Well, TDS, it's been a while and I wanted to assure you that I'm not dead. The NBA season was but we're coming up on that magical time of year for basketball fans when we start to emerge from our post-summer league stupor and get to see storylines shape up again. This comes at an appropriate time for the Houston Rockets in particular because the bandwagon that is the Houston Texans seems to have devolved into a lynch mob aimed at Matt Schaub and the seven plagues of Gary Kubiak.
What better way to welcome basketball back into our lives than to take a quick peek at what will assuredly be the battles to watch heading into camp. Now, I'm certain other writers will go over specific battles and give them the attention it deserves. For now, come with me as we head into a quick run-down of what to keep an eye on as the preseason unfolds.
Let's start our look at the Rockets pre-season agenda with the players who are undoubtedly making the team. These players will have their spots based on one of two key factors; guaranteed contracts and guaranteed production. For posterity we'll shape the roster out this way then look at what's left. The following players have nothing to worry about:
James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Dwight Howard, Omer Asik, Patrick Beverley, Francisco Garcia, Isaiah Canaan, Ronnie Brewer, Marcus Camby, Greg Smith, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas.
I want you to go back on that list and just reflect on it. 13 roster spots are considered a lock. The Rockets may delegate three players to IR or Rio Grande Valley and carry 12 players on the active roster. Isaiah Canaan is assuredly a D-League delegation and that leads us with two players to place in the mix for injury concerns and fringe minutes. There are three point guards (Lin, Beverley, Canaan), two (or three depending on your appraisal) shooting guards (Harden, Brewer, arguably Garcia), three small forwards (Parsons, Garcia, Brewer), three power-forwards (Smith, Jones, Motiejunas), and three centers (Howard, Asik, Camby).
The Rockets have to use their pre-season and training camp to figure out where they feel their roster needs support. Houston has 19 players heading into the preseason. Two spots remain (Notwithstanding my being wrong on a lock which means it's a crappy lock that you bought at the Dollar General and I acquit myself of all blame) for the remaining 6 players. Let's take a look at the remaining players and then weigh the same factors the front office has to confront.
The remaining six players range from seasoned veterans and journeymen to fresh-faced players hoping to stick to a roster. Among the selection of players the Rockets will have to evaluate are Aaron Brooks, Omri Casspi, Robert Covington, Jordan Henriquez, Reggie Williams, and BJ Young.
Brooks, Williams, and Young all play the guard spots and help establish depth behind James Harden and Ronnie Brewer. Jordan Henriquez is another big body in camp as a 6-11 Center. Robert Covington and Omri Casspi are the swingmen on the fringe of the roster hoping to stick.
Before we begin talking about the positional battles and the merit of each player one very important thing has to be acknowledged heading into camp. Those final two roster spots may have less to do with the quality of competition and more to do with the quality of the agent each player had. What do I mean by that?
Of those six players battling for fringe roster spots only Omri Casspi and Aaron Brooks have fully guaranteed contracts. Jordan Henriquez is most likely the first casualty, his contract isn't guaranteed. BJ Young's three-year deal is guaranteed for $40,000.00. Covington's deal is for roughly 2.5 million over three years and is only guaranteed at $650,000.00. Reggie Williams signed a two million dollar deal over two years and only saw a quarter of that guaranteed.
Now, with that having been said, Leslie Alexander is certainly not going to play the role of Scrooge with the purse strings now that he just signed Dwight Howard. This team is looking like a championship contender and will definitely be looking to use every last roster spot to pursue that end. Money will play a part but money will be bolstered by need. Let's look at those needs.
The Power Forward Conundrum
This is truly an issue to watch that caught literally nobody by surprise. The Rockets enter training camp with three bodies guaranteed to make the roster at the power forward position. Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas, and Terrence Jones will all don Rockets red this year (barring some unforeseen circumstance, trade, or Andrew Bynum level bowling accident). That total accounts for one fifth of the possible roster of the Houston Rockets. The odds are slim that the Rockets would jump at the opportunity to use one of their two remaining roster spots to try to add another power forward into the mix. The Rockets have to balance their need for someone to emerge at this position with some certainty that they have a player who can do so and not impede Dwight Howard and/or the pick and roll in the process.
