The State of The Rockets at the 5/8ths-Way Mark

Pool

Taking stock of the Houston Rockets post All Star break.

We have survived the dreary lull after the NBA All Star Game. Houston proved to be a fine host, and even trotted out some fantastic weather for the occasion. From the tweets I've read, everyone had a good time, and Houston can be proud. Perhaps people will complain less about Houston.

Still another day though, until the Rockets play again, and when they do the result might not be to our liking. The team takes on a very-probably-pissed-off OKC Thunder who were lambasted by the Heat on TNT last Thursday. What to do to fill the time until then? How about we take stock of the Rockets - where the team stands now, what the outlook is for the rest of the season. We can also talk trade deadline here

Where The Rockets Stand Now

In Brief - Well ahead of schedule.

Longer Answer - Well ahead of schedule. Very few expected the Rockets to be in playoff contention at the start of the season even after the James Harden trade. After all, the Rockets were the youngest, and easily the least experienced team in the NBA. It looked like a season of hard knocks, with the Rockets likely retaining their lottery pick, rather than it going to the Atlanta Hawks, as it will if they make the playoffs.

What we have seen instead is one of the fastest paced, highest scoring, and frankly, most fun, teams in the NBA. The Rockets defense is somewhat woeful, but their offense is stellar. (Anyone proposing trades to "fix" the offense, please reconsider.) The team is a living embodiment of modern basketball theory - scoring mostly at the rim or on 3pt shots. What advanced defensive philosophy the Rockets follow is currently unknown to me. Some of the defensive problems, however, are located in places other than half court defense, where Omer Asik covers a multitude of sins.

For example, the team has been extremely prone to turnovers, and while some of that is a product of pace, some isn't. Some of the turnovers I'd call "good" as they are a product of aggressiveness, again, some aren't. That said, the Rockets have reduced the number of simply boneheaded turnovers recently. This is a good sign that will make defensive numbers look much better if the trend continues. No one defends the fast break dunk off a turnover well.

The team has also worked to establish new players, and new starters at every position except SF, and at the same time discover bench combinations of some utility, with a bench similaraly composed of new players. None of this happens overnight, and especially not for a very young team without much practice time.

The upcoming schedule will offer more favorable treatment in regards to travel, and practice, than dismal, miserable January did. March in particular features a favorable mix of games, with a run of seven straight home games, with no back to backs. If the Rockets are going to keep their playoff spot, they'll cement it in March by reeling off a ton of wins.

Should The Rockets Make The Playoffs?

Assuming the Rockets CAN make the playoffs, SHOULD they make the playoffs? I say yes, for a number of reasons.

One, I think the experience of making the playoffs in their first year together is definitely positive for a very young team that is expected to compete henceforth. Remember, if they make the playoffs, they've earned it. That would mean the baby Rockets are good enough to be there, in the Western Conference. Its hard to see how holding the team back would help them grow. Playing in the second season sets expectations in the right place. If they drop out, they drop out, but that's nothing the higher ups should foist on them.

Two, the fanbase of Houston needs to see this progress. The Rockets spent 3 years stuck in honorable futility, waiting for the right player to appear, waiting for the big move to be made. The right player has appeared. The move had been made. We all want to believe the destiny of this new generation Rockets team is to succeed, and rapidly contend for a title. A strong playoff appearance will energize a torpid Toyota Center more than you might believe for the coming season. Rockets fans were ready to climb onboard after the last playoff run, unfortunately that run coincided with the end of Yao's career, and the excitement faded into the last three seasons. Making the playoffs with a fresh new team changes that.

Three, they might win a series. It's a faint hope, but its a real one, even against the cagey Spurs. It's a difficult ask, but if the Rockets can maintain their blistering pace, they have a punchers chance in any playoff series. The older the team they play, the better than chance is. SAS, in some ways, are a better draw than OKC or LAC. Those of you old enough can cast your minds back to GSW versus Dallas - Nellies Warriors played fast and loose and claimed the big playoff upset (and subsequently vanished).

Four, even if the Rockets keep their draft pick that is scheduled to be sent to Atlanta if they make the playoffs, it's likely to be #14 again, the one you get for not being quite good enough to hit the post-season. It means having no picks, but the Rockets are having trouble playing all their deserving young players anyway. Perhaps we can score a pick somehow at the deadline anyway as I simply enjoy watching the Rockets draft, if for no other reason.

Five, this is likely the worst Rockets team of the next five years, and playoff experience is important to building a team to make a deeper run. The sooner the Rockets do that, the better.

The State of The Team By Position

Let's look at the the team by position:

PG - Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley seem to be a better 1-2 punch than Lin and Toney Douglas, as I think Douglas, like Lin to a lesser degree, is more SG than PG. More words have been devoted this season to Lin than to any non-All Star Rocket player ever, I suspect. He stands amidst controversy, but is himself far from controversial. I'll say this, Lin is a work in progress, but he has several skills I'd rate near "excellent" - finishing at the rim, defense, rebounding.His passing on the break is excellent, but less so from the half court game. He's a hard worker, so I think his shot improves. Kyle Lowry went from a minus to a plus as a 3pt shooter on the Rockets, and I suspect Lin will as well. Just getting his foot off the three point line would raise JLin's TS% notably.

