In this post, I'm going to talk about the rockets team and player stats over the preseason and talk a little about the implications of what we saw in terms of lineups, defense, etc. The obvious caveat of 'it's just the preseason' applies here, but one thing that I noticed watching the games is that with the exception of maybe the San Antonio game, the Rockets players were pretty much playing to win all the time. The intensity wasn't playoff-level, but it certainly was better than what we might expect in the preseason. Thus, I think that it is reasonable to read into the stats with at least a little bit of confidence here.
First, let's talk about basic non-advanced player production per 36 minutes. Below is a table of all the players' per-36 minute numbers.
The first thing to point out is that this list is sorted by total points per game, not points per 36. Thus it is very encouraging to see that the players with the best points-per-36 minutes are also the players with the most points scored - this indicates that we don't have talent wasting on the bench; our best players are getting the playing time they deserve. The only exception to this is D-Mo (and perhaps a bit Franciso Garcia, but his shooting was so hot in the preseason that it's going to be hard for him to keep up that level of scoring), who I'll talk about later. Let's move on to major takeaways from the numbers and from watching the games:
1. James Harden is ready to play
Everything we saw in the preseason has been a continuation of the revelation of a season James had in 2012-2013. His shooting is spot-on, he almost never misses an uncontested 3, he's getting to the basket, passing, and rebounding as well as ever, and his defense is ... well ... he's got Dwight behind him now. He also looks to be attempting a less grueling style of play on the offensive end, which bodes well in the long term.
2. Dwight Howard will contribute wins right away, even before he is done meshing with the team
There are some issues on entry passes and turnovers under the basket, as well as a decrease in the fast break style that the Rockets played with last year, but the net effect of having Dwight on the court is undeniably positive. He looks healthy, the scoring and rebounding are there, and there's a lot of smiling going on. Not to mention defense, which brings me to the next point:
3. Omer Asik and Dwight Howard together is going to be just fine
Memphis put up 10 points in the first quarter against the Rockets starters. 10 points. And really the last 5 came at the last minute. They weren't playing very hard, to be sure, but Dwight and Omer defensively is everything it was cracked up to be. The spacing wasn't super against San Antonio, but against Memphis it looked great (not counting Omer's continued inability to catch a pass) and to be honest who needs offense when your offensive rebounding is that devastating? Not to mention, I never really realized that Dwight has an almost ideal frame for defending power forwards - he's very strong but actually not that big (for a center) and is incredibly fast, so defending someone like Z-Bo is a perfect matchup for him.
4. It looks like McHale is leaning towards Jeremy Lin off the bench
The best part about this is that there is almost no buzz on the topic, which means that the media might actually just let Jeremy play and not stress him out with constant criticism this year. He's been playing the 1 when he comes in to spell Patrick Beverly and the 2 when Bev comes back in to spell Harden, and in both roles he's been effective and efficient. This is a no-worry situation at this point, in my opinion.
5. Omri Cassipi is the first big man off the bench
The 3-man rotation at guard is mirrored by an identical 3-man rotation at PF/C where Cassipi comes in at the 4, Dwight slides over to the 5, then Omer comes in for Dwight at the 5 (rinse, repeat). Cassipi has been nothing short of outstanding compared to what the Rockets were expecting to get from him. Good rebounding, great scoring, seems to always be in the right place, and actually decent defense. He reminds me of a stretch 4 version of Chandler Parsons with less ball handling. If his season turns out to be even half as quality as his preseason, the Rockets will be looking at 3 of the most valuable contracts in the NBA in terms of production per cost (Parsons, Beverly, Cassipi).
6. The stable of PF's conundrum, or, D-Mo can really score against opposing team benches
Overall, it seems that both Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas have improved their games over the summer, but right now it looks like one of them will be relegated to garbage minutes and the other one will have to just sit and hope for a trade. Donatas has been putting lots of points very quickly against the opposing teams' second and third lines with the excellent post moves that we all know and love, and his rebounding is clearly better. However, he just doesn't have that ability to be in the right place at the right time like Cassipi and doesn't flourish unless he's the main scoring threat on the floor. Terrence has looked solid but similarly just doesn't seem to have the basketball IQ (or 3 point shooting) of Cassipi. Look for some kind of trade for one of these guys.
Conclusion: let's watch some regular season basketball
This team is ready to win a lot of games, and they clearly haven't even worked out the kinks of low post passing or the details of Asik and Howard on the court at the same time. We could see some really amazing stuff by the end of the year. Here's to an offseason that couldn't have gone better for the Rockets.