This will be year number five of Red94 and I am excited to say that it will be the first where basketball is front and center. What do I mean? Well, in the past, what happened off the court was more critical to the team’s future. Number of wins wasn’t the barometer of success (unless the output resulted in a top draft pick). Success was defined by whether steps were taken to acquire a franchise player. Was cap room created? Did the trade value of young players increase? With the arrival of Dwight Howard and James Harden, that line of evaluation goes out the window. Some personnel moves will still need to be made, sure, but above all else, what happens on the court is what matters most. And that’s refreshing because that’s what this is supposed to be about.
So without further ado, let’s jump right in. What should you expect from the Rockets this year? Superficially, I’d say that at the least, an appearance in the semi-finals. I think that if the team fails to advance to the Finals, many fans and media will be inclined to deem their season a failure. That shouldn’t be the case. It’s hard to win in the NBA and even the great teams must go through growing pains. Despite the hype and excitement, that reality applies here too.
Rather than number of wins or even stage of advancement, I’d say that the relevant rubric for the 2013-2014 Houston Rockets is identity. They need to come out of this year knowing who they are. Take the Miami Heat, for example. In year 1, sure they made the Finals, but I’d argue that the big achievement made that year was that they established a clear team hierarchy, something critics said would be impossible. Dwyane Wade willingly took a backseat, Lebron took the steering wheel, and Chris Bosh climbed into the trunk. The rest is history. Similarly, for the Rockets, rather than reaching some arbitrary win threshold, the real matter will be figuring out who they are. We groan over the “Whose team is it?” cliche, but I think that’s a relevant question, especially in an age where so many loaded young teams break up due to ego and the power struggle. They’ve said all the right things so far, but for this to work, Dwight Howard and James Harden need to demonstrate an understanding on the basketball court. What happens after the first time Harden waves off Howard in the post in an end-of-game situation? This year needs to be spent deciphering the perfect mix to keeping Howard happy (with some opportunities in the post) and keeping him moving in the pick&roll (next to Harden) when it matters most.
The other questions facing the team could take longer to answer just simply because they involve external factors. Is the power forward for the long haul already on the roster or is it someone else that needs to be acquired? That could take time to determine. Similarly, is Jeremy Lin the man to run this operation or is there a better fit out there somewhere else? At the ‘4’, I’ve argued passionately that finding a way to pair Omer Asik with Howard should be the team’s top priority. There are indications that, at least at camp, that will be given a shot. But ultimately, I do think the team will deal off Asik by the end of the year. Even if they can make it work for stretches, with Omer up for free agency in 2015, it’s difficult envisioning a scenario where the big man would return to Houston to play out of position/as a backup, especially considering what his market value will likely stand to be. Trading Asik this season would likely yield the highest return given that it’s unlikely a team would give up much of value for a potential one-year rental. Asik’s real dollar salary also jumps to roughly $15million in year 3, up from $5million, currently. (In example, a team trading for Asik this season would be getting an understood value of 2 years at $10million for each season, in real dollars. If trading for him next year, that becomes a lump sum allocation of $15million for just one season. Note that these figures are distinct from Asik’s $8million cap figure, which is spread out evenly among each of the three years on his contract.)
Interestingly, while power forward remains the biggest personnel question heading into the season, to me personally, the position contains the most intriguing battle heading into camp. I won’t recount Terrence Jones’ and Donatas Motiejunas’ physical gifts yet again here because you’re well familiar. But while the odds are pitted against either player ever becoming Howard’s long-term frontcourt partner–the likelihood of any particular mid-round draft pick ever becoming a solid starter are low to begin with–it’s quite difficult to resist imagining the possibilities. I picture Jones using his ungodly athleticism to completely lock down the paint (with Howard) and help Houston dominate the glass…but then I remember that he has little range and often looks rather unsure of himself when attacking the basket. I picture Motiejunas spacing the floor for Howard or posting up quickly on the weakside (something he did regularly last year which was seldom noticed) and making teams pay for overcommitting…but then I remember former Rocket Pete Chilcutt could probably work him over on the other end. Power forward is a sore spot for long-time Rockets fans and for good reason: Hakeem wasted away his athletic prime until Otis Thorpe was acquired; Dawson never did find a partner for Yao Ming and had he, it might have made all the difference.
Coaching will be given heightened scrutiny due to the expectations surrounding the team. Last year, with the team a young upstart novelty act, blunders such as late game and out-of-timeout performance and the handling of Jeremy Lin were overlooked. This year, with national attention, those sins will not be so easily forgiven. I’ve written at length on these pages on the handcuffing of the team’s second most potent piece; the futility of Harden’s crunchtime decision making was a spectacle plain as day for all to see. Neither circumstance can be tolerated again, not with championships on the line. Of the latter, there is hope. Last season, when Harden would go rogue, abandoning the playbook in favor of contested stepback jumpers, the logical attribution was a mistrust in Asik: if Omer was a threat to fumble the ball, Harden probably felt it safer to just take things into his own hands. With the surer-handed Howard, that won’t be the case, and if it is, there will be bigger problems (see paragraph 3, above).
