Now that the preseason is over, I just wanted to make a few observations, with strong caveats about the small sample size and the meaningless of preseason games. Hopefully, I can keep this brief, but I often find that once I start talking about something, I discover I have more to say than I had initially planned on saying. So we’ll see.
- Asik. Asik was consistently good to great in all of the preseason games and I don’t think it’s premature to say that he can more than hold his own as a starting center in the NBA and can even become one of the best–at the risk of sounding too much like a fan. He just does everything that he is supposed to out there and he does it with such great effort. I mean, the guy even begged the coaching staff to let him play in a game that they had planned to sit him out. Asik’s goal was to be a starting center in the NBA and it appears he’s really embracing the opportunity. He plays with such confidence out there and makes very smart decisions consistently, looking every bit the part of a good to great starting center in the NBA. Asik has looked more impressive than I ever thought he could be. Even when I stated that Asik is the Rockets’s MVP in my previous posts, I didn’t expect him to be this good. I have no reason to doubt that he can continue his high level of play once the regular season starts.
- Kevin Martin. The old Keven Martin is back, it appears. He’s been automatic on the offensive end. If this continues, he could be having an all-star type of season.
Very solid preseason performers:
- Parsons. I admittedly don’t know much about Parsons from last year, but from what I’ve read, it appears that he’s improved every aspect of his game, which is saying a lot, since he had a great rookie year. Parsons is definitely the best Small Forward that most people haven’t heard about. He got drafted in the second round and has been over-achieving ever since. Only in his second year, Parsons has risen to become the leader in this Rockets team. And out on the floor, Parsons does just about everything. If I had to pick who McHale’s favorite player is, it would be Parsons. He’s definitely a coach’s player. Very smart and good in the locker room.
- Delfino. When the Rockets acquired Delfino, I wasn’t sure what the plan was. But so far, he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing: hitting long-range shots and providing some much-needed veteran consistency. The lone exception was the first game, in which he was atrocious and made a lot of Rockets fans question why the hell Morey ever signed this guy. Delfino is a streaky shooter, so there’s always the risk that he’ll have awful nights where nothing is going. Hopefully, those will be few and far between. Delfino is defninitely McHale’s favorite bench player, since McHale loves veteran players. Delfino will be the first guy off the bench for McHale. The only downside to Delfino is that he’s taking away minutes from Lamb, who can be every bit as good of a shooter that Delfino is, yet, with a higher ceiling.
Great preseason surprises:
- Asik’s ability to adjust to playing starter-type minutes and his offensive abilities. My main concern about Asik was whether or not he would be able to adjust to playing more than 14 or so minutes a night and so far it looks as if he’s making the necessary adjustments. I was mainly worried about him fouling out of games. This did happen in one preseason game, so it’s still somewhat of a concern for me. Also, he hasn’t exactly been playing full starter minutes. So we’ll see how this goes once the regular season starts. But so far, it appears that he’s managing to limit the number of fouls he commits. The other concern I had was whether or not he’d be able to sustain a high-energy level for an entire game. From what I’ve seen, I haven’t noticed Asik getting winded in games. He appears to be playing hard the entire time he’s on the floor. I’m very optimistic about this. Finally, Asik was considered an offensive liability. In these preseason games, he’s shown that he can do exactly what we need him to do on the offensive end, which is to keep the defense honest. He also has a hidden ability to pass the ball at a high level for Centers. This is a huge bonus that I never expected. I think the interesting thing we’re seeing about Asik is that he’s never had to really think about the offensive end of the floor, since he was only needed to come in for 15 minutes or less. So he just didn’t develop his offensive game. But Dawson, one of the Rockets’s assistant coaches, has done an excellent job of training an all-around game into Asik in such a short period of time. I think it’s remarkable. Also a lot of credit goes to Asik, as well, for all the hard work and belief that he put into radically improving this aspect of his game. I mean, his free throws are even falling with a high level of consistency. It’s really astounding to see.
- Terrance Jones. There was a lot of talk about Lamb, White and D-Mo, but it’s Terrance Jones who has emerged as the rookie who’s most NBA-ready. I guess a lot of analysts said this about Jones during Summer League, so his emergence my not be all that surprising. However, for a rookie, he’s got a great all-around game, with great shot-blocking abilities. He’s a lock to back up Patterson at the Power Forward position and a lot of fans are rooting for him to eventually start at some point int he season.
