Let’s be honest — this preseason has been hard to watch.
Much in the same way they treated Summer League, the Rockets have pulled numerous key players from games, making it difficult for the fans to get a good look at what’s new. This was highlighted best by a nationally-televised game against the Warriors where the Rockets sent eight of their top players home, rolling out Joshua Smith and Jeremy Tyler in the first quarter against last year’s title team.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed there were bigger questions for the Rockets to answer this preseason than ‘How does Will Cummings look?’, but that doesn’t mean we were completely in the dark. October 28th can’t come soon enough, but here’s what we’ve seen so far this preseason:
I don’t like to make projections very often based on preseason play — after all, Kelvin Cato is Scrooge McDucking over a sea of coins right now because of such a miscalculation — but one thing I can say with certainty: Clint Capela has progressed rapidly. He is a far better player than he was this time last year and looks bigger and more comfortable than he did just five months ago when he was making a surprise impact in the playoffs. Give it up for Daryl Morey and company here. The Rockets appear to have succeeded in filling a key rotation spot (backup center) and in adding an extremely valuable young player with a late first round pick — no easy task. Hands down, the biggest story of the preseason for me is Capela’s growth.
Ty Lawson, The Player
Though he has only played in four games with the Rockets, Ty Lawson looks sharp. The point guard is averaging 11.8 points on 53.1% shooting and 38.5% from three-point range in just over 24 minutes a night. If Lawson is hitting threes efficiently, this team has made a big jump with his addition.
A rookie big taken with the 32nd pick this past summer, Montrezl Harrell has a lot of learning still to do about the NBA game. Defensively he has been late to read, cover and rotate and hopefully this tightens up significantly as he adapts to this level of competition. But for some strange reason, this guy’s energy and in-your-face style gives me more hope for positive change at the power forward spot than anything else right now. The Rockets simply don’t get that gritty style of play from any other player at the position. He’s got long arms, a constant thirst to dunk the ball and likes to get out and run. By season’s end, Lawson may think he never left Kenneth Faried.
Just give him the damn ball. James Harden hasn’t shot it well this preseason (37% FG, 29.7% 3P), but this isn’t the first time that’s happened for him. Harden reported to camp in strong physical condition and is moving and passing very well. He looks confident and ready to go.
Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer
It’s hard to separate these two. Both Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer appear to be in midseason form, knocking down shots, attacking the basket and doing what they do best — bullrushing the passing lanes. Combined, the Rocket small forwards averaged over 30 points a contest with Ariza hitting over 55% from the field. The wing spot is set.
Ty Lawson, The Team Impact
I think this image posted on our forums summed it up best. We did not get a good idea at all of what this team will look like with Lawson, Harden and Dwight Howard. We know that Lawson won’t really move the needle on the defensive side of the ball, so where is his impact most felt on offense? Does he make Howard more efficient? Does he create more open three-point shots for teammates? Does he take defensive pressure off Harden, or is his presence most felt when Harden is resting? We haven’t got a clear vision just yet.
I came out of Media Day believing that Terrence Jones was ready for a breakout. He looked very solid last season before a couple of fluke injuries and he will have the starting job back with Donatas Motiejunas beginning the season on the shelf. He talked about working on his outside shot this summer, and he hit 4-11 (36.4%) from three in the preseason, but all it took was one stretch of watching him get manhandled again by Draymond Green for me to take a step back. Jones will do well this season — I have no doubt about that — but if you saw him at all in the playoffs last year, you know he needs to step up against the big boys. That remains to be seen.
I’m not buying K.J. McDaniels just yet. The second-year wing has put up some plays for the highlight reel, unleashing chasedown blocks (like this and this) and throwdowns (like these) that get Vine spinning, but there’s only one problem — we already knew he could do all that from his stint with Philly. The question with K.J. is can he make outside shots? Can he make passes and keep the offense flowing? Can he make defensive rotations? I don’t think the preseason has given us anything new there and I struggle to see where McHale finds playing time for him right now, especially with a superior shooter and veteran in Marcus Thornton also available for those minutes. For me, McDaniels is more trade asset at the moment.
Rookie wing Sam Dekker has sucked… and that’s not my word choice. I watched Dekker every day in shooting drills for the first week of camp, clanging three after wide open three, and at one point he finally threw up his hands in frustration and yelled to himself, “You suck!” He has not impressed in preseason. Granted, that’s normal for a young player, but given his outside shot struggles, I think it might take awhile. I thought the Wisconsin product might have a chance to stick on the roster without a stay in the Valley, ala Chandler Parsons, but now I think he’s destined for some good time with the Vipers.
I’m a little troubled by the fact that the Rockets played Howard in only one game as there are plenty of reasons the team needs to get him spot minutes in the preseason after adding a key component like Lawson. It also appeared McHale wanted to experiment with a Twin Towers lineup (Howard-Capela) in the first game and we never got to see more of that. Yes, Howard looked springy in his short stint but this does raise a red flag for me in hoping that he will remain healthy all season. It’s more troubling when you consider that D-Mo, who filled in admirably with Dwight out last year, is still recovering from a back injury.
Frankly, Patrick Beverley probably belongs in the “Need More Data” section, but I’m concerned. His defense waned last year and some of that could be attributed to injuries, but he hasn’t looked particularly sharp in the preseason and is shooting just 32.5% from the field and 31% from three-point range. It appears Lawson has won the starting job and I believe Bev will be fine, especially with reduced minutes potentially leading to increased intensity, but this is something to keep an eye on.