediocre defense at best. The silver lining there is that Parsons has shown to be a very capable individual defender, and willing to learn whatever system comes his way. The Rockets may need some more parts to shore up their defenses, but Parsons won’t be dragging the team down.

Among the question marks for Chandler and his game is whether or not he can consistently play at the power forward position. The Rockets have had great success going small generally, and playing Parsons at the 4 specifically. This is a question that will likely grow in import this summer as Houston tries to parley cap space into skilled players. It’s entirely possible that the Rockets might pick up a high level talent at the 1-3 spots, meaning that Parsons at the power forward could become not just a useful option, but a long-term solution. He’s got a big body for his position, but can he become a post defender? Can he learn post offense?

Questions about whether or not there will be questions are abstract in the extreme, but all of this matters when evaluating a player like Chandler Parsons. Not because we know what he will be, but because we have reason to believe he could be so many things. How, then, do we grade him? Do we look at his current play, or his future potential? More to the point, do we simply grade his quality as a player, or does he warrant a curve? He isn’t the best player on the team, but he blew his expectations out of the water.

Unlike James Harden, who has earned his place in the cold light of superstardom, Parsons makes no sense in a vacuum. He plays within the context of his team, shooting, assisting, rebounding and defending as the Rockets require. He puts back misses, spots up for threes and drives when there’s a gap. He moves without the ball and works to wriggle into the gaps. We don’t know if he could be a star one day, but he isn’t today. In terms of his team contribution, ability at his role and meeting expectations, the decision is clear. He’s invaluable to the Rockets as a team and as a franchise, and that deserves a gold star. He might get a B- in the league. But for Houston?

Grade: A-

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