- Greg Smith. I, admittedly, don’t know anything about this guy and barely heard about him during training came. He’s a 21 year old in his second year who barely played for the Rockets last season. In the last two games, Smith has looked very impressive and has played with a lot of confidence. Although he’s more of a Power Forward, he’s the closest thing we have to a viable back up center for Asik. Out of nowhere, he’s made a strong case for himself to be included in the rotation. This is, perhaps, the biggest surprise of the preseason.
Pleasant preseason Surprises:
- Shaun Livingston. The back up Point Guard position has been in flux all preseason up until the last couple of games in which Livingston has proven that he deserves the spot. Toney Douglas is a streaky shooter and great defender, but has no business running an offense. I don’t really know where Toney Douglas fits into the Rockets rotation, but I definitely don’t think he should be the main back up for Lin. I think the offense is in better hands with Livingston when Lin’s on the bench. Back in high school, Livingston drew comparisons to Magic Johnson. He was just never able to come close to those expectations, because his career has been plagued with injuries. If Lin continues to struggle and Livingston gets more and more back into his old form, I can see a scenario, however remote, in which Livingston becomes the Rockets’s starting Point Guard. I want to stress that this is highly unlikely as Lin provides too much value, even when he’s struggling to find his offense. Even without Lin’s Linsanity explosiveness and his ability to score the ball, Lin’s court vision and ability to give guys the ball where they want it will never go away. Also, I think Morey and Les Alexander would have a fit if McHale decides to bench Lin.
- Martin’s effort on the defensive end. Nothing much more to say here except it seems as if McHale’s incessant emphasis on D has taken hold of the team. A big part of defense, to me, is effort. Martin appears to be putting out the effort. We’ll see how long this lasts.
Preseason disappointments or misfortunes:
- Lin struggling mightily to score, but still managing to help the team in every other way. I’ve discussed about Lin’s struggles in previous posts, so no need to go into it here.
- Rookies not getting enough playing time to show what they can do. This is no one’s fault really. It is just what it is. But we didn’t get to see much from Lamb, D-Mo, or White. To me, Lamb is a bit surprising. I had expected Lamb to play more. Lamb fans can blame Delfino for this.
- Machado, who has a lot of great passing skills is going to be sent to the D-League, because there’s just not enough room in the roster for him. This is unfortunate, because I think Machado has legitimate point guard skills. Just needs to develop other aspects of his game and overall feel for the NBA game. So D-League would probably be good for him.
- Morris injured in the first game after doing very well. I’ve read a lot about Morris’s (one of the few returning Rockets who struggled mightily last year) complete change in attitude and it really showed in the first preseason game. He looked really good, but got injured in the second half and has been out ever since. He’ll return soon, but I wonder if his long absence will hurt his chances of being in the regular rotation. I don’t think that it will, since he plays Small Forward. This may be the reason why Parsons appears to be getting the most minutes of any Rockets player, since there’s no one to back him up right now. I actually just thought of this just now, because I had been wondering why McHale tends to leave Parsons out there longer than any of the starters. We’ll see if this is still the case once Morris returns.
Overall, the Rockets have looked good in the preseason. Of course, strong caveats apply. But at least we can all admit that it’s better to do well then struggle in the preseason. Their strong performance in the preseason also gives these young guys momentum and much-needed confidence going into the regular season. So that’s always good.
I”m very curious to see how the Rockets do once the regular season starts. The general consensus among analysts is that they’ll win fewer than 30 games. I’m confident that they’ll win more than 30 games, as long as their key players–especially Asik–remains healthy for nearly the entire season. Admittedly, my skewed perspective probably comes from my experience of watching the Knicks’s awful play after Linsanity. As a result, when I see the Rockets actually active on the offensive end, I’m probably more impressed than I should be. Rockets also look fierce as a unit on the defensive end–at least among the starting unit. It seems as if they’re playing better and better defense with each game. Granted they are playing pretty weak teams and it is the preseason. We’ll see how this translates into the regular season. I believe the Rockets won something like 33 games last season in a shortened season. So that’s why I’m confident that the Rockets will be able to beat their number of wins last season, because the key returning players, Martin, Parsons, and Patterson, are much improved from last season and they didn’t have an Asik last season.
Through the preseason, McHale has kept things pretty simple–especially on the offensive end–out of necessity. He realized that he had to take it slow with the youngsters and not put in too many sets. So can’t really say much about McHale so far. One thing I do like about him is his complete honesty. He also seems to be supportive of Lin and is keen enough to appreciate all the things that Lin does, outside of scoring the ball. I also like how McHale encourages a free flowing offense. In particular, McHale relayed a conversation he had with Lin where he encouraged Lin to just be aggressive and play his game. And when Lin had expressed that Lin is sometimes concerned about making sure that Martin gets shots, McHale told him to not worry about those things. This is music to Lin’s ears, because this is definitely not something Woodson would say. So I think that conversation was really helpful to Lin, because it made Lin realize that McHale truly believes in a free-flowing offense that Lin excels at.
