The Peculiar Case of the Houston Rockets
Last year, the Houston Rockets tossed up nearly 29 three-pointers per game (tied for first in the NBA with the New York Knicks). With an endless amount of stretch-four, small-ball lineups, the James Harden-led offense finished sixth in overall offensive rating. Carlos Delfino, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley had arguably the best year of their respective careers. But Daryl Morey wasn’t infatuated with just one side of the ball. He understood the deficiencies of Jeremy Lin and James Harden up top, Chandler Parsons’ gambling tendencies and the overall diminutive or defense-less stature of their starting fours. In came Omer Asik and his perennially underrated defense and Morey stuck him as the lynchpin of the defense. Instead of a bottom-level defense without Asik, he almost single-handedly propelled them to a middle-of-the-road defense that complemented a top-level, high-variance offense extremely well. Another year of improvement would surely further each player’s skillset and transform them into the natural progression into contenders, right? But the plan all along was to sign Dwight Howard, with or without a burgeoning star (at least on defense) center on board.
And so the Rockets brought the all-world center in and everyone expected Asik to come off the bench, and there were even whispers of a trade. The general uneasiness of a player that averaged the majority of minutes being relegated to the bench wasn’t new and perhaps necessary for a player that’s so far been exceptional and tough in his career. Then Kevin McHale and Morey decided to try something new: and in effect, go back to something old; the Twin Towers lineup. Tim Duncan and David Robinson was a slamming success but of a different era. Smallball isn’t anything new. The Miami Heat succeeded the way they have by playing a Dick LaBeau-esque blitzing defense and canning threes from the corner spot and everywhere else on the court. Of course, having one of the greatest players of all time in his prime helps a lot. Instead of pushing the three-point/lay-up offense into overdrive, Morey decided to add versatility to his team while harnessing the same tried-and-true formula that whipped the league last season.
The Howard-Asik pairing essentially only plays with the starting lineup; with Harden, Parsons and the duo of either Jeremy Lin or Beverley. They’ve combined for a total of 33 minutes in 3 games*** so far and as expected, is above-average on defense and way below-average on offense. This is part of small sample size theater, of course, but expect this movie to keep playing all year long. But the point here remains that Morey is unafraid to see where the league is heading; each team chock-full of shooters or defenders, or both in one, and looking to push its tempo at all times, and go against the grain, relatively. Morey has already used his assets to acquire his top-level talent while teams are just now attempting to do the same. While teams are going small: like Carmelo Anthony at power forward (though we’re still not sure what Mike Woodson is doing this year), some clamoring for Harrison Barnes at the four, and numerous other teams opting for shooting over size at traditional power positions; the Rockets have somewhat bucked their own trend in trying this experiment.
Of course, this could just turn out as a showcase for a midseason Asik trade — not that teams don’t already know what he brings. Anything is possible for a GM that’s always weary and exceptionally so of salary and asset-managing. Both Duncan and Robinson were excellent offensive players, and to be kind, neither Howard and Asik are great — though Howard is better than given credit for. Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Omri Casspi are better fits on offense and their defensive shortcomings are easily shadowed by a healthy, elite defender like Howard. Asik is very good on defense but Howard is great. Asik is due nearly $15 million in a back-loaded contract in 2014 and he simply isn’t worth it if Howard is taking the bulk of the center minutes. That’s a very expensive insurance policy even Mikhail Prokhorov wouldn’t go for — kidding, he’d pay Asik double that.
As the rest of the league is turning into an up-tempo smaller, quicker league, the Rockets appear to be experimenting with one that was popular and highly thought of as an NBA necessity for success in the past few decades. A contrarian strategy to the contrarian strategy, all circling back to the traditional look, with a twist of the present-day method. Those are the Houston Rockets now. A chance at the Finals, in a wide-open conference, and experimenting with their ostensible motto. Things change quickly in the NBA and it’s a shift away from your stereotypical three-happy, spread-the-floor team brewing in Houston. Whether or not the Twin Towers experiment works, it’s fun as hell that McHale and Morey are willing to trip up recent notions to try and reignite an old one.
Statistical support for this piece provided by NBA.com, unless stated otherwise.
*** written before the Los Angeles Clippers game. Not that there’s any progression to be seen in that lineup there.