Friday, September 21, 2012

Linsanity? Or Morey's Insanity? -- Houston Rockets Season Preview

Starting Five: PG Jeremy Lin, SG Kevin Martin, SF Chandler Parsons, PF Royce White, C Omer Asik

Key Bench Players: SG Jeremy Lamb, SF Carlos Delfino, F Terence Jones, F Marcus Morris, F Patrick Patterson, PG Shaun Livinston, PF Donatas Montiejunas, PG Toney Douglas, C Jon Brockman

Notable offseason additions: PG Jeremy Lin, C Omer Asik, SG Jeremy Lamb (12th overall pick), F Royce White (16th overall pick), F Terence Jones (18th overall pick), PG Toney Douglas, SF Carlos Delfino

Offseason subtractions:  PF Luis Scola, SF Chase Budinger, PG Kyle Lowry, C Samuel Dalembert, SG Courtney Lee, C Marcus Camby, PG Goran Dragic

What a strange offseason.  Really, there is no other way to put it.  Starting with the trade of former starter Chase Budinger for a draft pick, the Rockets made a series of moves that were presumably designed to entice the Orlando Magic to trade star C Dwight Howard to H-Town.  Unfortunately for Houston GM Daryl Morey (and Rockets fans), the Magic decided to ship D-12 out to Los Angeles instead.  Perhaps no team was more effected by this than the Rockets, given the overhaul the roster went through just to be in a position to land Howard.

In addition to Budinger getting dealt, PF Luis Scola was amnestied, PG Kyle Lowry was traded to Toronto for a "guaranteed lottery" pick, and PG Goran Dragic signed with Phoenix after Houston failed to match his offer sheet.  A handful of other, lesser trades were made, with the end result being a complete mish-mash of a roster.  We could spend a whole blog post dissecting all of the players Houston sent packing, but why do that when this is a preview for the coming season?

The obvious starting point for Houston is international sensation Jeremy Lin.  If you're reading this post, you know about Lin -- the "long story-short" is an undrafted and twice-waived guard from Harvard started getting playing time for the New York Knicks, improbably turned the season around and saved the coach's job (albeit temporarily), and was a household name by the end of a Disney movie-esque two week run.  For reasons typically associated with James Dolan, the comically inept owner, the Knicks let Lin, a marketing sensation at least and a pretty damn good guard at best, walk for nothing.

Who is the real Jeremy Lin?  Is he really a guy who can average 18 points and 8 assists over an entire 82 game season?  Is he really just a Harvard-educated J.J. Barea?  We will find out this season, as the Rockets will hand the keys to the offense over to Lin.  If Lin can really play at an elite level, the Rockets may not be half bad.  My personal take, having watched Lin first at Harvard and then during the Linsanity craze, is that he can play but not at an All-NBA level.  Something in the neighborhood of his Knicks averages (18 points, 8 assists, lots of turnovers) will be the production the Rockets get this year, which will put them somewhere between their Best Case and Absolute Apocalypse scenarios listed below.

Almost every other player on this roster is in a similar situation to Lin -- definite potential, but nothing proven over an 82-game season in the NBA just yet.  It would be impossible to assess this group as an actual unit since almost nobody on the roster has played together.  Instead, let's just look  individually at the players who will get the most minutes and see what we have.

The other big free agent acquisition was former Bull Omer Asik.  Asik is a 7-footer who can defend the rim and rebound, but has never been asked to play big minutes (last year, he averaged a career high 15 minutes per game).  His per-minute numbers and "Hollinger" stats have always indicated that he could be very effective if given the time, and Houston will give him that time.  He will be starting and asked to play big minutes, so Asik needs to stay out of foul trouble and prove that he can convert those per-minute stats into real per-game production.

Even though the Rockets had no lottery picks, they came away with quite a haul in the draft.  SG Jeremy Lamb is an excellent scorer, a lanky 2 with long range on his jumper.  F Royce White is arguably the third most talented player in the drafted (behind Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who went 1st and 2nd overall).  If White did not have well-known psychological issues (fear of flying, severe anxiety disorder) he would have been a top 5 pick.  At 6'8" and 270 pounds, White is built like an offensive tackle, but handles and passes like a guard.  His game log from his only college season is remarkable, with a 10-point, 18-rebound, 10-assist effort one game, multiple double-doubles, and 23 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 1 block against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.  If White can mature and head coach Kevin McHale can harness his ability, he will be an absolute steal at 18th overall.  Finally, F Terence Jones out of Kentucky could be a tweener, but is highly talented when motivated and has lots of skills which will translate in the NBA.  This trio is high-risk but very high-reward, and for the Rockets right now, that seems to be exactly what they are looking for.

Small forward Chandler Parsons will look to build on his successful rookie campaign, where he looked like some sort of 21st cenury hipster version of the old Shawn Marion, averaging 10 points, 5 rebounds, and over a steal a game.  Parsons has good athleticism and size at small forward, and his emergence likely had a hand in the Rockets trading SF Chase Budinger away this offseason.

Veteran Kevin Martin is a proven volume-scorer who will almost certainly be traded at some point.  He is an expiring contract, and a contender in need of some backcourt scoring will likely throw a few draft picks at the Rockets to assist Morey in his never-ending quest to accumulate assets.

Best Case Scenario:  Linsanity carries over into Houston, where Lin emerges not only as a crunch-time scorer but as a point guard who can run McHale's offense and get everyone involved.  Royce White figures himself out and emerges as a Rookie of the Year candidate, and Jeremy Lamb's ability to score translates right away.  Asik stays out of foul trouble and proves to be one of the better defensive bigs in the NBA, and both Chandler Parsons and Marcus Morris improve on their rookie campaigns.  Terrence Jones stays motivated and instead of tweening becomes a legitimate forward who can play inside and out.  With a deep bench and Lin closing out games, the Rockets sneak into the playoffs as an 8 seed before losing 5 games, with Lin sending Houston into pandemonium by winning one game at the buzzer.  The Rockets head into the offseason as a hungry young team with playoff experience, and wind up with a lottery pick anyway thanks to the Lowry trade.  They also have the cap room to max out the star Morey has been trying to build around.

Absolute Apocalypse:  Linsanity winds up in the discount bin with fads like Pogs, Chumbawamba, and Flip Murray.  With Lin turning it over too much and not scoring enough, the Rockets offense sputters.  To add insult to injury, Goran Dragic thrives with Phoenix, as does Kyle Lowry in Toronto, and the consensus is that the Rockets spent their money on the wrong point guard.  Asik is constantly in foul trouble and can't play more than 20 minutes per game, leading many to conclude his contract too is a bust.  White is plagued by his anxiety disorder and doesn't travel with the team for several road trips, and Terrence Jones becomes a problem child when his minutes wane.  McHale quits amidst the season going down in flames, and the Rockets finish as one of the worst teams in the League. 

Expected Finish: 4th in the Southwest Division, 12th in the Western Conference


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