This important Western Conference preview got bumped off the cover by the national preview of the Blazers yesterday. Chris has been doing great work on these previews, so for your Friday post here's his look at the Houston Rockets. All Chris' team previews can be found right here.
2012-2013 record: 45-37, No. 3 in Southwest Division, No. 8 in Western Conference
Roster additions: Ronnie Brewer, Isaiah Canaan (Rookie, No. 34 overall), Marcus Camby, Omri Casspi, Reggie Williams
Roster subtractions: James Anderson, Carlos Delfino, Tim Ohlbrecht, Thomas Robinson
Houston GM Daryl Morey deserves a round of applause from Rockets fans for not only convincing superstar center Dwight Howard to come to town, but also for maintaining a solid base of talent around him. Even though Morey has hit it out of the park the last few summers - first acquiring shooting guard James Harden from the Thunder in the summer of 2012 and signing Howard this past offseason - there are still a few unanswered questions remaining for the team.
Howard wants to be featured on offense, but so far in his career hasn't shown much willingness to adapt to a coach's scheme that isn't built around him. The Rockets were clearly Harden's team last year, and he was top-15 in the league in both minutes played and usage rate (a stat that shows the percentage of offensive possessions used by a player while he's on the floor, via hoopdata.com).
Harden is not considered a selfish player, averaging 5.8 assists a game last season, but he likes to have the ball in his hands and often initiates the offense. Last year, the Rockets had one of the highest-scoring, fastest teams in the NBA, while Howard has always loved operating in the post. If Howard has difficulty assimilating with Harden, this offense could stall at times as both players try to figure out how best to work with each other.
Also, keep in mind that Howard is not that far removed from back surgery, and it showed last season with the Lakers. He says he is now fully healthy and ready to go, and some Rockets fans think he'll help propel the team deep into the playoffs now that he's had a year to get back into game shape.
The status of center Omer Asik is the elephant in the room. He earned himself a $25 million, three-year deal with the Rockets last offseason and started all 82 games in 2013, averaging over 10 points a game to go with 11.7 rebounds. Now all of a sudden, Asik finds himself on the bench backing up Howard, who has played 36.1 minutes a game in his nine-year career. Realizing that $8.3 million for a backup center is a bit overpriced, coach Kevin McHale has stated that he wants to experiment with both Asik and Howard in the same lineup together. It remains to be seen how the two would play off each other down low, but Howard has not played well in the past while on the court with another center.
Jeremy Lin started at point guard last year and had a decent season, scoring 13.4 points a game to go with 6.1 assists, but he shot only 33.9 percent from outside. Patrick Beverley, the second-year point guard who infamously helped cause Russell Westbrook's knee injury in the 2013 playoffs, plays aggressive defense and shot three-pointers at a 37.5 clip last season. If Lin struggles, Beverley will be prepared to play more minutes and take over the starting position if necessary.
The other main position battle for the Rockets this preseason will be at starting power forward, assuming it's not Asik or Howard. Two second-year guys, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, will duke it out to see who starts. In one preseason game so far, both players got about the same amount of minutes, points and rebounds. The starting position will most likely go to the the player who is most able to play off of Howard in the front court and as of now, it's unclear if it will be Motiejunas or Jones.
Chandler Parsons, the incumbent starting small forward, really came on strong last season. He filled out the stat sheet, played hard defense and nailed 38.5 percent of his three-pointers. He is a solid role player who took a huge leap from year-one to year-two, and could see his role on offense expand this year again as there should be plenty of looks from outside available as defenses collapse on Harden and Howard. Parson's backup, Omri Casspi, is a career 35.3 percent shooter from downtown and should also help space the floor.
Ronnie Brewer, an effective wing defender, was brought in this summer by Morey along with 39-year-old center Marcus Camby. They round out the bench with point guard Aaron Brooks, who looks to reignite his career after following his 19.1 points per game in 2010 with a few sub-par seasons. If he can hit threes at his career rate of 36.4 percent, he should be able to find some minutes. The same goes for Francisco Garcia, a backup two-guard who hit 38.6 percent of his threes last year.
Houston ranged from decent to terrible on defense last year, something they can change with Howard now in the middle. Beverley will get more consistent minutes at the point and should contribute to an improved perimeter defense that will get strong play from Parsons and Brewer, as well. Expect Houston to vastly improve on the 102.7 points per game they gave up last season, good for second-worst in the league. With the talent the Rockets now have, they may vault into the top-half of NBA defenses this year.
Houston may have had two of the best back-to-back summers in recent memory, but they are still competing for a top-spot in a loaded conference. If the chemistry between their two superstars exists right off the bat, this team will be a tough out against any opponent. But if they fail to mesh right away, they may struggle. Asik's status with the team could also provide a distraction throughout the year if he and Howard can't effectively play together. Either way, though, the Rockets still have two of the premiere talents in the NBA and should be entertaining to watch as they try to climb their way back to the top of the Western Conference.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter