HOUSTON - Every NBA season has them – those tough, trying times that test a team’s patience, togetherness and resolve. They are often as unpleasant as they are unavoidable; agonizing stretches when nothing works, everything seems out of sync, nerves are frayed and frustration threatens to boil over.
The Rockets realize there are no exceptions to that rule. Despite their current residency in the penthouse at the Cloud Nine Hotel in the wake of the Dwight Howard signing, they understand it won’t be roses and rainbows forever. Eventually, inevitably, the season to come will bring trials and tribulations, and what’s more, their success or failure as a team will likely be determined by how they handle those unsavory spikes of adversity.
That realization goes a long way in explaining why the vast majority of the Rockets’ roster can currently be found working up a sweat in Southern California. Houston’s players took it upon themselves to organize an informal mid-summer mini-camp of sorts, allowing them to get a head start on the teambuilding process and a jump on welcoming and integrating their prized offseason acquisition into the fold. The workouts were originally slated to take place in Chandler Parsons’ home turf in Orlando this week, but with Howard, James Harden and Jeremy Lin already in Los Angeles, and Parsons himself needing to be in LA for tonight’s ESPYs, the locale was changed last-minute. So Monday morning found several Rockets players hard at work inside a gym on the lush UCLA campus, beginning the process of building the sort of foundation that should serve the team well when the season starts and those inexorable obstacles emerge.
“I think the earlier you get started, the better,” said Parsons during a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “When you have pieces that are new, especially guys who are going to be impact guys like Dwight, it’s good to get to know one another on and off the court to get that familiarity and be comfortable with one another so that by the time training camp comes, it’s not strange, it’s not uncomfortable and it’s something that you’re used to.
“I think we can use this to really get to know one another and maybe see some strengths and weaknesses in each other’s games. It’s kind of like an introductory session for us to get to know Dwight – nobody knows where he likes the ball and things like that, so I think it’s definitely big to come together this early.”
As one would expect, the early reviews of the seven-time All-Star have been glowing.
“He’s just an athletic freak,” Lin said when asked how Howard has looked during their initial scrimmages together. “Certain sets with him rolling down the paint toward the basket and using his athleticism, it’s going to be really good for us. I think we can be really creative with the ways that we use him. He’s just an animal when it comes to everything near the rim – he’s thrown down numerous alley-oops already from James. He forces defenders to take an extra step or two to make sure he doesn’t get the ball just because he’s so explosive and so strong, and that gives us so much room to work. He’s either getting a dunk or someone else is left wide-open.”
That of course is what the Rockets dreamed of while plotting to add Howard to a team that finished with the NBA’s ninth-best point differential a season ago. On paper, it’s hard to envision a more perfect fit. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year will combine with Omer Asik to unquestionably give Houston the league’s foremost 1-2 punch at the center position. And in pairing Harden with Howard, the Rockets can perhaps now boast of possessing the preeminent pick-and-roll partnership in the game as well, one that ought to repeatedly and mercilessly put opponents in a pick-your-poison conundrum filled with pocket passes, rim runs and an unending barrage of shooters spacing the floor.
In fact, the numbers from Howard’s career to date portend the potential for greatness given the lineups Houston now has at its disposal. According to the Rockets’ Basketball Operations department, when Howard has played with a spacing four-man (similar to what the Rockets can trot out with either Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas, or when they go small with Parsons or Omri Casspi manning the position) and a playmaking wing over the course of his nine-year career, those lineups have combined to produce an offensive efficiency rating of 109.0 (a number that would have earned top-3 status this past season) and a defensive mark of 100.8 (a top-10 figure in 2012-13). Furthermore, the differential (8.2) between those two numbers would have ranked third only behind Miami and Oklahoma City last season.
Little wonder, then, that Parsons says Howard has been chomping at the bit to get started with his new teammates in order to start recreating some of the magic he experienced during his heyday in Orlando.
“He’s all for it,” said Parsons. “That’s a huge reason he chose to come to Houston. He loves our style of play, he loves the personnel. He looks forward to playing with me and James and Jeremy. I think it reminds him of Orlando where they had him and Gortat, and now it will be him and Omer. You have me as the Turkoglu kind of player. And no offense to Courtney Lee, but James is one of the best if not the best two-guards in the NBA. Their offense was really good when they could space the floor, have him roll out of the pick-and-roll, find shooters and play inside-out. I think our offense is very similar to the offense that he had a lot of success with in Orlando, but ours has even more freedom, it’s more up-tempo, and the more he runs, ducks in and the harder he rolls on those pick-and-rolls, it’s just going to open up our offense even more.”
While Howard has obviously and understandably been the primary center of attention so far, others are making strong early impressions, too. A week after putting the wraps on an impressive summer league stint that saw him average nearly 16 points and 8 rebounds per game down in Orlando, Terrence Jones is continuing to open eyes with the growth and overall development of his versatile game.
“From my own standpoint the guy that’s really stood out from an improvement standpoint is Terrence Jones,” Lin said. “He’s been playing really well. He’s confident, he knows he belongs and I think as a result we’re seeing him do things that he couldn’t do last year. He’s definitely grown as a player. And Omri Casspi – he’s also been playing really well. He can really shoot.
“Everybody is accommodating everyone else right now. We’re trying to build something together that everyone can buy into. Everyone’s voice on the team is going to be heard and the job of the coaches and the players is going to be to put the egos aside and find the happy medium. I’m sure that will be done over time and there will be bumps and bruises along the way like with every team. But having a week like this to bond and come together as a group can go a long way toward helping us overcome those obstacles in the end.”