By: michael pina
(Writer's Note: There was no Player Power Rankings last week because of a hectic Thanksgiving travel schedule. This edition will cover the four games Houston played between November 29 - December 5. Enjoy!)
Every Friday all season long I’ll be ranking every active player (who sees the floor) on the Houston Rockets based on his performance from the previous week. If you missed it two weeks ago, here you go.
11) Ronnie Brewer (Last week: 12)
Brewer was signed to make life marginally less comfortable for the likes of Kevin Durant, Paul George, and LeBron James at some point down the line. Maybe he'll be valuable for two or three quarters in a playoff series. For this week, however, he played just 18 minutes.
10) Donatas Motiejunas (Last week: 8)
With Omer Asik out for Houston's loss against the Phoenix Suns, Donatas Motiejunas stepped in as the backup center. He saw the floor for about four minutes in the second quarter, but didn't return after Kevin McHale decided going small was a better plan of attack. Motiejunas was the only Rocket who didn't score in that game but I wish he played more. He has fantastic energy to go along with actual agility in the post. That shoulder shimmy he makes with his back to the basket is strong enough to fake me off my couch.
9) Francisco Garcia (Last week: 9)
Inserted into the starting lineup against the Utah Jazz and Phoenix while Chandler Parsons nursed his bad back, Francisco Garcia was somewhere between a train wreck and meh.
The numbers say he did a suitable job, scoring 21 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, and making 36% of his threes over the past two games. But Houston didn't sync with him alongside the other four regular starters. This isn’t Garcia’s fault. He’s here to spot up and knock down shots, which he can still do.
But beside the starters he pressed, playing out of his element as a poor man’s Parsons instead of a content man’s Garcia. Houston’s offense died in those units, scoring 89.1 points per 100 possessions in two games where one of the opponents plays defense like a screen door holds its ground against a tornado.
Garcia's struggles in the Suns game were more understandable, as Jeff Hornacek’s defensive game plan was to swarm the three-point line and force Garcia, Patrick Beverley, and Aaron Brooks to penetrate past pressure defense (a smart strategy with Jeremy Lin and Parsons out).
Garcia’s fine, but it would’ve been nice to see Omri Casspi and Brooks eat more of his playing time. Those three all averaged about 25 minutes this week, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
8) Patrick Beverley (Last week: 7)
The Rockets held opponents to an impotent 97.6 points per 100 possessions with Beverley on the court this week, the lowest figure for any player on the team. He averaged 35.3 minutes per game, too. So, yeah, his impact was substantial.
Offensively I want to quickly point out a nice little play Beverley seems to run at least once per game with Dwight Howard.
The play begins with Beverley entering the ball to Howard in the post, then immediately rushing over to screen his man.
Howard takes the screen and begins his move towards the paint, with Beverley getting in Derrick Favors' way and creating a mess. On this particular sequence, Terrence Jones cuts through the paint as Howard begins his move, flubbing up Houston's spacing. Luckily, Beverley does what he's supposed to do and pops out on the baseline.
Howard hits Beverley with a pass (while moving, which is impressive for him) and the Rockets are forced to attempt a rare mid-range jumper. It goes in.
7) Terrence Jones (Last week: 4)
We just saw Jones make a mistake in the play above, but those will come. He's so young. On defense is where he's shown a higher ceiling (in my opinion); his ability to switch on screens is incredibly helpful. He stayed with Tony Parker a few times, holding him off near the elbow and forcing some missed jumpers. Likewise with Goran Dragic, who had a three-point attempt blocked by Jones then taken the other way for a layup.
But he's still susceptible in the post, and the Phoenix Suns wasted no time attacking him there with Channing Frye (who’s only scored 29.1% of his points in the paint this season, according to NBA.com/Stats). The Spurs did the same thing with Boris Diaw.
Here's a quick look at one play against the Jazz where Jones correctly used his size and speed to divert Gordon Hayward's attention as Houston attacked in transition.
Francisco Garcia is open on the right wing because Jones hustles towards the paint. Great play on his part.
6) Omer Asik (Last week: 10)
Before hurting his thigh, an injury that should sideline him about a week, Asik was finally finding a groove on both ends of the floor. Kevin McHale began playing him as the big guy in otherwise tiny lineups featuring two point guards (Patrick Beverley and Aaron Brooks) and two wings (Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia).
That specific unit only logged 13 minutes last week, but it absolutely murdered everyone in its path, outscoring opponents by 38.7 points every 100 possessions. They played the best half-court basketball Houston’s had in a while (not including James Harden/Dwight Howard pick-and-rolls).
With Asik setting screens and crushing all sorts of bones on the perimeter to free up shooters behind the three-point line, they were awesome. The game finally seemed simple to him this week, and there were moments against Utah and San Antonio where he looked as comfortable on offense as he was last season (or, at least as comfortable as he’ll ever be).