Donatas Motiejunas had a relatively blasé rookie campaign following a great deal of hype. He's packed on some weight and has to figure out how to rebound in the NBA while coping with a heavier frame and a game that demands more outside work. Terrence Jones needs to play at the same level we saw in summer league at the NBA level. He also needs to avoid nightclubs in Portland, dimly lit streets, and the local homeless population. Jones rarely saw the floor last season and when he did he left many Rockets fans questioning why he wasn't on the floor more often. Greg Smith is the incumbent starter at the power forward. He's a brawny player who rebounds at a generous clip. His game is limited close to the basket with an emphasis on put backs. He has become more of a questionable commodity with the addition of Dwight Howard so it will be interesting to see if he can mesh with the roster.
Of the fringe players hoping to make the roster, Jordan Henriquez offers flexibility as a center that can slot down to the power forward. Unfortunately the Rockets also carry three centers currently. Omri Casspi offers versatility between the small and power forward and is a known commodity that Daryl Morey appreciates.
The power forward spot is the Rockets least talented position. Greg Smith seems like a potential odd man out in the group with a game that looks like it will impede more than compliment Dwight Howard's game. Smith is a lock at this point due to tenure, guaranteed commodity, and positional flexibility. If Greg Smith does not make the final roster then look for a guy like Omri Casspi to nail down a roster spot because Casspi's game resembles Ryan Anderson-lite (Caspi's Career: 51% TS, 49% eFG, 10.4% Rebound Rate) and we all recall how effective Anderson was next to Dwight in Orlando.
The Minutes Crunch/Positional Struggles
So, what do you get when you take a hyper-talented roster with youth on its side and enviable depth? A minutes crunch. There's only 48 minutes to go around at each position. The starters should expect to play anywhere from 32 to 35 minutes a game on any given night. James Harden averaged 38 minutes a game last year while Omer Asik averaged 30. Averaging these two (As the high end and the low end of Houston's starters) puts us around 35 minutes (34 for those who will point out the math problems in the comments) a game. Now, what's this mean? Well, it means the back ups will only have 13 minutes per game at best. That's not counting close games, injuries, and nightly match-ups. The Rockets have to pick their back ups and fringe players based on a few factors. Primarily whether or not players are at a stage in their career where that load is adequate and whether or not those players have a clearly defined set of skills that make them useful specialists.
The Rockets should expect to bring Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley into the season with Isaiah Canaan only seeing playing time if a comet hits Lin or Beverley's home. The two split time at the point guard easily last season. There's no reason to assume things would be any different. Aaron Brooks has experience as a back up and showed frequent bursts of situational use in the playoffs last season. Brooks' best chance to make the roster hinges on his ability to shoot the deep ball and provide a speed boost when Beverley or Lin are having an off night.
The shooting guard position is pretty locked up numbers-wise. James Harden is a workhorse for this team (Who can take it easier now that Dwight is in town) and behind him is Ronnie Brewer. Brewer's career average in minutes per game is 23. The shooting guard minutes are locked up pretty tight so long as we assume health (Which in Houston, we know, is never a given). Reggie Williams stands a shot to make the roster if his shot is falling. He's a 6'6" journeyman shooting guard coming off a fairly strong but quiet shooting numbers. What more can you expect coming out of the wasteland that is Charlotte (He put up strong rookie numbers with the Golden State Warriors)?
The small forward is a pretty tight rotation. Houston spent money on ensuring they had players to compliment Chandler Parsons and provide defense and shooting when Chandler is off the floor. Their small forwards are mostly tweeners for a reason. Ronnie Brewer, at 6'7", fills the role of SG/SF. Francisco Garcia fulfills the same purpose as Ronnie Brewer. Omri Casspi offers a 6'9" body for the SF and PF. Robert Covington measures in at 6'9", an undrafted rookie with a SF skill set and a body that is reminiscent of Terrence Jones. The SF is the value-position for the Rockets and don't be shocked to see a rookie like Covington edge Omri Casspi if he has an impressive pre-season and camp. Covington is an intriguing prospect because of his unknowns but if the Rockets want something guaranteed to finish their roster I wouldn't be shocked to see Casspi take one of the last spots to fill the SF/PF flex role.
