What Houston Rockets Must Do to Contend for 2013-14 NBA Title
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    What Houston Rockets Must Do to Contend for 2013-14 NBA Title

    pixelIt shouldn't surprise anyone to hear that the Houston Rockets are so bullish on their prospects for the 2013-14 NBA season.
    General manager Daryl Morey recently told MaD Radio that he sees Houston as mere steps behind the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs in the push for league-wide supremacy.
    Hakeem Olajuwon, a two-time champion with the Rockets in the mid-'90s who currently serves as the team's player development specialist, went even further with his prognostications (via Mark Berman of FOX 26 Houston): "This team, they have everything they need, a complete team. This team is a legitimate contender."
    Or could be, at least.
    The addition of Dwight Howard (i.e. the best center in basketball when healthy) to a promising young nucleus that already includes James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin should help Houston climb another notch or two up the ladder in the loaded Western Conference.
    But making the leap from exciting No. 8-seed to potential champion will take much more than cobbling together a bunch of impressive names on a sheet of paper. For the most part, Houston has the pieces in place to make some serious noise come playoff time.
    Now comes the hard part: putting them all together and making the necessary team-wide improvements from last year's 45-37 squad.

    Defense, Defense and More Defense
    Scoring points shouldn't be an issue for these Rockets. Last season, they ranked sixth in the NBA in offensive efficiency (106.7 points per 100 possessions) and first in pace (98.64 possessions per game), per NBA.com, thanks to Kevin McHale's uptempo, floor-spreading offense.
    The other end of the court proved far more problematic for the young Rockets. On the whole, Houston ranked a patently average 16th in defensive efficiency (103.5 points allowed per 100 possessions).
    The Rockets were particularly susceptible to barrages from behind the three-point line. They ranked 21st in three-point field goal defense (36.8 percent), including the second-worst mark on those coveted corner threes (43.8 percent).
    To their credit, the Rockets are fully aware of this particular deficiency. As assistant coach Kelvin Sampson recently told Jason Friedman of Rockets.com:
    I think the area for improvement this year is defending the 3-point line – we gave up way too many corner 3s last year. A lot of that was because of what we were trying to take away. You’re always going to give up something. In the NBA, defensively, no matter what coverage you’re in or what schemes you’re trying to run, you’ve got to decide what you’re willing to give up. Last year we were willing to give up slot 3s as long as they were contested. Where we got hurt last year was the extra pass to the corner – a lot of times our corner guy got caught in a stunt.
    This wasn't by accident, either. Houston prioritized keeping opponents out of the paint over locking up long-range shooters. In some respects, that strategy worked; the Rockets relinquished the eighth-fewest shots in the restricted area and held opponents to just 37.7 percent shooting in the rest of the paint.
    But, more than anything, this approach was born of pragmatism rather than preference.
    As great as Omer Asik was (and still is) as a defensive anchor, he's not what you would call a bona fide "rim protector." Asik relies more on solid footwork, smart positioning and sheer mass—rather than long arms and Superman-like leaping ability—to get the job done.
    As such, the Rockets' coaching staff decided to have the team's perimeter defenders sink back toward the middle to prevent easy penetration, which left shooters with a bit more breathing room.
    This is where Howard should have the greatest impact on Houston's fortunes.
    Ideally, Dwight's ability to protect the rim, patrol the paint, and generally intimidate any opponent who attempts to venture into the lane will allow the Rockets' guards and wings to play tighter on the perimeter. Howard will be there to clean up after their mistakes if they get beat. Added Sampson:
    I think having a rim protector like Dwight Howard allows us to get out on the floor, pressure more, extend our defense -- our pick-up point can be higher -- we can get out and challenge passes from the wing, we can get in the passing lanes and be more aggressive, and I think that will help us.
    Strategically speaking, then, Howard should allow the Rockets to take more chances away from the paint while encouraging them to guide attackers into Dwight's sweet spots. That way, Howard can help to cover up some of the deficiencies inherent in Houston's individual defenders.
    Granted, this plan is far from foolproof. The Los Angeles Lakers attempted to utilize Howard in a similar capacity last season, only to see miscommunication and poor effort yield more holes in their defense than you'd see in a block of Swiss cheese.
    As helpful as Howard could be in bolstering Houston's back line and masking its weaknesses, the Rockets' success on defense will ultimately come down to the same simple factors that underlie every elite unit: effort, intensity, toughness and teamwork.
    Offensive stars, like James Harden and Chandler Parsons, will have to commit themselves to playing harder and smarter on that end. Said Sampson:
    We have a superstar in James Harden offensively, but James is not a superstar at the other end yet. The challenge for James is being a two-way player. Chandler was a much better defensive player his rookie year and a much better offensive player his second year. This year we want him to be a better two-way player.
    Last year we had a lot of guys who were one-way players – they were all offensive guys. We ran and ran and ran and ran, and with our pace we found that a lot of times our guys would rest up on defense. Championship teams don’t rest on defense. It has to be more important to Chandler Parsons this year to play both ends. James has got to be a two-way player. Jeremy Lin has got to be a better two-way player. Dwight will help some of that, but he was on the Lakers last year and they weren’t a great defensive team – just because you have Dwight doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good defensive team. For us, we’ll make that huge step up when our guys start taking defense more seriously and that’s our responsibility to help get them there.
    Having Dwight around should make playing both ends a more realistic expectation for Harden, Parsons and Lin, among others.
    Say what you will about the aesthetics of Howard's offensive game, but the guy's still a lock to average between 18 and 20 points a night. That's a big deal for a team whose top option in the post last season—Omer Asik, at 10.1 points per game—was considered an offensive liability prior to arriving in Space City.
    With Howard handling a hefty helping of the team's scoring duties, particularly via post-ups and pick-and-rolls, Houston's perimeter players won't have to exhaust themselves quite so much in pursuit of points. Howard's mere presence should lead to more easy looks while ensuring that Harden, Parsons and Lin don't have to light up the scoreboard just to keep the Rockets competitive.
    Thus, by shifting the burden of responsibility on one end, Houston's incumbent core should have the physical resources to play harder (and smarter) on the other end.

