2013--14 RECORD: 54--28 (2ND IN SOUTHWEST) COACH: KEVIN MCHALE (4TH SEASON WITH ROCKETS)
Trevor Ariza was never supposed to become a Rocket in the off-season. Houston's intentions were far grander, centered on the courtship of perennial All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, but neither signed. Nor, for that matter, did Chandler Parsons, who joined the Mavericks after the Rockets declined to match a three-year, $46.1 million offer sheet for the restricted free agent.
Those developments led to Ariza's four-year, $32 million contract as Parsons's replacement. In their virtual swap of small forwards, the Rockets gave up a versatile 25-year-old with fringe All-Star potential as well as one of their few shot creators besides James Harden and Dwight Howard. In acquiring the 29-year-old Ariza, however, Houston gained a superior running mate for Harden on the wing.
At 6'8" and 220 pounds, Ariza is a long, flexible stopper, a necessity given Harden's all too casual defense at shooting guard. (Last season the Wizards, who ranked ninth in points allowed per possession, were 3.7 points better per 100 possessions on defense with Ariza in the game.) Ariza is also at his best when finishing plays rather than creating them. His style is to defer to ballhandlers like Harden, being content to space the floor for three-pointers—in 2013--14 he buried a career-high 40.7%—and cutting from the weak side for layups. Ariza may not have been Houston's first choice, but his strengths make him more than a mere consolation prize.
10.2 PPG; 2.7 APG; 41.4 FG%; 36.1 3FG%
25.4 PPG; 6.1 APG; 45.6 FG%; 36.6 3FG%
14.4 PPG; 6.2 RPG; 45.6 FG%; 40.7 3FG%
12.1 PPG; 6.9 RPG; 1.3 BPG; 54.2 FG%
18.3 PPG; 12.2 RPG; 1.8 BPG; 59.1 FG%
5.5 PPG; 3.6 RPG; 0.5 APG; 44.3 FG%
KOSTAS PAPANIKOLAOU ‚Ä†
6.8 PPG; 3.8 RPG; 47.2 FG%; 34.0 3FG%
‚Ä†ROOKIE (SPANISH LEAGUE STATS)
A more disciplined defense enables Houston to challenge the West's heavyweights.
A shallow rotation, weakened by off-season losses, leaves the Rockets too top-heavy.
A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE ROCKETS
They are the easiest team to scout because they have the smallest playbook and are lackadaisically coached. It's as close to pickup basketball as there is in the NBA.... I don't think we'll see the Orlando version of Dwight Howard again. The Magic built the team around Howard, and Stan Van Gundy created a strong defensive philosophy and held him accountable. Those things aren't in place in Houston, which doesn't have a stretch four to pair with Howard and is asking him to cover for too many defensive mistakes from teammates.... Playing with James Harden, who dominates many possessions, can be tough for Howard, who can't go get the ball himself. Defenders are so mindful of Harden's shooting that they get off balance, and when he sees that, he's savvy about jumping in, flailing his arms and getting the call. Teams typically put their best defender on Harden, but a few of those whistles can take that guy out of the game.... Harden is lazy defensively, but you don't see Kevin McHale put his foot down.... Teams with good fours—and there are a lot of them in the West—will continue to give the Rockets trouble defensively, especially now that Omer Asik [who was traded to New Orleans] isn't around to take on a tough matchup if Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas struggle.... Patrick Beverley is one of their few guys who values playing defense. You have to game-plan for him because of his on-ball pressure, which he can sustain the entire game.... Their bench rotation will be interesting to watch after the losses of Asik and Jeremy Lin [who was dealt to the Lakers]. They need to find a second-unit scorer.
GLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
Harden is in control of the offense.
PAUL MOSELEY/FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM/MCT/GETTY IMAGES
DWIGHT MAKES RIGHT? The Rockets were a so-so 12th in points allowed per possession in their first season with Howard (left), a three-time Defensive Player of the Year.