Many skeptics have counted the Houston Rockets out and with good reason. They have one of the youngest NBA teams I’ve ever seen, many of whom are new to one another and to coach Kevin McHale’s system. They have no clear superstars on their team–only a bunch of guys who have a lot of potential and a lot to prove.
Perhaps the biggest advantage and disadvantage the Rockets have is youth. With lack of experience, they may not have the necessary composure to close out close games or come from behind to win games. They may make critical mistakes in clutch time or commit a bunch of little mistakes that add up to the difference in a game. These are just a few examples of the disadvantages of having young player. On the other hand, young players tend to have a lot of energy. Also, they’re not established enough to have egos, which makes it more likely that they’ll be more willing to play as a team and be more apt to listen to the coaching staff.
From what I’ve read and the little that I’ve seen so far from training camp, I’m encouraged that the coaching staff is planning to take full advantage of their youth by driving home a relentless up-tempo team style of basketball. McHale’s plan is to outwork their opponents every single night. He’s stressing effort above all else to his young guys. I think this is very smart. If you’re not as talented or experienced as the other guy, then you have to work twice as hard to have a chance of winning.
Of course, a lot of teams preach this and they do it for the first month or two of the season then resort back to a slower tempo, because it’s hard to sustain an up-tempo throughout the entire season–especially if your team is composed of a lot of veteran players. Of any team in the NBA, the Houston Rockets have a realistic shot of playing hard and fast all season, because their team is full of young guys with fresh legs and boundless energy. The other major factor is that the Rockets actually have a lot of equally talented players on their roster, so they can realistically use a 10-man rotation. Also they have a lot of guys who can play multiple positions, which makes it easier to continuously sub different guys to keep fresh legs on the court. Of course, the potential drawback here is that it might hurt a player’s rhythm to be constantly coming in and out of the game. But that’ll be something that the Rockets coaching staff will have to experiment with until they find a plan that works. All I’m saying is that the Rockets have the best shot of any team to realistically play a 10-man rotation in order to sustain a high-energy level of play throughout the season. All they need is the willingness to do so.
Some other encouraging signs are that two of their returning players, Kevin Martin and Patrick Patterson, appear to be vastly improved from the terrible season that each of them had last year. Kevin Martin, a prolific shooter and scorer averaged only around 17 points last season, which is his lowest point average since his sophomore season. Patrick Patterson had a horrible sophomore season after a great rookie season, primarily because he wasn’t 100% physically. From reports that I’ve read about training camp, Patterson is in great shape and is looking more and more like the promising rookie of a couple seasons ago. And Kevin Martin, who seems to have been on the verge of being traded all summer long, appears to have shaken all of that off and has been quite the play maker during training camp. If Kevin Martin and Patrick Patterson, who are both expected to be in the starting line up, have vastly improved their game from last season, then the Rockets have a real shot at making the playoffs.
Finally, the Rockets have a lot of young players who can develop into stars. Not just their rookies (White, Lamb, Jones, Motiejunas), but also Lin, Asik and Parsons. Parsons, who had a great rookie year, is looking even better this year at training camp. If Asik can adjust to playing major minutes, he could become one of the best centers in the league (there aren’t many good centers out there to begin with).
The way I look at it is that last year’s Rockets team narrowly missed the playoffs with Kevin Martin having one of his worst seasons and Patrick Patterson regressing from his rookie season. One can argue whether or not this new crop of guys are better or worse than the ones that left the organization (namely, Scola, Dragic, Lowry). Lets say they are the same, then one can reason that with a much improved Kevin Martin, Patrick Patterson and Chandler Parsons, the Rockets should make the playoffs–especially if one or two of the crops of new guys have an all-star season. Of course, there’s lots of ifs here and lots of speculation. Also, teams change every year so how the Rockets did last year may not have much bearing on what will happen this year. But I just wanted to throw out there an alternative view of the Rockets that I don’t see too many people talking about.
Now that I’ve discussed the optimistic picture, here are some potential pitfalls.
Injuries. In order to run their relentless up-tempo play, they really can’t afford to lose any bodies–especially Asik and probably Lin, although I was surprised to see how many play makers the Rockets have on their roster currently. In essence, the Rockets are one injury away from finishing near the bottom of the western conference.
Coach McHale. Admittedly, I don’t know much about McHale’s coaching prowess. I think he’s got a good macro plan for the team (i.e., up-tempo, let the defense fuel the offense, and outwork the opponent). I also think he has the ability to push his guys to work hard, which is a very important attribute for a coach to have. I just don’t know how good of an in-game coach he is. I think the most important job a coach has is to make substitutions. That’s really the biggest way a coach can impact a game directly. And for this Rockets roster, it’s even more critical, because there are so many players who can play multiple positions and the Rockets can utilize a 10-man rotation, making substitution decisions that much more critical and increasing the potential for coaching error. Also, how good is McHale at feeling out the momentum of the game and knowing when to call time outs? How is he at making adjustments during half time? All of these are question marks for me.
The other teams in the NBA. The Rockets may simply just be outmatched by so many talented NBA teams. I don’t know how this happened, but it seems like a lot of teams have improved from last year. Even the Miami Heat got better! It seems like only a few teams got worse and so many teams got better. I still don’t know how this happened, exactly, but the Magics had something to do with this. So at the end of the day, it might not matter how hard the young Rockets team works, they may get beat anyway by more talented, experienced teams.
At the very least, the Rockets will be an exciting team to watch (since they’ll be playing an up-tempo team style of basketball) as long as the key guys remain healthy. I’m excited for the season to start and I’ve never more looked forward to pre-season games.