    What (or Who) is the Point?

    To be sure, the Rockets' defensive issues went beyond matters of hustle, heart and strategy. In too many cases, Houston's ability to stop the opposition from scoring was undermined by its own offensive miscues.
    The Rockets were dead-last in turnover ratio last season, giving the ball away on 16.6 percent of their offensive possessions. Not surprisingly, then, Houston was 20th in fast-break points allowed (14.3 per 100 possessions) and 27th in points relinquished off turnovers (18.6 per 100 possessions).
    A quick glance through the NBA's counting stats might lead you to believe that James Harden, with his league-worst 3.8 turnovers per game, was the main culprit. His forays into the middle of the floor, while mostly effective in getting Harden to the free-throw line and causing defenses to collapse, often resulted in offensive fouls, poor passes and ball-handling bungles.
    But Harden's turnover ratio (12.1 percent) wasn't exactly out of line with those of players whose usage rates (i.e. an estimate of the percentage of a team's possessions that end with a particular player shooting, drawing a foul, or turning the ball over) were comparable to James' mark of 28.9 percent.
    The greater concern is that Harden had to handle as many of Houston's on-ball duties as he did.
    Jeremy Lin's turnover ratio (13.5 percent) was actually higher than Harden's, despite Lin's more modest usage rate (20.8 percent).
    In truth, Lin's first season in Houston was anything but picturesque. Aside from his ball-security concerns, Lin was slow in learning how to play with another high-usage guard in Harden and was too often left behind on defense. According to NBA.com, the Rockets gave up more points and turned the ball over slightly more frequently whenever Lin was on the floor.
    Compare this to how the Rockets fared with Patrick Beverley running point:

    And how each partnered with James Harden in Houston's backcourt:

    The Rockets' success in the playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder with Beverley starting, after Lin went down with a chest injury, only amped up whatever chatter had already begun about head coach Kevin McHale making a more permanent switch between the two in his lineups going forward.
    Moving Lin to the bench in favor of Beverley certainly make sense.
    Beverley's a better individual defender and works more effectively off the ball than Lin, thanks to his superior perimeter shooting. Beverley, then, would seem a smarter fit alongside Harden; Beverley doesn't need the ball to be successful on offense and can help to shore up Houston's deficiencies on the other end.
    The move wouldn't necessarily be a demotion for Lin either. Installing Lin as the leader of the second unit would allow the Rockets to balance out their starting backcourt and strengthen their bench while giving Lin the opportunity to operate as a more efficient scorer and distributor with the ball in his hands, as he did when Harden wasn't on the floor with him last season:

    This suggestion isn't without its caveats, though. Beverley's marginally superior numbers were derived from a much smaller sample. Moreover, Beverley, as a bench player, operated against the opposing team's inferior players more often than not, which may well have bolstered his stats to some extent.
    And if we're going to discuss Houston's success against OKC with Beverley on the floor, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that he was responsible for the play that ended Russell Westbrook's postseason way too early.
    On the other hand, the Jeremy Lin we see in 2013-14 figures to be a different player than the one we saw last season. Like so many in the basketball world, Lin was caught off-guard last fall when word came down that Harden would be headed to Houston. He had to learn how to play alongside Harden on the fly, and he certainly improved in this regard as the campaign carried on.
    Greater stability could be key to unlocking Lin's full potential, as he noted during a recent interview with Alex Kennedy of Hoopsworld:
    For the first time in my career, I’m going back to the same team that I was on the year before. To be able to have that consistency and continuity, that can only help. I don’t know if I’m going to have a breakout year or whatever, but I definitely want to see improvements in my game.
    Among the expected improvements: defense, working with his left hand, and shooting.
    To hear Hakeem Olajuwon tell it, the effort that Lin has put into improving his jump shot is already paying off, via Mark Berman of FOX 26 Houston:
    The first thing I told him when I saw him shooting, you hear from different people, a lot of them say he cannot shoot. So I went to him and I said 'I thought you can't shoot,' because the way he was shooting, I was very impressed. He was working on his shot. He was shooting tough shots and was making them.

