Because of almost two decades of failed franchise moves, mangled body parts, and semi-self-imposed irrelevance, forgive the Rockets faithful if their reaction to the first week of the 2012-13 season seemed more supernatural phenomena than pleasant surprise. As the folk tales of the new freak talent with the big contract and bigger beard spread throughout town, the conversation took on hushed tones in its reverence for and distrust of this coming era of good feelings, the crowds too used to the lean years to cheer too loudly again. Things changed, unspoken hopes deflated a bit, and now Rockets followers likely find themselves in the same head space with which they entered the season: excited but confused about the prospects of this peculiarly built .500 team. That wariness— the kind very reasonably clung to by people who just can’t stomach one more ninth-place-in-the-West finish— might prevail as the prominent state of those devoted to the red and yellow this year, but everyone involved must remember the new stakes, that this teams stands for more than the fifteen men on its roster, more than even the city of Houston itself: this is a team of change.
Last week, Ethan Sherwood Strauss, one of the world’s most interesting basketball writers, focused on the gambles that Daryl Morey made this offseason on James Harden, Omer Asik, and Jeremy Lin, crediting the Rockets brass because Morey “trusted what they did.” As the rest of the basketball world looked at these three players, all accomplished but hindered by some strange overriding perception (not a “go-to” guy, only plays one side of the floor, too many Time Magazine covers), Morey bet on what they had all actually done on a basketball court:
To watch Houston flourish would feel like a revolution. Houston’s Big Three is also the NBA’s Freed Three, because basketball orthodoxy imposed glass ceilings on Harden, Lin, and Asik. Then, Daryl Morey broke the glass apart.
Without a doubt, what Strauss stresses here is the novelty not of the way this team plays or is run, but simply of how it was made. No longer might fans of “smaller” market teams (read: not based in New York or Los Angeles) be trapped in the impossible trichotomy of the “Miami model”, “OKC model” or the “Detroit model”; this team will, like the Thunder, grow organically while not being drafted together, instead sharing a common chip on their shoulders as players recognized as quite good, though not quite as good as the money Houston was willing to pay them. Advanced statistics have sung these three players’ praises for years (or year, in Lin’s case), whether it be Harden’s true shooting percentage, Lin’s near unmatched ability to get to and finish around the basket as the ball handler on pick-and-rolls, or Asik’s ability to tamp down an entire team’s offense around the rim; skeptics kept saying that more minutes would reveal these guys’ true characters, though. So far? They have. As Harden tries to acclimate to an incredibly high usage rate (currently at 30%, more than six points higher than he had previously had in even last year’s playoff campaign that routinely saw OKC’s late-game offense run through him), his numbers still spell stardom, from his PER of 21 to his still impressive .165 win shares per 48 minutes. Asik has made a team so plainly average on the defensive end of the ball the year prior fly up to the sixth-best efficiency in the league on that side of the court. While the Rockets have lacked for moments of ball-dominating Linsanity, the Harvard grad has even made his own mark in the backcourt with all of the minutes and ballhandling, posting his own .150 WS per 48. Though the returns have not been a clear extrapolation of these players’ games before their augmented roles in Houston, this accounts for six games of a new season. After a while of playing together, these players won’t just produce the numbers they did on their previous teams after adjusting for increases in minutes and usage; they’ll improve. Why? Because they’re young, and this is what great, young players do. They get better.
This is the real innovation of Morey’s bet on these guys, and why all of the Rockets fanbase’s search for the “next piece” may be a bit short-sighted: he’s not just collecting cap space to sign a player already confirmed to be good; he’s aiming for players we already think we know but have significantly more potential to mine. For years, these types of players were shown as examples of free agency gone wrong, money spent on players who looked like they might be stars but hadn’t really gotten the chance. Many a Jerome James, Austin Croshere and even Trevor Ariza got a contract thanks to that method of team building, but ever-advancing sabermetrics have made moves like those less likely for the league’s msarter teams (although Jeff Green’s deal this offseason sure stands out as an example of such misguided management). Instead, these teams can now do what they’d been angling for and saying they could all this time: building a team without anyone else’s superstars. For the future of the league and its incessant cries for parity, let’s all hope the Rockets’ gambles return on their investment.