Breaking the glass ceiling - According to Tom Haberstroh of ESPN Insider, the Rockets currently sit just outside the top-four of NBA contenders (Pacers, Heat, Spurs and Thunder) along with the Blazers, Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies(?), and Nets(!?!). His plan for the Rockets to pierce the upper echelon? Perimeter D.
The Rockets currently rank 23rd in isolation defense, giving up .85 points per play, according to Synergy Sports.
Harden, especially, needs to be rescued on one-on-one matchups. He has allowed 41 points on 37 isolation plays (1.1 points per play), which ranks second-to-last among the 99 players who have defended at least as many isolation plays as he has. The Rockets need a 3-and-D specialist who can mask Harden’s defensive incompetence and make life easier for Howard on the back end. At age 32, Francisco Garcia isn’t that guy anymore.
While he does offer ideas to assist the other five teams break into that top tier, his plan for the Rockets is a little more fuzzy. Haberstroh sees the need for a 3-and-D perimeter player, but only players from other Western contenders (Danny Green, Thabo Sefolosha) as a potential fit. There’s little chance one of those teams would rush to offer any kind of help to the Rockets. He does, however, see the Rockets as the key to fixing some major problems for two of the other teams’ problems. How many guesses did you need to come up with Omer Asik as that solution?
He thinks the big Turk would be the perfect improvement the Blazers and Nets need to push them into serious contention. But unlike Monday’s trade idea the Blazers idea actually makes a little sense for the Rockets as well. Every trade scenario involving the Rockets and Blazers I’ve seen prior to this centered around Robin Lopez for Asik. But Haberstroh thinks the Rockets might have an eye for Wesley Matthews. His athleticism, shooting and defense would be as perfect a fit for the Rockets as Asik would at fixing the Blazers’ defensive woes. He would cut down on James Harden and Chandler Parson’s minutes and give Jeremy Lin a true running partner off the bench. This idea would leave the Rockets a little thin up top, but as a Motiejunas enthusiast I’m perfectly okay with that. However, Haberstroh thinks, and I agree, that the Blazers are unlikely to trade away such an integral part of their core when already exceeding expectations so grandly.
The other fit for Asik is the Brooklyn Nets. And again, this one is hard to figure. But when you’re as locked in to contending as the Nets are with their salary cap, I imagine any GM would consider anything to get to the promised land. Haberstoh wonders if the Nets would consider sending away Shaun Livingston, Andrei Kirilinko and Brook Lopez in exchange for Asik, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin. If it was tough to see Portland trade away Wes Matthews, its downright unfathomable that the Rockets would trade the Hair for anything short of one of the top seven or eight players in the league. But beyond that, while Lopez wouldn’t help the Rockets this year, Livingston and Kirilinko would solve some of the perimeter problems, and the haul Lopez could bring back in a future trade would be substantial. But I don’t think Rockets fans need to concern themselves with that. Parsons is a Rocket.
ESPN also ran a 5-on-5 roundtable discussion centered on the premise of Haberstroh’s idea that there are only four true contenders. Brian Windhosrt was the only pundit with any kind of love for the Rockets, naming Houston as his dark horse to crash the party.
The Rockets have the most talent among the teams in the West who aren’t at the very top and I respect that amount of talent. They have some flaws and their best days are probably ahead when they can work a little on their roster, but I could see them winning a series as an underdog just because they have a couple of players — James Harden and Dwight Howard — who could win a game by themselves.
It’s nice to see that not every sees Dwight as just merely a good player anymore, as Chuck and Shaq stated recently. The Rockets haven’t been whole in their current form with Terrence Jones in the starting lineup, and trade or no trade, until we’ve seen them at 100% it is not time to count them out of anything.
UK Domination - Since John Calipari took over the Wildcats, the University of Kentucky has become a haven for future NBA talent. Jeff Goodman of ESPN Insider has ranked the top-ten former Calipari-recruits currently plying their trade in the Association. Some of the most exciting young players in the league hail from UK, including Terrence Jones, at number six.
His erratic play made him a mystery in the 2010 draft, and it was part of the reason why he dropped down to 18th overall. His body language at times didn’t help, either. Jones barely played last season as a rookie, getting in 19 games and averaging 5.5 points and 3.4 rebounds. He’s gotten his opportunity this season and has thrived playing alongside James Harden, Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons. Jones is averaging 11.6 points and 7.7 boards per game this season, but awoke this month, putting up 16.9 points and 11.4 rebounds in eight games thus far. He’s certainly doing more than most anticipated, but part of the reason is because he’s playing with three potential All-Stars who allow him to roam free.
We’ve covered Jones quite a bit in this space over the last week, so there’s not much left to cover. But roaming free or not, with the way Jones is playing lately, I doubt anyone will have combo-guard Brandon Knight (and maybe even Eric Bledsoe) ranked ahead of Terrence for much longer.