NBA PM: Houston, We’ve Got a Contender
VIDEO OF THE DAY – Chandler Parsons
HOOPSWORLD catches up with Houston Rockets small forward Chandler Parsons at the Team USA mini camp in Las Vegas.Watch More Video Here
Houston, We’ve Got a Contender
After arguably the best offseason in franchise history, the Houston Rockets are understandably confident entering the 2013-14 NBA season. To get a sense of this group’s optimism, consider what Dwight Howard told me shortly after the ink dried on his lucrative contract with Houston.
“We’ve been talking about winning championships.”
While that’s a far cry from LeBron James’ “not one, not two, not three” speech after signing with the Miami HEAT, it shows that the Rockets believe they have what it takes to become perennial contenders as long as this team remains together. They hope to spend a lot of time with the Larry O’Brien trophy over the next few seasons, just as James and his teammates have done over the last two years.
And why shouldn’t the Rockets feel confident? They have the league’s best shooting guard, best center and an impressive supporting cast made up of role players who understand what they need to do in order for the team to be successful. This team definitely has the talent to be legitimate contenders and they should only get better in the coming years. It’s easy to forget that this star-studded team is still one of the youngest squads in the league and their window of opportunity is wide open. Howard, at 27 years old, jokes that he’s “the youngest veteran in the NBA” since he’s one of the oldest players on the team.
Last season, the Rockets won 45 games and exceeded all expectations. James Harden proved that he’s a superstar-caliber player, emerging as one of the league’s pleasant surprises and elite scorers. Harden’s 25.9 points per game ranked fifth in the NBA behind only Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. In addition to Harden’s coming out party, Chandler Parsons made huge strides, Patrick Beverley solidified himself as a key contributor, Omer Asik proved that he’s a serviceable big man and Jeremy Lin played well when healthy. Even Houston’s prospects – Donatas Motiejunas, Greg Smith and Terrence Jones – showed promise when given an opportunity to play.
The Rockets were knocked out of the playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the series was more competitive than anyone expected. Houston managed to win two games against Oklahoma City, including an elimination game in front of a hostile crowd at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. The absence of Russell Westbrook, who suffered a lateral meniscus tear in Game 2, certainly made things more difficult for the Thunder, but the eighth-seeded Rockets still deserve credit for holding their own against the West’s best team.
After the series, Houston was praised as an up-and-coming squad that could eventually become a top-tier team like the Thunder, once their players developed and reached their collective prime. After all, Houston’s average age was just 23.9 years old and they were the least experienced team in the league, with an average career length of 1.7 years in the NBA. Prior to the first round series against the Thunder, four of Houston’s five starters had never started a playoff game. The Rockets had the talent and potential to be a very good team, but they needed some time.
However, the moment Howard agreed to sign with Houston, everything changed. Howard left the Los Angeles Lakers for the Rockets because he felt it gave him the best chance to win a championship. Sorry, championships.
Suddenly, Houston had to shift into win-now mode. The plan was accelerated. They could no longer be patient with their young players and let this team eventually develop into a winner a few years down the road. They need to see results as early as this year, which is why they followed up the Howard signing by adding a number of veterans including Ronnie Brewer, Marcus Camby, Reggie Williams and Omri Casspi as well as re-signing Francisco Garcia and Aaron Brooks.
Around this time last year, Houston’s best player was Kevin Martin and the Rockets were in the headlines for handing out poison-pill contracts to Lin and Asik. The team had assembled more power forwards than they knew what to do with and most preseason projections had Houston finishing as one of the worst teams in the league.
Now, one year later, Houston has two All-Stars and the chance to be special. If the group can get on the same page, fill their roles and play to their full potential, the Rockets can be an elite team that makes a deep run in the postseason.
This time of year is fun for fans and players alike, since every team is undefeated and full of hope. For the Rockets, they have a reason to be excited because they could realistically be one of the top teams in the Western Conference. The players know this, and they can’t wait to start the season. They’ve been working hard all offseason to ensure that the talent on their roster will translate into wins on the court.
“Every year when training camp comes along, every team writes on the board that the goal is to win a championship, but as a few months go by you realize the teams that are actually on the upper echelon,” Brewer said in a phone interview. “If we’re able to jell quickly, we’re going to try to contend this year, for sure. We have a great coaching staff and a great team. When you have that combination, the sky is the limit.”