One thing I don’t like so far with one of McHale’s offensive sets is that he has the Point Guard drop off the ball to a Forward at the top of the key immediately as the Point Guard crosses the half court line and then the Point Guard moves to one side (often the right side) of the court and is no longer involved in the offense during that possession. I’d be okay if he does this every now and then to mix things up. But he seems to do it way too often. Now, I’m not sure if this is something McHale is telling Lin to do on each possession or if it’s just one of the offensive sets that Lin can decide on his own if Lin wants to implement for that particular possession. If it’s the latter, than that’s more encouraging, because it means that Lin is just doing this because he knows he’s not ready to play his hyper-aggressive style, yet. I’d also be fine with the Point Guard immediately giving up the ball if he is later included in the play or, better yet, if they run a play for the Point Guard without the ball. Maybe run him through screens without the ball. I think this is something Lin would definitely excel at, because of his quickness.
In general, though, I think the Point Guard should be handling the ball most of the time and the Point Guard should remain somewhere at the top of the key so he has a better view of the floor and so guys can easily spot him when they need to get bailed out. But, hey, McHale has way more basketball experience than me, so I’ll just give him the benefit of the doubt that he knows what he’s doing.
The unfortunate outcome of the Point Guard immediately giving up the ball is that someone like Kevin Martin ends up handling the ball more than he should and makes poor decisions by forcing shots or giving up the ball with little time for his teammates to do anything with. I’m sure the coaching staff is aware of this. So we’ll see if this continues to be a regular occurrence.
One theory I have about why McHale wants the Point Guard to give up the ball immediately is to keep the ball moving. McHale doesn’t want guys to take too many dribbles. He wants them to make quick decisions with the ball and pass, rather than dribble. I completely agree with this philosophy. This is the main problem that the Knicks had. Guys just kept dribbling and playing one-on-one and everyone would just stand around gazing at the guy with the ball. By whipping the ball around constantly, it makes it very difficult for the defense to react, because the ball moves faster than bodies. My only problem with this is that I think the Point Guard should have some license to hold onto the ball a little longer, because the Point Guard is the one on the floor that has the ability to make something happen by dribbling the ball–especially a Point Guard of Lin’s caliber.
I keep hearing over and over lately about how Lin needs to make the easy play. This is the biggest thing McHale is trying to drill into Lin. I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I suspect that he wants to limit Lin driving to the lane and trying to make something happen, because this is risky. Instead, he is more in favor of Lin making the easy pass around the perimeter. But this is just a guess. It sounds a little like he wants to train the Linsanity out of Lin. But that might be going too far. After all, one of the big complaints about Lin is that he would often drive into congested lanes and leave his feet and end up turning the ball over. So this could be a good thing for Lin. The key is whether or not “making the easy play” is code for being less aggressive. If it is, then I think that’s unfortunate. But if it’s just a way to play aggressively, but in a smarter manner, then I’m all for it. We’ll see how it plays out.
One other complaint I have is that the Rockets are running very few pick-and-rolls. I’m not sure if this is because of the lack of ability of Lin’s teammates to run pick-and-rolls. I’ve noticed that Asik gets called for illegal screens in pick-and-rolls a little too much. So maybe this is why they’re limiting it. They’re also not give Lin high screens, which is something that Lin excels at. Again, this may have to do with McHale trying to keep things simple for the guys.
Overall, though, I don’t think we’ll see Linsanity in Houston, because Lin isn’t needed to score the ball as much as I had anticipated and it seems like McHale would prefer Lin to be more of a passer. I think we’ll see Lin’s assists increase significantly and his points go down. I may even go out on a limb and say that Lin could be a top three in the league in assists this season, as long as he remains healthy, since the Rockets surprisingly have a lot of consistent scorers. So that might be another form of Linsanity, albeit, a less exciting one. Despite the lack of Linsanity, I think Lin will prove integral to helping Rockets win games. Of course, it’s still too early to say anything with any level of certainty. In the last game, Lin did show clear signs that he is still interested in playing aggressively. So at the end of the day, it’s really up to Lin whether or not he wants to go Linsane, since the ball is in his hands at the beginning of most possessions and he is in a free flowing offense. So I’m sure if he’s successful, McHale will let Lin do Lin’s thing. So my hope that we’ll see Linsanity 2.0 hasn’t disappeared altogether. More Linsanity would definitely be better for basketball.