He averaged 2.3 drawn fouls in 17.3 minutes per game. Only Harden and Howard were better.
5) Chandler Parsons (Last week: 1)
Yesterday I wrote about Parsons’ incredible play, and why he’s a borderline All-Star, so I won’t belabor too much here. Before going down with a hurt back, Parsons made all six of his three-point attempts during Friday night’s beat down of the hopeless Brooklyn Nets.
He makes the game easy for his teammates, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the offense suffer when he doesn’t play.
The asterisk that applies to just about every player on this team, though, is how forgetful they are on the defensive end. Here’s a play in San Antonio where Parsons over helps on a drive by Manu Ginobili, leaving his man (Marco Belinelli) wide open for three.
See Parsons? He's hiding behind Tiago Splitter, still in the paint as Belinelli gets ready to fire away.
4) Dwight Howard (Last week: 2)
There’s a lot to say about Howard, so I’ll try to keep it short. I thought his top to bottom defensive performance against the Suns was the best we’ve seen from him all season. He stifled pick-and-rolls, deterred Eric Bledsoe from attacking the rim, and made Miles Plumlee think about changing his underwear during halftime. That’s the good news.
The bad news is, well, on the whole we’re still waiting for a consistent post game. If he stays on this path, defenses around the league WILL NOT double him in the playoffs. It just won't happen. Does Houston have a backup plan?
Yes! At least, they should. Almost every single time Howard hooks up with James Harden on a high pick-and-roll the result is either a dunk or high percentage look for Harden. ALMOST EVERY SINGLE TIME.
It’s maddening that Houston doesn’t go to this more often, knowing it’s one of the most unstoppable actions in the league. I’m not suggesting they eliminate his post touches altogether, but let’s be serious, it’s time to cut them down.
3) James Harden (Last week: 3)
Few people enjoy watching James Harden play basketball more than myself. His game is unpredictable, risky, and gorgeously executed. This is certainly far from breaking news or even a mildly shocking observation, but as I re-watched the Spurs game from last Saturday night, I kept subconsciously writing in my notes that James Harden was “The Best Flopper in Basketball." (“TBFIB” for short hand.)
That phrase is scribbled all over my notebook.
Is it true? Of course it is. All superstars flop; the way Harden does it is so successful. He makes rushing the rim look so easy, which makes stopping it look possible. Nope, not even close.
Harden was also “fouled” in the act of shooting a three-pointer (at least) twice this week. It could be argued that both plays were egregious flops, though there was technically some contact. I don’t really have a point here, because if you watch this team play you already know Harden flops a ton.
But that isn’t why he’s a special player, and he could still takeover games without it. (Like he did in San Antonio, scoring 16 fourth quarter points and thriving as the game’s only player who didn’t rest in that frame.)
Defensively we’ve yet to see any real improvement away from the ball, to the point where McHale took Harden off Gordon Hayward in the second half, replacing him with Patrick Beverley.
In between jacking up 10 threes and missing them all against Phoenix (that’s, um, not not hard to do), Harden left P.J. Tucker and Bledsoe open countless times. They combined for 38 points on 55.5% shooting.
It’s almost to the point where you picture all the league’s shooting guards huddled in a small, dark room. A flickering candle rests in the corner, illuminating a calendar with several days circled in red. They're literally counting down the days until Harden guards them again.
2) Omri Casspi (Last week: 6)
On a scale of 1-10, how surprised are you when Omri Casspi misses a shot? Personally, I'm at a solid 14. This week he was 55.3% from the field, and 53.8% on threes. He’s obviously so much more important than that though, and has been all season long.
Casspi can now be seen breaking a defense down off the dribble before tossing a perfect lob to Howard. He’s like Houston’s life raft. Whenever he enters a game they instantly perform better on both ends of the court. He remains this team's most consistent player.
1) Aaron Brooks (Last week: 11)
So much can happen when you take a few days off to travel home for Thanksgiving. And by “so much,” I of course mean “Aaron Brooks builds a time machine in his basement.”
I’ve poked fun at Brooks in this space for much of the season. He hasn’t played much, and when he does the results have been unspectacular. But wow, this recent turnaround has been something else. Consider his placement atop this ranking as a public apology.
Forget about the numbers, Brooks is playing with relentless aggression. He’s looking for his own shot, getting into the paint, drawing fouls, and finishing tricky layups. He’s pulling up off the dribble early in the shot clock from behind the three-point line with three minutes left in a tight game…and it’s completely rational.
Not sure what Brooks' emergence means for Houston long-term (meaning the rest of this season), or if he will even stay in the rotation when Lin comes back from his knee injury. But we'll figure that out later. For now, Brooks deserves credit for somehow playing like it’s 2010.
Michael Pina is a contributor at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth, and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.