    So I went to him (and said) I thought you can't shoot and he was laughing. He really has been working on his shot and I love his work ethic.

    What this means for Lin's position in the battle for minutes at the point in Houston remains to be seen.
    If Lin's improvements merit his retention of the starting role, then the Rockets will be that much better off, with Beverley coming in off the bench as a change-of-pace guard. If not, then perhaps Lin will thrive in a reserve role.
    Either way, the Rockets must get better, more efficient play out of their point guards—a group that also includes Aaron Brooks and rookie Isaiah Canaan—if they're to butt into a championship conversation that's currently flush with teams led by strong floor generals.

    More Power, Forward

    But point guard won't be the only position battle worth keeping tabs on in Houston when training camp opens. Nor will it be the only one whose outcome could dramatically affect this squad's long-term outlook.
    The Rockets rotated through a seemingly never-ending series of power forwards last season without finding a reliable solution. Rookies Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas both had their moments. So, too, did Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris, before they were shipped off to the Sacramento Kings and the Phoenix Suns, respectively, at the trade deadline.
    The Rockets retrieved Thomas Robinson in the former of those deals, though the No. 5 pick in the 2012 draft only played in 19 games (at 13 minutes per) before he was picked up by the Portland Trail Blazers this summer.
    Houston's situation at power forward will be as crowded as ever come fall. Jones and Motiejunas will be joined in the competition by a rookie (Robert Covington) and two other returnees (Greg Smith and Omer Asik). Even Kelvin Sampson isn't entirely sure how things will shake out:
    There will be nights where we play Dwight and ‘O’ [Asik] together. There will be games when our 4-man will be Terrence [Jones] or D-Mo – even though they’re still young, they have some notches on their belt now. Other guys will be in the mix as well, but I’m not sure yet who will make our final roster since we have so many moving parts.
    The potential partnership between Howard and Asik will be of particular intrigue and importance to the Rockets.
    Asik was none too pleased about Dwight's arrival this summer, if only because it seemed to portend a move back to the bench. Word was that Asik wanted out, though the Rockets ultimately opted to keep him around.
    Unless the Rockets find a taker for Asik before the season starts, it's reasonable to think, as Sampson mentioned, that playing Omer and Dwight together would be a serious option, and rightfully so.
    Putting those two on the floor at once would, on paper, give Houston the most imposing defensive frontcourt in basketball. Opposing offenses would be hard-pressed to find open space in the middle or free paths through the lane with those two wreaking havoc in tandem.
    Not that a Howard-Asik front line is without major concerns, particularly on the offensive end.
    Both tend to occupy the same spots on the floor, and neither would be mistaken for a competent mid-range shooter or a deft passer out of the post. Having two behemoths like Howard and Asik on the court at once could throw a wrench into the Rockets' offense by clogging up whatever space they might otherwise keep open for slashes to the rim from Harden, Lin and company.
    The same would largely hold true if Greg Smith, another center by trade, were given an extended look at power forward. Jones and Motiejunas are both comfortable shooting threes, though their accuracy is (shall we say) questionable; both shot well under 30 percent from beyond the arc as rookies.
    The other option? Go small, with Parsons at the 4.
    That option proved surprisingly effective for the Rockets last year. Houston outscored its foes by 101 points over the 479 minutes in which Parsons was featured in lineups with only one true "big," per NBA.com.
    Playing small ball would put the Rockets at a disadvantage on defense, albeit one mitigated in part by Howard's healthy prowess. McHale might just opt to go small from time to time, to mix up Houston's looks and match up better against certain opponents, rather than using it as a base strategy.
    In any case, McHale and his staff now have a number of options at their disposal in nearly every respect, from figuring out who plays when and how much at point guard and power forward to how best to organize the Rockets' efforts on defense.
    The ingredients are there for Houston to make the 2013-14 season a memorable one. How soon the Rockets launch into the stratosphere of championship contenders, into which Olajuwon and Morey have already placed them, will depend largely on how the coaching staff and the front office handle the talented personnel (and the myriad strategies they afford) at their disposal.

    Wanna talk all things Rockets? Join me on Twitter!
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