Every Friday all season long I’ll be ranking every active player on the Houston Rockets based on his performance from the previous week. If you missed the first installment, here you go.
13) Donatas Motiejunas: When Dwight Howard signed with Houston, I imagined Donatas Motiejunas doing cartwheels in his living room. Playing beside a dominant defensive/rebounding center would take so much pressure off the second year forward in both those areas, allowing him to bloom as a scoring forward. This has not happened.
Along with Terrence Jones, the Rockets picked up Motiejunas’ third year option on October 30, but after struggling to make defensive rotations over and over again in the preseason, he’s hardly played in games that matter. Nine minutes. One point.
12) Terrence Jones: I don’t have much to say about Jones that wasn’t just said about Motiejunas, but at least the former Kentucky Wildcat is wandering on the court in non-garbage time minutes. Unfortunately, he’s yet make a positive play when he’s out there. He isn’t strong enough to guard anyone large the post (Derrick Favors was not gentle), and plays pick-and-roll defense like a cat trying to escape a car wash. But he’s athletic and young, so there’s plenty of time.
11) Aaron Brooks: Now that Patrick Beverley’s back, Brooks should find himself squeezed from the rotation. That’s what happens to a point guard who logs two assists and three turnovers in 62 minutes of play, as Brooks did last week.
10) Greg Smith: I love everything about Greg Smith. Honestly, who cares that he’s averaging 5.3 minutes in his last three appearances or that he’s only attempted seven shots all season: 85.7% shooting from the field is world-smashing stuff. Don’t let anyone tell you different, Greg.
9) Ronnie Brewer: Hey! A Ronnie Brewer sighting! Thanks to an unpleasant looking jump shot that rarely directs the ball in the hoop, Brewer, the fourth best defender on Houston’s roster, can’t be on the floor.
Kevin McHale chose to trot him out anyway to try and make Dirk Nowitzki uncomfortable, and the results were predictable. To Dallas defenders, Brewer may as well have been Chris Brody. They treated him like people with money treat Gerard Butler movies on opening weekend. None of them cared he was out there, and nobody paid him any attention at all.
It was right around this time that Rick Carlisle decided to deploy his modestly well-reputed zone. It could be a while again before complete sentences are needed to describe Brewer’s impact.
8) Patrick Beverley: He was supposed to be out 10-14 days with a rib injury until he was back on the floor in Portland in less than half that time. Which is a shame, only because I really enjoyed the lime green tie he rocked on the sideline in Dallas.
I don’t know how much of a difference Beverley could’ve made against Chris Paul and the Clippers on Monday, but I know his impact would’ve been positive, especially defending the ball and attacking the offensive glass. Omer Asik has seven offensive rebounds in his last five games. Beverley has that same number in his last two. He’s the best offensive rebounding point guard in the league, and I don’t think whoever’s in second is very close. It’s great to have him back.
7) Chandler Parsons: Thanks to SportVU, we now know just how much ground Parsons is covering when he’s on the court, and it’s basically more than everyone else in the league. (On average he’s running 2.7 miles per game. Typing that sentence while sitting at my desk was exhausting, so a tip of the cap to him and all that hustle.)
In addition to SportVU, thanks to the rewind button on my DVR, we also know that Parsons really struggles on defense when his man comes up to screen the ball-handler.
I promise you I didn’t photoshop this photo. Parsons was more concerned with following his man (Nicolas Batum) than forcing the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands. Based on where they were on the floor, he should’ve tried trapping Portland’s point guard. Or do anything other than what he did.
From behind the three-point line Parsons has been in a somewhat concerning slump, going 4-18 on mostly wide open looks since the opener. The season is long and his shots should eventually fall (Parsons made 38.5% of his threes last season), but if for whatever reason they don’t, Houston will find themselves in an awkward/awful situation.
In the first half against Utah he was pretty great off-the-dribble, scoring 20 points on nine shots. Parsons is so much more than a spot-up shooter, and has the skill-set to do serious damage whenever an opponent bites on his Emmy-winning pump fake.