Power Forward has been covered but if we're looking purely at minutes they'll be abundant here. Houston is going to have to experiment to figure out what they have at this position. Jones, Motiejunas, Smith, Casspi, Henriquez, and Covington will all have to prove themselves worthy of the spot. They'll also have to show that they can compliment Dwight Howard and Omer Asik. The Rockets have the kind of roster where they can entertain question marks at this position into the season but it would do the team a world of good to have someone emerge sooner rather than later at this position. Keep a close eye on Omri Casspi as a potential dark horse in this race.
Center is a position where minutes will be few and far between. Dwight Howard and Omer Asik. Any questions? Put your hand down. You don't have any questions. The ghost of Marcus Camby is here purely for emotional support. Sorry Jordan Henriquez, you're going to need to be an emergent power forward if you want to make this roster.
Earn Your Keep
The Rockets will have to make their final decisions by balancing some of harshest considerations any basketball operations department could be asked to do. Do you go with unproven youth on the off chance someone emerges and has a hot year? Do you go with the veterans on the fringe to help keep the locker room stable and contribute when their number is called? Are the last few roster spots flyer picks where you gamble or are they specialists you pray you never need to call upon? The Rockets have their choice of either of those situations with the players left to fight for roster spots. It may come down to whose money is guaranteed but it could just as easily become a question of who can I rely on in a pinch? These are all questions you should entertain yourselves with in the comments.
Players to Watch
If you're going to armchair scout and you have no interest in reading my attempt to shake off writer's rust I hope this section will give you everything you need to tune in for.
Aaron Brooks, #0 - Look for Aaron Brooks to try to establish his deep ball, dribble-drive creation, and distribution. Brooks will have to show case all the skills that earned him the most-improved player award and an attitude he didn't show after the award to make this final roster. He plays at a position where minutes will be rare but he's a fan-favorite in Houston and brings a definite skill-set that can help a team looking to win now.
Robert Covington, #33 - Covington is a fun player to watch. He doesn't do anything particularly bad and he's got a tantalizing physical report card. He's knocked as being a tweener but that could be his saving grace in Houston. On a win-now team he'll need to showcase some skills that can help the Rockets from day one (if called upon) and that's a tall order for an undrafted rookie.
Omri Casspi, #18 - When Casspi was signed he looked like a lock to make the roster. The Rockets have subsequently made a few more signings that put his status with the team in jeopardy. Casspi will have to show positional versatility to make the final roster. He'll have to be a knock-down shooter from the perimeter and an adequate defender if he wants to make a case to stick with the Rockets.
Reggie Williams, #55 - I haven't mentioned him much in the write-up because he's a long shot to make the roster after the Brewer signing. Williams stands a chance to knock Aaron Brooks off the "most likely to get a roster spot and piss off Rockets fans" list, though. Williams is a shooter with size (6'6") and a very proven skill-set. He hails from Virginia Military Institute (Most famous for a forced gender integration lawsuit) which should speak volumes about his character and willingness to accept the role he's assigned. Williams will be a fun watch this pre-season. If his shot is off, however, don't expect to see him as a Rocket this year.
Isaiah Canaan, #1 - He's wearing Tracy McGrady's number. That alone should irritate some people. Other than that, however, as the new draft pick he's pretty safe on the roster. Pay attention to Canaan just to get a feel for what to expect if Lin and Beverley get injured throughout the year. His job this year is solely to dominate the D-League but that doesn't mean he can't have fun lighting up the pre-season.
There you have it, the first article I've written in a while and it felt scatter-shod but I hope I have enough to get you thinking. As always, tweet mean comments to @QuestionablyBD, email complaints to TDSMailbag@gmail.com, and feel free to share your thoughts below.