“We have a chance to be really good,” Parsons said in July. “We understand that it’s just all names on paper right now, but we’ve got a lot of talent and we have to put it together. We’re just working hard, understanding that nothing is going to be given to us. We understand that a lot teams see a bulls-eye on our back and they’re going to try to come after us. We have to stay humble, we have to work extremely hard and just stay together through the ups and the downs.”
“At the end of the day, we still have to come in and prepare like any other good team to get ready for the upcoming season,” Beverley said. “It’s going to be fun. I know basketball. Dwight is going to be a big boost. No one has a crystal ball though. Everything takes hard work and preparation and that’s what we have to do.”
“We have to fight,” Smith said earlier this offseason. “Just because we got [Howard] doesn’t mean we get to sit back, lay low and say we’re going to win the championship. From now on, we have to put in extra work. Everyone is saying that we’re going to be title contenders so we have to work. We’ll have a target [on us]. Teams will want to beat us so we need to be ready.”
During his lone season with the Lakers, Howard wasn’t himself. He was limited by injuries and struggled in a diminished role. While he still managed to average 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, his numbers were down across the board and his efficiency rating was the lowest since his first two years in the league. The injuries, drama and losses frustrated Howard, and he wasn’t the dominant interior presence that he had been during his eight seasons with the Orlando Magic.
With all that has transpired over the last two years, it’s easy to forget the impact that Howard has on the floor. He was a perennial MVP candidate in Orlando, and finished as the runner-up behind Derrick Rose in the 2010-11 MVP race. He also showed that he can lead a team to the NBA Finals. During the 2008-09 season, he almost singlehandedly took the Magic to the Finals by averaging 20.6 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks during the regular season and 20.3 points, 15.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks during their deep postseason run. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen that virtually unstoppable Howard, but that could change this year.
All indications are that Howard is entering this season completely healthy, which is a scary thought for 29 teams. Howard is one of the most dominant players in the NBA – on both ends of the court – when he’s playing to his full potential. He should look more like the three-time Defensive Player of the Year instead of the shell of himself that donned purple and gold last season. Houston is certainly counting on Howard to be 100 percent, since he’ll be the team’s anchor and key to their title hopes.
“It’s huge,” Parsons said of adding Howard. “He’s the best center in the NBA and he’s going to help our defense greatly. Then on the other end, just being able to throw the ball into the post to a guy like that and create double teams, a guy who can finish like that and get to the line, it’s huge for our offense. He’s going to help our overall game and I think we’re immediate contenders now that we’ve added Dwight.”
“I’m definitely happy that he’s here,” Beverley said. “I think our whole organization – coaching staff, players, summer league players – even my family and friends are happy. I know the fans in Houston are ecstatic right now. His defensive rim protection is a big piece of the puzzle. We need it. Adding him to our team is a huge boost.”
“I can’t wait,” Smith said of playing with Howard. “After playing against that guy, I’m glad he’s my teammate. Last year, playing against him three times was tough. He’s one of the best bigs in the league, hands down. He’s strong, physical, runs like a gazelle, jumps and scores. It’s going to be great to have him on our team. I know a lot of teams are going to be preparing for him, so I know I’ll be getting my dunks. If he shoots and misses it, I got that tip dunk because they’ll be watching him a lot. It’s really going to free me up a lot. And I can learn so much from him. He’s been in the league for nine years. He has so much experience and he’s been to the Finals. I just want to soak it all in.”
Shortly after signing with the Rockets, Howard compared his new team to the Finals squad that he had in Orlando since the team has a lot of fresh legs and he’s going to be surrounded by shooters. Parsons, who may end up being the X-Factor for this Houston team, agrees with that comparison and sees himself filling the Hedo Turkoglu role for the Rockets.
“I think it’s going to be very similar to the Orlando situation,” Parsons said. “I’ll be playing with him as a Turkoglu type player – someone who is versatile, facilitates, runs the pick-and-roll with him, finds him for lobs and finds him for dunk-ins. … I’m going to continue to develop my game. I want to be the most versatile player in the NBA. I want to be able to make my teammates better. I’m just working on my strength, getting better defensively and developing my post game. Also, I need to be able to knock down shots because with all of the attention that James and Dwight are going to get, I’m going to have a lot of open looks so I need to step up and knock them down.”
Houston’s role players understand that they must step up and make things easier for Howard and Harden. Oftentimes, a team’s supporting cast is just as important as the stars, and Houston has done an excellent job assembling complementary pieces that know their roles.