6) Omer Asik. Asik’s persona as a lovable butterfingers who gives Herculean effort on both ends and sees Herculean results on defense is all but set in stone. That’s who he is, and all the non-cheap owners around the league would love to have him. Asik’s playing time was modest this week, and until Houston is able to stay effective with him and Howard both on the floor (that day is right around the corner, I can feel it!) there won’t be any 30 minute nights for a big man who deserves even more.
Against Dallas he spared Kevin McHale the trouble of an early hook by dooming himself with two fouls in the game’s first minute. (Then still managed to grab 12 rebounds in 15 total minutes.) Defensively, all we’re seeing is amazing. It’s not easy scoring when Asik is in the paint, as proven correct by SportVU, which tells us opponents are shooting 30% at the rim when Asik is nearby. That figure is obviously very good, comparable to current Defensive Player of the Year favorite Roy Hibbert (29.8% on nearly twice as many attempts) and Tim Duncan (33.3% on just over one more attempt per game).
Asik can still ice ball-handlers near the sideline in his sleep, sag deep on pick-and-rolls and make guys who can’t shoot feel like permanent prisoners in mid-range jail, and deliver beat down after beat down to any opposing big man (paging Enes Kanter) in the post who thinks he has a chance in hell at scoring the ball.
But on the other end it’s been touch and go. Asik is setting solid screens, rolling hard to the rim, and forcing help, which opens up shots from the outside. (Here are a few pics showing that below. See the progression? Asik sets the screen and as he rolls to the hoop Vince Carter is forced to pick him up, leaving Francisco Garcia wide open in the corner.)
But at least once a game he does something that’s very, I don’t know, dopey. I have two picks for that moment this week. The first came early in the fourth quarter against the Mavericks, when James Harden delivered a flawless no look (!!) pocket pass only to watch Asik’s open dunk clang off the rim. The other was late in the third quarter against Utah, when Asik launched an 18-foot jumper. I don’t care if there was only six seconds on the shot clock when he caught Harden’s pass. That’s irrelevant. The Rockets would be better off if Asik drop kicked the ball 35 rows into the crowd. At least then they’d have plenty of time to get back and set up their defense.
5) Francisco Garcia: The “catch-and-shoot” master chef, Garcia can be seen either making an open three or missing it. I also briefly wanted to mention his effectiveness as a help defender, especially one who can block an unsuspecting shooter’s shot without fouling. He’s been more than a three-point shot so far, and has found ways to positively impact the game on nights when his aim is off.
4) Dwight Howard: On Tuesday against the Trail Blazers, Dwight Howard looked like a competent free-throw shooter, starting 6-8 from the line and finishing 9-12. Only a few nights after Rick Carlisle became the first coach in 2013-14 to deploy Hack-a-Howard (doing it for what felt like 35 straight minutes), Portland head coach Terry Stotts opted instead to double the big man on the catch down the stretch.
Stotts either has an early bed time, or figured Howard was feeling it on that particular night, and that his team was better off defending Houston within the game’s natural flow.
After helplessly watching from in front of the Lakers bench all last season as opposing coaches intentionally fouled his franchise center, Mike D’Antoni was licking his lips from the other side of the fence last night. He had no bed time.
Howard attempted 16 free-throws in Houston’s one-point home loss to Los Angeles last night. He made five of them. Complaining about Howard’s free-throw shooting at this stage in the game is pointless. Everyone knows it’s not very good, and almost certainly won’t be getting noticeably better for the rest of his career. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating.
The possible lottery winner here is Greg Smith, who shot 62.3% from the line last year, and wouldn’t be as susceptible to intentional fouls at the end of the game. This doesn’t mean Kevin McHale will be subbing Smith in for Howard at the end of close games from now on, but it’s probably something he and his coaching staff will discuss at some point.
Anyway, onto more exciting basketball matters. All season defenses have been seriously focused on preventing Howard from doing anything destructive when he rolls to the basket. According to mySynergySports, Howard has only attempted three shots as a roll-man since the opener in Charlotte. This isn’t worth losing sleep over (especially if you’re Francisco Garcia), because it doesn’t take into account the dozens of times Howard has rolled hard to the rim only to be quadruple teamed by the defense, but watching him fly through the air for a dunk is still fun.