Beverley is once again the sort of PG gem the Rockets are aces at finding. He's quick, aggressive, and seems to know what he's doing. Honing his game in such glamourous spots as Ukraine and Russia appears to have turned a guy once thought of as a flawed and tantalizing enigma into a legitimate NBA PG.

SG - I think we are all moderately happy with James Harden. I suppose if I have any complaints, its that he seems to lack effort of the defensive end. I think that he's capable of at least average defense, and that we'll see it more and more. He's being asked to do a lot, as a young player, and his defense is suffering from that somewhat. He is a good rebounder, and plays the passing lanes well, so he doesn't have to add a lot to become a positive defender.

Now we come to the back up SG. I guess that's James Anderson, who has looked pretty good in limited minutes, given more minutes, he could score more. Carlos Delfino backs up Harden most of the time, but I really think he's more of a SF (albeit one who has trouble guarding certain SF). Delfino has surprised me, after he started very slowly. The main problem with Delfino is that he's almost random in effect. If the three pointer is dropping, there aren't many more devastating bench scorers, if not, he doesn't really have a Plan B. I've said it before though, if Delfino made the 3pter consistently, we couldn't afford him. It would be nice if one of the SG backups played great D, but neither does.

You might add "defensive backup SG/SF" to your wish list.

Then there's Toney Douglas. I think he's a tremendously useful player when the team is either notably ahead or behind. His streaky scoring and over-agressive play can bury an opponent or bring the team back. It can also do the opposite, so those extreme situations are the right place to deploy TD, where damage is minimal. Right now, that's the best use for him in my mind. A flawed, but useful, player.

SF - Chandler Parsons does a bit of everything, and he's possibly got the most team-friendly contract in the NBA. There's not too much to complain about with his game. In other places I've offered a guessing game with his stats and Andre Iguodala's and they're basically identical. If Parsons keeps up his recent run of good play he'll actually pull ahead in that comparison. One problem is that Parsons plays an absolute ton of minutes, and there's no capable defender behind him on the bench. Delfino sometimes runs at SF, but he can't cover the bigger SFs,and if he's heaving and missing threes, he needs to come out. This leaves Parsons out for a long burn in most games. The minutes caught up to the Rockets and Parsons in their brutal January stretch. The Rockets could use a defensive ace swingman in the Tony Allen/Courtney Lee mold.

PF - Currently the sore subject on the Rockets roster and on the blog. (I'll refrain from JSmooving.) I've thought that lately it appears that Patrick Patterson is playing like the guy I was quite high on after his rookie season. He's aggressive, he's pulling down a few key boards, the mid range jumper is automatic once again, and he's run the floor for some spectacular dunks. If THAT Patrick Patterson keeps playing, the Rockets don't really have a PF problem. This new Patterson appeared after some players-only meetings, and I must say, it's nice to see him.

Marcus Morris is kind of a bigger Carlos Delfino, when his shooting and one-on-one game is working, it's beautiful. If it's not, it's awful, and there isn't much middle ground. Also like Delfino, he's a real tweener, more PF than SF. That's not deadly for a bench player, but its tough in a platoon.

Much has been made of the defense and non-rebounding of the PFs. I agree it is a problem, but not quite as big as one might think, the rebounding anyway. One, the PFs aren't going to get offensive boards when stationed at the 3pt line. Two, the Rockets get a lot of rebounding from every position - Lin, Harden and Parsons are all good for their position, and Asik is a rebounding beast. If you're an average or below rebounding PF, you'll look worse in that company. That said, we still need more rebounding and D from the position on many nights. (I still miss you, Chuck Hayes.)

There are also two rookie PFs who have gotten about 40 minutes between them all season in Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones. I honestly think we utterly lack evidence about the likely future and performance of either one. It may be that Jones is simply an erratic player, and when he's on, he's unstoppable and when he's off, he's a dud. It may be that Motiejunas isn't powerful enough to rebound at PF in the NBA. I think we really have no idea based on actual NBA gameplay.

I'm will to concede either of those things about the two rookie PFs is true, but not until I see it. Anything else, positive or negative, is just speculation. I will say this - if Motiejunas CAN defend and rebound his position, he's a tremendous asset at PF with his inside/outside game, legit 7ft height, and speed. If Jones CAN deploy his immense arsenal of talents consistently, his ceiling is as an All Star. Those are two interesting lottery tickets to hold, and I hope they don't move at the deadline.

C - There's Omer Asik and then there's, well, not a lot. Asik has been a revelation. Anyone who thought he could not play the minutes can now be quiet. (And realize that virtually no modern center averages 40 minutes for a season anyway.) We've seen him play starters minutes. The defense and rebounding translated as hoped. The scoring is a nice surprise. Asik may not ever be a gifted offensive player, but if ignored, the Big Turk can now make opponents pay. The acquisition of Omer Asik looks like a steal.

Greg Smith has shown flashes of brilliance and flashes of foul-happy incompetence. Cole Aldrich sets a mean pick, and offers six fouls. And that's the center position.

There you are Rockets fans, my take on the State of The Rockets. What say you?

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