McHale proved resoundingly this summer, through his role in the Dwight pursuit, that he was the right choice for the job. While perhaps not the most skilled with a clipboard, he is a natural leader of men, towering with pedigree. And to that end, Morey followed the modern paradigm, hiring a ‘symbol’ or figurehead with the more tactical duties assigned to the remainder of the staff. But regardless of who bears the actual responsibility, the microscope will be tightened this year upon mistakes. With just maybe a three year window (more on this later) Morey’s patience no doubt will be thin. (After all, he fired some of the best in the business in Van Gundy and Adelman, after good seasons with nowhere near the expectations.) It often takes many young teams a coaching change to reach the next level (see: Shaq, Kobe Lakers). But I hope McHale is the man. Not just because he’s a likable fellow but because I’m not entirely sure Dwight Howard would be here were it not for him.
As for Lin, that other example of mismanagement I previously noted, in an earlier preview with Rockets.com, I stated:
I’d really like to see him play a greater role in the offense (USG% of 20.8), especially given that James Harden (USG% of 29.0) seemed to wear down at the finish line. Each player fared better statistically while the other was not on the court, so perhaps staggering their minutes a bit more might be the answer.
But it goes beyond that because I almost felt that Lin outright wasn’t even given a chance, something quite peculiar given the player’s abilities. A repeat of last year’s handling of Lin would be an unacceptable result. He must be allowed to sink or swim. For all that has been made of Morey’s fondness for “attacking point guards”, if on the roster, they must be allowed to attack.
Put it in the bank: As the adage goes, there are only two certainties in life. This applies to your team as well, dear reader, as there are really only two items you can put in the bank. First, I’d be shocked if the Rockets led the league in pace yet again as they did last season. Being at a disadvantage from a talent standpoint, they had to run to offset the odds. That won’t be the case this year when they’ll slow things down from time to time to give Dwight his reps in the post. (Howard’s Magic finished 18th and 12th respectively in pace during the two best seasons of their marriage.) The other item regarding which you can feel fairly certain is James Harden’s efficiency. The Beard’s TS% dipped down to .600 last season, down from a historic .660 the year before. Much of this can be attributed to his greatly increased workload (he shot a sparkling 49% overall, 39% from 3, in 2012). Having Howard will help in that department.
Useless predictions: I am loath to do this, but this is what the people love. So what the hell, I’ll say they finish 57-25 this year, good for third in the West. They’ll go down in seven in the Western Conference Finals to the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder after disposing of the Clippers in the previous round. In the semis, the story will be the absolute dominance of Dwight Howard and Omer Asik on the glass and in the paint, rendering Blake Griffin completely useless and prompting the Clips to field trade offers the ensuing summer. (Alternate ending, *the absolute dominance of Dwight Howard with Ryan Anderson pumping in like four 3’s a game. See what I did there?) In the Conference Finals, Howard holds his own, but the story is Harden who averages 30 points per game in an epic duel with Durant. In the waning moments of Game 7, Howard blocks a Durant layup attempt, but the loose ball is tipped out to second-year guard Jeremy Lamb who calmly sinks the game winner. Sam Presti smiles. Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley sign on for a reality show.
Even more useless predictions: You, reader, know that per-game numbers really mean nothing. This of course is because they do not account for pace, efficiency, and other relevantly critical factors. You also know, sadly, that per-game averages are what make the world go, from All-Star selections, to MVP voting, to those memes my friends keep sharing on their Facebook timeline that make me want to tear my hair out. (You know the ones. Where it will have two players, say Jordan and Lebron, and will juxtapose their scoring averages and something else similarly useless, say All-Star selections, underscored by a caption like “Now you decide whose better.”) So I’ll humor you here:
- I think Harden will actually remain steady at around 25ppg. While the team’s pace and his overall shot attempts should go down, his increased efficiency should offset those variables. With Bryant injured and the expected rise in the standings, he’ll also finish 1st team All-NBA.
- Dwight Howard will average 18 and 12. Last season, he averaged 17.1 and 12.4, down from his best season in 2011 when he averaged 22.9 and 14.1. These numbers may not look like much, but according to RAPM–probably the most dependable metric we have at our disposal–Howard has basically been the second best player of his generation.
Closing thoughts: How big is this team’s window? Not as big as one would originally assume. The supporting cast is young, but the most important piece, Howard, is a very old 27, having come into the league straight from high school and reliant upon his athleticism. I have characterized this season as a learning process but make no mistake, the pressure is on. This particular group perhaps has only three or four years to contend, until there is slippage.