The Houston Rockets have had a very, very good summer. The young nucleus of James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and Ömer Aşık is another year older and more experienced. Some nice, solid signings filled out a bench that was less about skill and more about potential last season. Oh, and a center named Dwight Howard chose to sign with Houston. The Rockets look poised to make some major waves this season, but there’s always the chance it won’t pan out. What’s the worst that could happen this year?
Later this week we’ll look at what the best case scenario might be, but it’s always best to look at the bad news first. And the bad news might not be so bad, anyway. After all, what really is the worst that could happen? Well, that depends on some ground rules. Obviously some sort of worldwide apocalypse would be worse for the team than a poor season, but that’s not what we’re looking for. So we’re not looking for anything affecting basketball from the outside world, like car accidents, floods, meteors, assassinations, etc. This is purely about what the Rockets might reasonably do that could hinder their season, and what that season could look like.
So, what could the Rockets do that would harm their season? There’s a pretty big elephant in the room, and it’s hanging all over Dwight Howard. There are myriad reasons for circumspection about his performance this season. The first and most convincing reason is his play from last year. He posted his worst numbers since 2006, whether you measure by game or per 36 minutes. His scoring, rebounding and turnovers were all worse than his previous six seasons, something which is troubling for a player in his prime. Circumstances may have been extenuating in Los Angeles, but that does little to console the cynic. His back and shoulder injuries obviously bothered him, but those don’t instantly disappear upon moving to Houston. There’s good reason to believe he’ll be healthier, but nobody’s sure when or if Dwight will hit one hundred percent health again. If the issue was lack of motivation, one might hope that a change in scenery can change his demeanor. In that case, the very realistic worry is that a player who lacks motivation in one scenario is likely to lack it in others as well. Howard’s alleged dissatisfaction last year was hardly an isolated season.
If Dwight is disappointing, there’s the possibility for his backup, Ömer Aşık, to be an active detriment. Aşık reportedly asked for a trade nearly immediately after Dwight Howard announced his intention to move to Houston. While the trade rumors seem to have largely cooled off, we have yet to hear, much less see, Ömer Aşik show enthusiasm to play off the bench or alongside Howard. A few noncommittal comments to Turkish media aside, the center from Asia Minor has the potential to derail a large part of general manager Daryl Morey’s plan. Aşık has shown himself to be a hard worker, and is unlikely to consciously give less than his full effort. The worry is that he might do it unconsciously. A bad work situation and mental situation is liable to affect anyone’s mood, and if Aşık is openly disgruntled, it’ll show in his play whether he means it to or not. The rug was pulled out from under him quite badly, and he could force his way out by the trade deadline.
In fact, the sooner Aşık is traded, the better. Morey rarely moves on anything than what he feels is the best possible deal. In that case, a trade well before the February 20th trade deadline would have to be very favorable for Houston. A trade at the deadline, however, might very well be a resignation to bringing back a poor haul for a player destroying his own trade value. The chemistry which worked so well last season would already have been degraded by that point, with a roster shakeup doing little to help. If both centers have poor years, it could prove to be a waking nightmare for Daryl Morey.
Unfortunately, the wings are not by any means guaranteed to make Morey’s life easier. After a lack of a sophomore slump, Chandler Parsons picked up a fair degree of buzz around the league, and has even begun to enter conversations about top ten small forwards and future all-star potential. There may be some pie in that sky, but it’s much more likely that there’s just more of last season. Most of these discussions hinge around the idea that Parsons is still improving, and if he does so at the rate he improved in his first two years, the sky’s the limit. The problem is that there’s no reason to believe that. He played four years in college, a distinction that actually hurts his chances of improvement. Older rookies and sophomores are often closer to the player they’ll be long term, and are if nothing else a bit older, with less upside left. He was also more convincing on defense in his rookie year in the NBA, which implies that a big difference was a change in where he focused his effort. His breakdown and reconstruction of his shot did improve his game, however, and has shown himself to be a hard worker. Parsons may not improve much more, despite the hype he’s accrued this year, but that’s just fine.
The bigger concern is James Harden. While Harden is clearly at or near the top of the list at his position, there are reasons for concern. One common worry for teams with two superstars is that of primacy. Harden and Howard both wanted to play alongside one another, but will they keep wanting to once the reality sets in? This line of thinking continues to have traction, though in practice it seems to seldom cause much friction. The more valid concern is not if they want to play together, but rather how they play together. Howard has made some noises about being pleased to play in a pick and roll offense, but made many more noises to the contrary last year. Harden is a scorer, plain and simple, and if Howard is unwilling or unable to facilitate that the majority of the time, some real problems will crop up. Having Harden or the point guard pass the ball into the post can be a rest for the ball handlers when used correctly, or a waste of talent when used too much. Houston has excellent pick and roll ball handlers, and not going to that threat often would be a fast way for their offense to stagnate. The Rockets also need to keep Harden out of the habit of jacking up threes and into the habit of using a solid pick to find a shot, something which was a concern last year as well. His attempted daggers are amazing when they hit, but trying to create for himself by himself has hurt Harden and his team too many times.
The last major concern for the starters is the point guard situation, which might get significantly worse. Jeremy Lin is a solid point guard, but there’s a very real chance he doesn’t noticeably improve. His three point field goal percentage nudged up as the year progressed, but that is only one of the factors he needs to address. His off-hand dribbling is a place he seems to be (justifiably) putting in effort, and it’s good to see he knows his strengths and weaknesses. There’s also a concern for his health (and to be fair that of James Harden as well, for similar reasons) due to his frequency of trips to the basket and his previous injury history. Dwyane Wade has been criticized for the cumulative injury cause by years of crashing into players and hardwood under the basket, and Lin may be looking at a similar future.
Jeremy Lin might also be looking at the bench. There are some convincing reasons why Ömer Aşık and Jeremy Lin might make an amazing bench tandem. Lin has also spoken about being benched at the end of games, meaning either head coach Kevin McHale doesn’t fully trust Lin, or Jeremy feels that McHale doesn’t trust him. Neither scenario says anything good about Lin’s confidence or comfort level. Experiments with benching Lin in favor of Patrick Beverley might sour team chemistry, something which is a recurring concern.
So, what if McHale can’t figure out how to manage egos and rotations? What if this year’s sophomores don’t pan out at all? What if Ömer Aşık forces a poor trade and Dwight Howard is hurting? What if Harden and Lin miss dozens of games each with nagging injuries caused by constant contact? All this leads to a team that might spend games with Parsons as the best player on the floor, and inconsistent veterans coming off the bench as major questions marks when the team needs answers. The Rockets are a playoff lock at this point, but the issues could pull them down to the 8th seed once again if everything goes wrong. A sub-50 win record and a first round exit would be the most likely scenario. For a team that just raised the bar so high, that would be an abject failure as a season. The bad news is that’s how far they could fall. The good news is that soon we’ll examine just how high they could soar.