The Houston Rockets enter this season's training camp with heightened expectations and newfound spotlight. After a busy offseason, the team has went from a fringe playoff team to a potential championship contender.
Here is a look at how the Rockets finished last season:
- 2012-13 Record: 45-37
- Finished third in the Southwest Division
- Clinched the eighth seed in the Western Conference
- Eliminated in the first round by the Oklahoma City Thunder (4-2)
Houston had the second-best offense in the NBA last season. They finished just a hair behind the Denver Nuggets with an average of 106 points per night. The team also led the league in turnovers (15.8 per game) and were 28th in points allowed with a clip of 102.5 per contest.
The biggest news entering training camp is the arrival of the NBA's best center in Dwight Howard. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year gives the Rockets an intimidating presence in the paint on both ends of the court. He unites with guard James Harden and forward Chandler Parsons to form one of the league's scariest trios.
The main focus this season will be how this triumvirate works together and whether they can live up to the preseason hype. With two of the 10 best players in the NBA as well as an emerging star in Parsons, the pressure is on the Rockets to go deeper in the playoffs and make a spirited run at the title.
Key Additions and Losses
Key Additions: C Dwight Howard (four years, $88 million), G/F Ronnie Brewer (two years, $2.5 million), F Omri Casspi (two years, $2 million) and F Reggie Williams (two years, $2 million).
Key Losses: G/F Carlos Delfino (signed with Milwaukee for two years, $6.5 million), F Royce White (traded to Philadelphia), F Thomas Robinson (traded to Portland) and F James Anderson (claimed by Philadelphia, two years remaining on a three-year, $2.5 million contract).
Biggest Addition: C Dwight Howard
For a team that needed a boost on defense, signing an elite rim protector like Dwight Howard makes a ton of sense. Omer Asik did his part patrolling the paint last season (10.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, 1.1 blocks per game), but he doesn't possess the athleticism and offensive prowess that Howard does.
Howard also makes an already-devastating offense more explosive. He gives the team a proven scorer in the post and, with time, can team with point guard Jeremy Lin to form one of the best pick-and-roll duos in the league.
Biggest Loss: G/F Carlos Delfino
None of the Rockets' departures were real back-breakers. The one that will hurt the most, though, will be the loss of shooter Carlos Delfino. Delfino's skills on the perimeter (37.5 percent from three last year) came in handy when the team opted to play in a smaller lineup with Chandler Parsons.
Houston is hoping that Francisco Garcia, another accomplished shooter, will be able to fill Delfino's shoes. The 32-year-old had his moments in the limited amount of time he played last season.
Depth Chart Breakdown and Training Camp Breakdown
Jeremy Lin returns as the Rockets' starting point guard in what may be a make-or-break year. The Harvard product is coming off a subpar season (13.4 points, 6.1 assists per contest) and will be looking to bounce back with an improved supporting cast.
Key reserve Patrick Beverley filled in admirably after Lin went down in the playoffs with a chest injury. He may be better suited as a backup but can make things interesting if Lin falters and he continues to develop.
Aaron Brooks was brought back as an offensive spark plug and the team's de facto third guard. It may be a stretch to see the veteran play more than the nearly 19 minutes he averaged last season. The same for rookie Isaiah Canaan, who has solid potential, but is stuck in a crowded backcourt.
James Harden established himself as one of the game's premier talents last year. In his first full season as a starter, the former Oklahoma City sixth man shot just under 44 percent from the field (including almost 37 percent from behind the arc) and averaged 25.9 points per game.
Despite his issues with holding onto the basketball (3.8 turnovers a game, worst in the league), he has an ironclad grip on the starting shooting guard spot. Ronnie Brewer will be Harden's chief backup. He doesn't have the same outside touch (career 25.6 percent three-point shooter) as Harden, but he's solid enough to give The Beard an occasional breather.
Francisco Garcia and Reggie Williams will probably see minutes at both shooting guard and small forward. Garcia figures to factor into the role of Chandler Parsons' sweet-shooting tag team partner, which was vacated by Carlos Delfino.
