Enemy Lines: A rival scout sizes up the Rockets
2012-13 Record: 45-37; lost to Thunder in Western Conference first round
Coach: Kevin McHale (third season with Rockets)
The Rockets are one of the most overrated teams in the league. I don't think they're a championship contender. I wouldn't be shocked if they lost in the first round. If they make the second round, their season will be a success. They're going to win a lot of games during the regular season, but they're not built to go far in the playoffs.
I don't think Howard cares enough to win a championship. I was hoping he would mature, but it just keeps getting worse for him. I guess he could prove me wrong by having a huge year like he did in 2008-09, when he went to the NBA Finals with the Magic. Look at the team he brought to the Finals -- that was all because of him, so we know at one time he was capable of it. But he also had a coach who stayed on him. Stan Van Gundy grinds you to death, but Kevin McHale is not like that. McHale is very good, but he needs guys who do it on their own. He's going to have a long year dealing with Howard.
Howard is so talented and it's always been so easy for him. It was the same for Shaquille O'Neal, but Shaq was more competitive. Shaq had more of an ego, in a good sense; he had more pride. Howard seems almost lackadaisical at times, like he doesn't want to try hard or look like he's stressed about it.
That said, any team with the cap space would have tried to fit in Howard. You couldn't not do it. It's not like the Rockets are going to regret signing him, but the way they play isn't ideal for him. In Orlando, he was a terrific shot blocker and rebounder, so big and strong that he couldn't be guarded one-on-one. But the Magic were a half-court team with Howard. The Rockets are all about isolations. They're going to run it up the floor, especially with Chandler Parsons at the 4 a lot, and unless Howard is busting his butt -- which he's not known to do -- he's not going to be involved in a lot of their offense.
I'm sure they're going to slow it down and run some plays for Howard, but it isn't going to be natural for them. When he's around the basket, he's going to get in Harden's way. They will have shooters around him, but he has to get up the floor fast to set up for that. Orlando would get a three-pointer at the end of the shot clock; Houston wants to zip it up and get a quick shot. That up-and-down style isn't conductive to winning a championship. This team isn't as good as Mike D'Antoni's best teams in Phoenix, and those clubs never made it to the Finals.
Howard has gone downhill defensively. Some of that is because Van Gundy is no longer on him constantly to contest shots. The Magic also had a scheme set up to help him be a dominant defender.
Harden is clearly the Rockets' No. 1 player. He has proved himself as a top-10 player in the league. He attacks the basket like few players. A couple of hard dribbles and when he's about to get to the basket, he lifts the ball over his head, and you can't stop it. He has a knack for getting to the basket and finishing and getting fouled. You send him to his right whenever you can. You can also try to make him settle for the jump shot -- but the thing about him is that he doesn't settle. You can't back off him, either, because he's a decent three-point shooter.
The next step for Harden is to improve in two areas. The first is getting better at knowing when to pass and when to shoot. He's still learning how to play when the ball is in his hands so much. The other thing is that he's not great defensively. He doesn't defend all of the time. The older stars figure out that if they really do want to win, they have to guard. Harden hasn't gotten there yet.
I don't see a No. 3 guy. If the Rockets turn out to be contenders, it will mean that Parsons is better than I thought. I'd want Parsons on my team because his skill level is great and he plays hard. He makes shots and he's a great passer. But it's also true that he scored because of their system, and he got a lot of baskets off cuts. Howard might affect him the most in a negative way; it's going to be more clogged up for him because of Howard and those cuts may not be available for him as much.
Parsons is a good team defender, but he can also be abused at times. Maybe Howard can erase their mistakes, but none of their three perimeter defenders -- Harden, Parsons and Jeremy Lin -- is good. They're not a team that emphasizes defense.
On a good team, Lin can't be a starter. He's not a great shooter and he's not even a great playmaker -- people think he's this Steve Nash point guard, but he's not. He does everything OK. Strength is his greatest asset. Even against some of the starting guards, he bowls through them and he's able to get to the free-throw line.
I love Patrick Beverley, and Aaron Brooks is a good backup. I wouldn't be surprised if those two play more minutes combined than Lin. Beverley is a hard-nosed, high-energy defender who brings toughness. He will rush it up the floor to keep pressure on the defense, he can make a three-pointer and he will attack while looking for the drive-and-kick.
I would imagine they're going to try to trade Omer Asik. It's not like they can trade Howard, but they may wish they could. Put it this way: If I were with the Rockets and I could trade Howard for Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge right now, I'd do it. I could start Asik at center with Aldridge because Asik can be a starting center on a good team if you have a superstar 4 next to him.
Asik has improved offensively, and he defends and rebounds at a high level. But there is no way they can play Howard and Asik together. They'll have two big guys who can't shoot and who will invite everybody to zone up, and Harden and Lin won't be able to go anywhere. They'd get something in a trade for Asik. But he's owed close to $15 million next season, which means every team is going to ask for Parsons to be included in the trade before they take on that big contract.
I loved how hard Omri Casspi played when he was getting regular minutes in Sacramento and early in his stint in Cleveland. Maybe he'll fit into what they're doing and be able to give them minutes at the 4, an unsettled position where they also have second-year players Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas competing.
Francisco Garcia was good for the Rockets in the limited time he was there last year. He can make threes and handle the ball a bit. I'm surprised a few more teams didn't go after him during the summer [when Garcia signed a two-year minimum deal with Houston].