The Houston Rockets should be regarded as a work in progress. Houston GM Daryl Morey had spent the time since Yao Ming went down to injury in a holding pattern. He assembled a supporting cast good enough to keep them contending for the last play-off spot as a team comprised solely of a supporting cast. All he needed was to plug an All-Star into it and Houston would be a force to be reckoned with. Prior to last season, he thought he was getting Pau Gasol and it was rumored that once Gasol arrived, Nene was going to sign. Then David Stern stepped in and squashed the deal.
This summer, Morey decided he was either going to get an All-Star center (Dwight Howard) or it was rebuilding time. He traded away that supporting cast and even waived the under-rated Luis Scola. The youth movement has arrived in Houston.
This is not to say Houston had a completely dry summer. They back-loaded offer sheets severely enough to make the Knicks and Bulls let Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik walk away. So there's your starting center and your starting point guard. The rest of the lineup could be very fluid.
Adding to what's going to be a very interesting training camp is that the Rockets drafted some players that don't have a clearly defined position. Are Royce White and Terrance Jones power forwards or small forwards? Is Jeremy Lamb a small forward or a shooting guard?
Coach Kevin McHale's philosophy on this is pretty simple: let those rookies play their natural game on offense, he's just trying to figure out which positions they can guard on defense. And he doesn't necessarily know what the answer to that is just yet. The upside to this is, should White or Jones be able to guard a small forward, which could be a potential match-up problem for the other team when they're defending.
They say one of the reasons you have preseason games is so the coach can experiment with line-ups. McHale may be doing more line-up mixing and matching than anyone else this year.
Looking at the Houston's roster (with the anticipated signing of point guard Scott Machado who did well for them in the Summer League), here's a highly theoretical depth chart:
Center: Omer Asik > Donatas Motiejunas > Patrick Patterson > Greg Smith
PF: Patrick Patterson > Royce White > Terrence Jones > Donatas Motiejunas > Marcus Morris >JaJuan Johnson > John Brockman
SF: Chandler Parson > Carlos Delfino > Jeremy Lamb > Royce White > Terrence Jones > Marcus Morris > Gary Forbes > Diamon Simpson
SG: Kevin Martin > Jeremy Lamb > Toney Douglas >Carlos Delfino > Gary Forbes
PG: Jeremy Lin > Shaun Livingston > Scott Machado > Toney Douglas > Courtney Fortson
The Rockets paid good money to add Delfino to the line-up, which makes me think the initial assessment is that White and Jones are more 4's than 3's, but let's see what happens in training camp. It's also entirely possible one of the rookies wins a starting spot. And no, not everyone listed will be on the final cut.
The big problem the Rockets are going to be facing is inexperience. Kevin Martin is used to starting. Carlos Delfino is used to starting, but it isn't clear to me he's necessarily starting. Chandler Parson started for a shortened season. Shaun Livingston has been a part-time starter his whole career. Other than those three, no one else has started over 50 games. (Douglas has been a spot starter for 30 games, Lin only started 25.)
On the plus side, Jeremy Lin did look awfully good when he was starting. Omer Asik also looked like a superior defensive center in his back-up duties with the Bulls. Kevin Martin had a down year, and some disagreements with the coaching staff, but he's been a very efficient scorer over his career.
Right now, unless McHale can quickly teach Asik a post move or Patterson shows some progression, any "serious" post game is going to need to come from one of the rookies. (Mind you, Asik could be a borderline All-Star if he had one dependable post move.) Motiejunas might be the best bet there, but the Summer League should be taken with a grain of salt. The known quantities for scoring look to be coming from the backcourt and perhaps small forward positions.
What's it going to take for the Rockets to slip into the playoffs? Asik needs to live up to the hype and control the defensive paint and the boards. (Perimeter defense might be an adventure, but Asik should be capable of hampering penetration.) Jeremy Lin needs to perform at a similar level to his Knicks play. Sure, he may not quite duplicate that hot streak when the spotlight first hit him, but you probably need 18 and 8 out of him. Kevin Martin, who could theoretically be a beneficiary of Lin's penetrate and kick-out style, needs to return to form. One of the new faces needs to be able to make an impact at the power forward or center position. It would also be helpful if a second new face could make a meaningful scoring combination.
Is all of the above unreasonable to ask? When it looks like rookies are going to be asked to make major contributions, you have to wonder about the consistency from game to game. That there's some debate as to where the 'tweeners of White and Jones will play only adds to the mystery. Another wild card to consider is that Kevin Martin had been making a lot of noise about getting out of Houston. If Jeremy Lamb looks like the real deal at shooting guard a couple months into the season, it would not surprise me to see Martin traded for more assets.
If everything goes right, I could see the Rockets the slipping in as an 8 seed. If it doesn't all go right, they could be a high-to-mid lottery pick. Then again, if you're blowing up the team and focusing on developing young talent, lottery picks are a good thing. And of course, with lots of young talent and draft picks stockpiled, a roster-shaking trade is only a phone call away.
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