Undrafted free agent B.J. Young will need an extraordinary camp to make the cut on a veteran team. A lengthy stint in the D-League would appear to be his most likely destination.
Chandler Parsons was one of last year's breakout stars. He averaged 15.5 points per game and shot 45 percent from the field. He stepped it up in the playoffs, raising his scoring output to 18.2 points a night. He made huge strides in his efficiency from behind the arc as he improved his three-point prowess from 33.7 percent in 2011-12 to 38.5 percent in 2012-13.
Omri Casspi hasn't registered much of a blip on the NBA radar since his rookie season with the Sacramento Kings in 2009-10. He spent the last two seasons in Cleveland and was signed by Houston this summer to be a cheap backup to Parsons.
Like B.J. Young, Tennessee State product Robert Covington faces long odds to make the team. Even without the two undrafted rookies, Houston's roster is 16 players deep and all but one (rookie Isaiah Canaan) has legit pro experience.
The power forward spot was Houston's biggest weakness last season. With a plethora of talented-yet-unproven big men, the position had more people vying for a chance to shine than a DJ Khaled record.
With the addition of Dwight Howard, former center Omer Asik will factor into the quagmire at the 4. Asik is coming off a career year and his presence alongside Howard gives the Rockets two excellent rebounders and interior defenders.
Terrence Jones has spent the summer working on his outside jumper in hopes that he become the kind of "stretch 4" that will keep things less congested down low for Howard. The ability to space the floor is the main advantage Jones has over Asik as they fight for the starting power forward spot.
However, don't overlook Donatas Motiejunas as the possible answer to Houston's power forward woes. The big man made it a point this offseason to add some weight to his slight frame and spent the summer playing for the Lithuanian national team.
With added bulk and some improvement in his mid-range game, he could be a dark horse contender for the starting gig.
The only way Dwight Howard budges from the starting center spot is if he moves to power forward to accommodate Omer Asik, which he seems open to doing (according to CBSSports' Matt Moore). Howard will be the team's top scoring option in the paint and will be tasked with shoring up a leaky defense.
Asik might see some time as Howard's backup, but when the two play together, capable reserve Greg Smith will be ready to spell the ex-Laker. The 22-year-old made 10 starts last season and averaged six points a game.
Do you remember John Salley's role in the first half of the Whoopi Goldberg movie "Eddie?" That will be 39-year-old Marcus Camby's spot with the Rockets this season. With so many bodies in the frontcourt, the 17-year veteran will only see the floor in emergency situations.
In fact, according to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, Camby has been told by head coach Kevin McHale that there will be games where he doesn't even leave the bench. The Rockets will rely on Camby's veteran experience to mentor the young bigs and, if absolutely necessary, bring in the shot-blocker to give them another defensive presence on the floor.
Training Camp Battle To Watch
The triple-threat match that is the fight for the power forward spot between Omer Asik, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas is one worth watching. According to their most recent depth chart, ESPN has Asik penciled in as the starter.
However, the Turkish big man faces some tough competition. Terrence Jones had a strong offseason, averaging 15.8 points and seven rebounds a game in the Summer League. ESPN's Michael Wallace listed Jones as one of his "summer league standouts" and wrote that the ex-Kentucky Wildcat "spent the week in Orlando trying to adapt his game to be a more compatible fit in the Rockets' frontcourt rotation."
As mentioned before, Motiejunas can't be completely counted out. He has the potential to be a threat from the outside and has a three-inch advantage over the 6'9" Jones. If he can combine his size and athleticism with a promising mid-range game, he has a puncher's chance of pulling off the upset.
For now, Asik should be considered the favorite. You have to believe Houston wouldn't have kept him on the roster after signing Dwight Howard if they weren't on planning on playing the two together a lot. With a cap hit of a little over $8 million, Asik would be an awfully expensive backup center.
However, if Asik proves to be a poor fit as Howard's partner, a good shooting display from Jones or D-Mo could put them in the driver's seat.
