It is the nature of modern sports coverage and fandom to be constantly looking onwards to what is to come. The playoffs are going to be awesome this year, some of the kids in the draft are going to be superstars and you’d better have one eye on your cap sheet for when all the free agents become available. But often this focus on the future at the expense of the past leaves us makes us forget the context of the situations we find ourselves in. People erase the predictions that went horribly awry and re-adjust their expectations based on current performance. So to avoid falling into that trap, let’s take a look back at some of the big questions that surrounded the Rockets before the season began and see where the team got to in achieving them.
Will the Rockets be able to integrate Dwight Howard into the team smoothly?
Fresh off a season full of much-reported personality clashes and a dip in production, there were legitimate concerns about whether the Rockets would be able to avoid the fate that befell the Lakers a season before and successfully mesh Howard’s game with the rest of the team. Last season the team was bereft of a legitimate post-up threat – would adjusting the focus towards Howard’s back-to-the-basket game bog down the high octane offensive attack the team had developed the previous year?
This has been a big success story. There have been zero problems with Howard’s off-court demeanour this year, no evidence of the locker room cancer narrative the media constructed before the season began. On the court, progress came in fits and spurts but overall has been very positive. After initially struggling to find the right balance between post-up and pick-and-roll the Rockets have gradually started to get it right. Howard’s post-game has been inconsistent all season and he is still prone to turnovers, but it does look a lot better than it did at the beginning of the year when he struggled to deal with double teams effectively and lacked the awareness to keep the ball away from poking hands.
A big help in that integration came early in the New Year, when the Rockets unveiled a new weapon – the lob. If you cast your minds back to the pre-season, you may remember that early attempts to lob the ball up to the rim for Howard made for painful viewing. Nobody had the timing down and many an attempt went careening off the backboard. But once the team got the hang of them, they magnified the threat the team posed from the pick-and-roll and now it gets the Rockets several easy baskets per game.
Who will be the Rockets’ Power Forward?
It’s easy to answer now, but nobody was quite sure what the Rockets’ rotation at the 4 spot would look like when the season started. The departure of Delfino meant that Terrence Jones was promoted to starter, but there was uncertainty about whether he was capable of holding the position. The excellent pre-season form of Omri Casspi propelled him ahead of Motiejunas in the rotation and it appeared as though the Rockets would look to continue to embrace the philosophy that had served them so well last season of playing four out one in. At the same time, McHale planned to experiment with running a twin-towers lineup of Asik and Howard in the front court to see if their combined presence would lock up the paint.
As it turns out, Jones overcame a slow start (he played just 15 minutes total in the first 5 games of the season) to make the starting job his own. Though he occasionally struggles with consistency, his high energy and tantalising physical skill-set have allowed him to fill in the cracks in the Rockets’ offence. He is there for offensive rebounds and put-backs. He will run the floor and crush the alley-oop if you throw it to him. And he knows how to use his pump-fake to get into the lane. There are still concerns on the defensive end, where he is not great at boxing out and occasionally makes mistakes in pick-and-roll coverage, but gone are the days when Rockets fans gazed wistfully at the trade market to find their starting power forward.
Behind him, Motiejunas has supplanted Casspi as the backup PF of choice. Unfortunately, D-Mo has failed to show the same level of growth as Jones this year. His maddening bouts of foul trouble continue to appear at inopportune times, and he frequently rushes his opportunities when he gets them in the post. Every now and then he puts together a game where everything clicks and he looks like the game-changing 7 footer Rockets fans hoped he would be when he was drafted, but those flashes are rare.
McHale was forced to abandon the dual-centre line-up of Asik and Howard early into the season as they were unable to provide enough of a defensive and rebounding edge to justify the way they killed the team’s offensive spacing. However, he has taken to running a small-ball lineup at the end of games with Parsons at the 4. Casspi no longer seems to be a regular option for anything more than spot minutes.
How will Lin and Asik adapt to their new roles on the bench?
As the pre-season drew to a close, it became clear that Patrick Beverley had supplanted Jeremy Lin in the starting point guard role. Many observers felt that this was a good tactical decision as it meant Lin would have the ball in his hands more as the leader of the second unit, although others railed at paying such a high salary to a back-up. There were also question marks about Omer Asik – from the outset he was purported to be unhappy with his demotion and it seemed to be only a matter of time before he was dealt elsewhere. Nevertheless, both were highly paid players who seemed over-qualified for the roles they found themselves in, so it was hoped that they would be able to provide a strong punch when the starters left the game.
Unfortunately, the bench unit has not lived up to expectations. Though Richard Li’s analysis would suggest that when they see the court they do not perform poorly, Coach McHale has been unwilling to entrust them with big minutes. Lin has struggled to remain consistent this season. His overall shooting numbers have been consistent (his 3FG% has experienced a slight uptick from 33.9% last season to 35.8% this year), but his scoring has tended to come in bunches and he has a tendency to go through periods where he just can’t get anything to go in the basket. In addition, his assist numbers have gone down considerably, from 8.3 per 100 plays (per NBA.com/stats) to 6.2 per 100 plays. Though it would be unfair to say that his season was a disaster, he has not yet been able to reach the levels the team had hoped for when they signed him.
Early in the season it seemed as though the arrival of Howard was going to force the Rockets into dealing Asik. When he injured himself in early December, a narrative arose in the national media that he was in a strop and would not be playing again in Houston before the trade deadline (at which point he would be dealt). We may never know the full story, but although it appears Asik was upset at his situation, as the season went on he has grown to accept his position. Eventually he completed the rehab of his knee, and after shaking off the rust proved that he was still capable of being a very productive player. The recent stretch of games that Dwight sat out with an ankle problem have revealed just how good he can be when given playing time.
Will the Rockets achieve their pre-season goal of getting homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs?
YES THEY WILL! This was the goal management set the team for the regular season, so overall the Rockets have met expectations. Not everything has gone perfectly, but enough has gone well that they’ve ended up with a top-4 seed in an incredibly competitive conference. This is has been a season to be pleased with, and hopefully the playoffs will bring more satisfaction to Rockets fans.