“I’m excited to see how all of the other players on the team jell with them,” Brewer said. “We all know what James brings to the table, being a young prolific scorer who is one of the best shooting guards in the league. We all know what Dwight brings to the table on both ends of the court at the center position. I think it’s going to come down to what we get from Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, myself, Terrence Jones, Francisco Garcia, Omer Asik, Marcus Camby and the list goes on. It’s our job to raise our level of play and play at the level of our stars. Hopefully we can make the team better on both ends of the court. One of the reasons that they showed interest in me is because they needed someone who could come in and be an athletic player who can defend. This lets me get back to the way I was playing in previous years, where I’m getting up and down the court, moving without the basketball, using my basketball IQ to cut to the basket for easy lay-ups, playing up-tempo and, of course, defending at a high level. That’s the reason why I decided to come here. It’s young core group of guy and I think when you have superstar players like Dwight Howard and James Harden, they’re going to get so much attention that you need guys around them who can do the dirty work and then knock down shots when they become available.”
“It’s going to be great, especially because Dwight gets so much attention from defenders,” Beverley said. “And, I mean, the inside-out with him and James is going to be perfect. It’s up to me, Francisco and Chandler to continue making plays, be aggressive and hit open shots.”
Brewer, who is one the better perimeter defenders in the league, is hoping to help the Rockets on that end of the floor. The addition of Howard will obviously help too, as will an increased role for Beverley (who turned heads for the way he pestered Westbrook during the first-round series against the Thunder). Last year, Houston allowed opponents to score 102.5 points per game, which ranked 28th in the NBA. Their defensive efficiency was 103.5, which ranked 16th in the league. If the team wants to contend, they must do a better job slowing down opposing teams.
“I feel like last year they weren’t as good of a defensive team and we need to come in with the mindset that we’re going to be a better defensive team,” Brewer said. “If we can do that, then I think we can be pretty successful. We’re probably not going to go from where they were last year to number one, but I think we can make strides to get better every day when we step on the court. I think that’s one of the things that we’re going to preach. We know that we can score, get up and down the court, and put up a lot of points, but on nights when the shots aren’t falling we have to be able to go out there and stop people on defense. We brought in some guys in who have that mentality and will hold everybody else accountable. I have no doubt in my mind that Dwight Howard is going to lock down the middle. Omer Asik is going to lock down the middle. Other guys will defend, rebound, block shots and be unselfish too. It’s all about effort and wanting to be better defensively, and I think we can do that.”
Two players who may end up being surprise contributors for the Rockets are Jones and Motiejunas. Jones is just 21 years old and has only appeared in 19 games while Motiejunas is 22 years old and has played in 44 contests. However, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has already hinted that they’ll have a bigger role in the upcoming season. While Houston may try to play Asik alongside Howard at power forward, Jones or Motiejunas may be thrust into the starting lineup if that experiment fails. If that happens, both players will be ready to make the most of the opportunity.
“I’m just trying to put in work to be ready for the next season,” Jones said earlier this offseason about stepping into an increased role. “Just to learn from [Howard] and be able to play off of him, it’ll help me get better. There are a lot of things I can learn from him. I think guys are ready. We really went after it in the playoffs and it was exciting. We’re just ready to get better and make another step.”
After such a remarkable offseason, all eyes will be on the Rockets to see if they can live up to the hype. That also means there is much more pressure on this team than there was last year, but that’s not something the players are worried about.
“There’s no pressure,” Parsons said. “We’re going out to play basketball. We enjoy competing; it’s what we do. We’re just more confident now.”
Mavericks Sign Devin Ebanks
The Dallas Mavericks have reached an agreement with free agent small forward Devin Ebanks, the team announced on Friday afternoon.
Ebanks, who spent the last three years with the Lakers, will sign a non-guaranteed deal with Dallas.
Ebanks was the 43rd overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft by the Lakers, and he has career averages of 3.6 points and 1.9 rebounds in 63 games with 15 starts. Ebanks also saw action in nine playoff games (starting in six) in 2012 and averaged 4.1 points, 2.2 rebounds and 14.0 minutes.
The 23-year-old has had some off-court issues since entering the league, but he’s still very young and has a lot of room to grow. If he can mature and continue to develop, he could salvage his career and become a contributor in the NBA.
The Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic were also expressing interest in Ebanks prior to his signing with Dallas. Ebanks was in Orlando on Wednesday to work out for Magic brass.
The Mavericks’ roster now stands at 19 players, which means they’ll have a very interesting training camp.