Battling For a Roster Spot
The Houston Rockets' full roster currently stands at 18 players. When you take rookies B.J. Young and Robert Covington out of the equation, that number drops down to 16. A couple of guys that could be vying for roster spots include Reggie Williams and Marcus Camby.
Both are the victims of increased depth at their respective positions. Camby is the team's third center and, at 39 years old, doesn't have much left in the tank. When you factor in Camby's extensive injury history, it is tough to make the case for him to stick around.
As for Williams, he has guys like Ronnie Brewer, Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia standing in front of him at both shooting guard and small forward. Keep in mind that this is the same guy that couldn't find minutes on a bad Charlotte Bobcats team last year.
With so much of the roster tied up in promising young talent and proven talent, the battle for the final spots will come down to whether the team values Williams' versatility or Camby's experience more.
The focus will be on the Rockets' vaunted trio, but the team's biggest X-factor will be point guard Jeremy Lin. With a brunt of the pressure off of his shoulders thanks to the addition of Dwight Howard, Lin can play more and think less.
Lin's 2012-13 numbers were modest, but they weren't as great as some expected when he signed a three-year, $25 million deal last summer. The 25-year-old said he felt like he had to "save Houston basketball." This season, that task falls on Howard's shoulders.
As the team's fourth or fifth option (depending on who plays power forward), the expectations for Lin are considerably lower. The Rockets don't need him to be the "Linsanity" of old. They just need him to play smart basketball (run the offense, reduce turnovers, get others involved, etc.).
The presence of Howard will make the pick-and-roll a stronger weapon. That should lead to an uptick in Lin's assist numbers. The Harvard product will also benefit from the amount of open looks he'll get with so much attention being paid to his more-heralded teammates.
The stage is set for Lin to finally shine in Houston. The team has enough talent that they aren't dependent on him living up to his lofty expectations. If he gives them nothing, it won't put a huge dent in their championship aspirations.
However, if he can be the franchise point guard they are paying him to be, it could be just the push that puts them ahead of other title contenders in the West. A possible stat line of around 15 points and eight assists a night seems doable.
Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios With Projected Record
The best-case scenario for the Rockets is Dwight Howard fits into the framework of the team seamlessly and Houston dominates with the best young trio west of South Beach. The combination of Howard and Omer Asik give the team an intimidating presence inside, which would shore up a woeful defense and allow Houston to control the boards.
Furthermore, with less touches, Harden becomes less of a turnover machine. Parsons continues to develop and the Rockets utilize a strong bench to make a deep run in the playoffs.
The worst-case scenario is that the team struggles out of the gate as the "Big Three" need time to figure out how to play together. Asik, already frustrated by the Howard signing, grows more irritated with his role and the already-shaky team chemistry takes a hit.
On top of that, the improvement of the team's interior defense is offset by its inability to stop teams on the perimeter. Howard does his best to protect the rim, but eventually wears down from having to give maximum effort on both ends of the court every single night.
Under pressure to validate the busy offseason, GM Daryl Morey does more roster shuffling by accommodating Asik's trade demands and finding a new home for Lin as well. The rushed deals don't do much to fix the team's immediate issues and the team makes another first-round exit.
My projection for the 2012-13 Houston Rockets is a little bit of Column A and Column B. The team will need a little time to mesh together, but it will happen right around the All-Star break. Harden and Howard will be an impressive inside-outside duo and Parsons will find a way to improve despite the decrease in touches.
The team will finish 52-30, which is a decent improvement from last season. In the playoffs, they nab the fourth seed and draw a tough Memphis Grizzlies team. In the end, the Grizz struggle to keep up with Houston's offensive firepower and go down in six.
In the second round, the Rockets will have a thrilling rematch with Oklahoma City before succumbing to the Thunder in seven games.
With Dwight Howard on board, all eyes will be on the Houston Rockets this season. Much like Howard's old team in Los Angeles, the margin for error will be slim and skeptics will look for every reason to nitpick.
In a deep Western Conference, it is tough to see the team make too deep of a run. Still, Howard's presence improves a bad defense and, if it manages to shore up the power forward spot, Houston will be one of the most complete teams in the league for years to come.
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