He’s still leading the league in rebounds per game, which is fantastic. But as a rim defender the numbers haven’t been very kind. While most of the game’s elite centers are holding opponents to the low-30% to low-40% range, guys are making a whopping 55.8% of their shots at the rim when Howard’s nearby. Not sure what to make here, and it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
3) Jeremy Lin What’s not to love about the Jeremy Lin we’ve seen so far this season? This Jeremy Lin is second only to Monta Ellis on total drives and third to Ellis and Ty Lawson on drives per game, per SportVU.
Some of Lin’s drives are stupendous, but not every one is a work of art. There have been instances where he submits to tunnel vision and over commits after springing past the defense’s first layer. The fearless attitude is appreciated, but the Rockets would be better served if Lin fed open shooters in the corner every once in a while.
Am I nitpicking? Maybe. I don’t mean to. Lin has exceeded my personal expectations by 300 miles, averaging a nice 15.2 points per game on a necessary 35.7% shooting from behind the three-point line in his last five contests. Right now he’s playing the best basketball of his career.
2) Omri Casspi: Against Portland, Casspi threw one of the most difficult alley-oop passes I’ve ever seen. Running full speed down the left wing, he drove into the lane and underhand scooped the ball with his right hand to Chandler Parsons, who was maybe five feet away at the time, also running quite fast. It was a pass few point guards could make, let alone Omri freaking Casspi. That single moment is an accurate microcosm for his tenure with Houston.
Casspi has played with out of this world brilliance, and, at least to me, it’s come as a complete and total surprise. Brought in to knock down open shots, Casspi has made 50% of his three-point attempts since the season opener. (As Chris Paul was tying a noose around Houston’s neck on Monday night, Casspi was the only Rocket delaying his team’s inevitable execution.)
But he’s so much more than that, taking bigger, slower defenders off the dribble, finishing with both hands in traffic, pentrating into the paint and finding shooters like Francisco Garcia and Chandler Parsons spotting up in the corners.
There have been rare lapses on the defensive end, but overall he’s been solid, defending the pick-and-roll with smart execution based on who it is he’s up against and not shying away from contact in the post. It’s been a pleasure to watch. Here’s a stat that sums it up nicely: Over the past week, whenever Casspi is on the court Houston is scoring 118.0 points per 100 possessions (he sat out Saturday’s victory against Utah with a sprained ankle). When he’s on the bench that number drops to 100.0 points per 100 possessions.
I don’t care if that’s a small sample size. Let’s make a big deal out of it.
1) James Harden: I’m not ready for James Harden to be a polarizing player, are you? Against the Clippers his defensive effort was embarrassing, and I get the sense most fans can’t say anything nice about Harden without “…but he’s an atrocious defender!” ending the sentence, like it’s some revelation.
Defense is half the game. That’s well and true. But is it just me, or does Harden’s positive impact on offense vastly outweigh his negative one on the other end? Small sample size alert, but in Houston’s five games this week, they’re 9.4 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent with Harden on the floor, and -12.6 when he sits.
He’s still one of the league’s 10 best players because of how amazing and influential he is on offense, averaging 28.0 points per game since the opener. Forget about no shooting guard being better (that’s really not much of a conversation anymore), there are only two or three guys right now at any position who’re as feared with the ball.
All footage of Harden’s Euro step on Meyers Leonard has been banned from Youtube by anti-bullying support groups. His crossover step back and-1 directly in the eye of Wesley Mathews was as macabre as professional basketball can get…until he did the same thing to Nicolas Batum in a more meaningful situation later in the game.
Against the Mavericks, there was one play where Howard came up to set a screen, and Sam Dalembert forced Harden to go right. So what does Harden do? He starts right, picks up his dribble at the exact spot highlighted in the picture below, and scores on an and-1 layup on the left side of the basket.
Basically, Harden does what he wants, when he wants. He’s so, so good at basketball.