The Rockets Reach for Greatness
Zach Lowe [ARCHIVE]
February 26, 2013
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I t was only eight months ago that the perception of Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets in some NBA circles had shifted from ahead-of-the-curve trailblazers to borderline laughingstocks who accrued little more than burned-up cell phone minutes. Dwight Howard had joined Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony on the list of superstars who had eluded the Rockets, despite iPad presentations and a nonstop flurry of gain-an-inch deals that had netted Houston some prime trade assets. By August, the Rockets had parted ways with two starting-caliber point guards, splurged on two unproven free agents in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, and on the surface looked like a franchise without a clear path up from mediocrity. The vultures (and critics) were circling: Perhaps Daryl Morey's approach just didn't work in real life.

Eight months later, after the stunning acquisition of Thomas Robinson — a top-five pick Houston nabbed without actually losing enough to get that high in the lottery — the Rockets are among the league's most-envied franchises. Their out-of-nowhere deal for Robinson drew a giant collective gasp around the NBA. They're 31-27 against one of the league's toughest schedules, a strong no. 4 in John Hollinger's power rankings, and a very good bet to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09. They have reinvented themselves around a superstar and an offensive system that represent the on-court actualization of NBA advanced stats — all 3s, free throws, and shots at the rim, accomplished at a hyper pace that makes Houston perhaps the league's most entertaining watch. "I've become a believer," says Kelvin Sampson, Houston's lead assistant. "It's fun to watch, and it's fun to coach."

Best of all: Houston should be able to carve out enough cap space this summer to make a run at any free agent, including Howard. And if they strike out again, the Rockets can simply carry over all that cap room to 2014 or 2015, both loaded with potential franchise players who might be happy to join up with James Harden. Heck, even if Houston splurges this summer on an almost-star such as Josh Smith, doing so would not necessarily prevent the team from reentering the free agency sweepstakes for a real star the following summer. "I don't think it's mutually exclusive," Morey says when asked whether spending this summer would take them out of the 2014 derby.

Houston still has a ton of upside assets, including a new one in Robinson, and by July 2014, some of those assets will have reached a point at which they could be both more appealing league-wide and more expendable from Houston's perspective. Deals attached to Lin and Asik already expire after the 2014-15 season; Chandler Parsons will be halfway through his ultra-cheap rookie deal after this season, and thus halfway to a big raise; and the rest of the roster is littered with young players.

But the Rockets aren't crowing. Morey understands how much work, and how much luck, went into landing Harden, and he realizes they need two more things to become a real contender: a second star and a good defense. "We haven't done anything yet," Morey says. "We are still on pace to be a no. 6–no. 10 seed. We still have a long way to go, but we definitely like our position better. We probably got the hardest part done, but now we have to get a second star to go with James. Until we become a real contender, it's fair for the critics to sit back and say, 'What have they really done?'"

The all-offense attack is fine, though Houston's decision to trade away its entire power forward rotation in the span of an hour last week will test the coaching staff. Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris had both become proficient 3-point shooters, especially from the corners, a key skill for any power forward in Houston's pace-and-space system. Robinson is not a 3-point shooter, and the coaches don't yet know what to do with him. Learning the playbook is not an issue, because Houston doesn't really have a playbook. "We don't have to stop practice and say, 'OK, now let's go over our plays,'" Sampson says. "We don't have any plays. During the flow of the game, very rarely do we run an actual play."

The first option for Houston is always the fast break. If they can't manage that, the Rockets essentially just shift into pick-and-roll mode. There are a few pick-and-roll variations, and Houston can use two or three of them on the same possession — the Harden/Asik pick-and-roll in the middle; the Lin/Asik or Parsons/Asik pick-and-roll on the wing as a second option; a Carlos Delfino/Asik pick-and-roll as a crisis third option; and various sets that have Harden fly off two screens on the right wing, take a dribble handoff at the right elbow, and then run what amounts to a high-speed pick-and-roll toward the middle as a shooter — usually Delfino — fades to the right corner.

The results have probably been even better than expected internally: Houston is fifth in points per possession thanks mostly to a shot selection profile that represents the next phase in what teams like Orlando, San Antonio, and Denver have done over the last few seasons. Houston is second in the league in 3-point attempts, third in shots from the restricted area, first in corner 3s, and in the top 10 in free throws per shot attempt. Houston is on pace to average the fewest midrange 2-point shots in recorded NBA history, per both Hoopdata and NBA.com's stats database. It is just about the exact vision the front office and coaching staff outlined in a series of meetings that started after last season, and it's something they began to execute in the preseason — before acquiring Harden. "It started to come together in our last two preseason games, and we got really excited," Sampson says. "And then we got even more excited when we got James."

Fitting Robinson in this scheme will be tricky because he can't shoot 3s. Houston can't stick him in the elbow areas, near the foul line, because stationing a big man there just gets in the way of Houston's pick-and-roll game. "The elbow is a no-fly zone for us," says Sampson, who does not hide his anxiety about the in-season trades. "My initial impression of the deal was: We're going to have to figure out how [Robinson] fits with us offensively. It is absolutely a concern."

But Houston wants to be a top-10 offensive rebounding team, Sampson says, and Robinson can help there. Another intriguing potential solution: Donatas Motiejunas, a 22-year-old Lithuanian 7-footer who has flashed a super-intriguing skill set in just 115 minutes this season — almost one-third of which came in Houston's first two games after the trade deadline. Motiejunas runs the floor hard, and Houston can stash him in the corners as a 3-point threat when they pair him with Asik. Motiejunas can hit from there, and he has already shown he can drive from the corners when defenders...
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