Rocket Science: Why Houston have scored big this season
Dwelling in the lower half of the table in the Western Conference, without multiple national or international TV appearances, and without any marketable names in their roster – no star players, no young future starlings – the 2011-12 Houston Rockets had become one of the least interesting teams in the NBA. Don’t get me wrong, there was still nerd’s gold to be found in Rockets game, between the talents of some of the NBA’s perennially underrated names like Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Kyle Lowry, Samuel Dalembert, and Goran Dragic. Hell, they even finished with a winning record under the shrewd management of Daryl Morey. But the Rockets still missed the playoffs, and worse, few fans outside of Houston paid attention to the fact that they missed the playoffs.
Once one of the most popular teams in the planet, a team that once won back-to-back NBA titles with Hakeem Olajuwon, and was rich with talent throughout the last decade – from Yao Ming, Steve Francis, and Tracy McGrady – had fallen into an uncomfortable purgatory: not good enough to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to score a great young star in the draft.
And that is when the Rockets decided to take some big risks in the 2012 off-season. It’s still early days, but it seems that those risks seemed to be paying out big.
The Rockets aimed high for 2012, clearing out much of their cap space in hope to become a potential suitor for some of the NBA’s big name free agents like Dwight Howard and Deron Williams. They even waived one of their two best players – Luis Scola – who signed instead with the Suns. With Dwight heading instead to the Lakers and Williams staying with the Nets, the Rockets instead splashed their cash on the Knicks’ Jeremy Lin.
Despite the most shocking astonishing fascinating mindboggling story of the universe this year (otherwise known as Linsanity), Jeremy Lin is not the Asian-American coming of Michael Jordan like the hype would have you believe. Still, Lin showed the potential of being an above average point guard who had the ability to take the superstar turn from time to time. The Knicks (foolishly in my opinion) found him expendable when the Rockets made an offer they felt was much higher than how they valued him. Lin left the adoring New York fans behind and headed to Houston instead. He was going to get paid like a superstar, but now in a team of young faces and relative unknowns, he would have to shoulder the responsibility of a superstar all season. The Rockets may not have found their saviour, but they brought in one of the NBA’s most popular youngsters into their squad. Overnight, they were going to turn a whole lot more interesting.
A week later, the Rockets signed on Omer Asik, formerly a backup Center for the Bulls. A solid defensive pro, indeed, but still, as the NBA season drew closer, it looked like they were heading for a largely forgettable season again (peppered with a few sprays of Linsanity).
And then, just three days before the start of the season, the Rockets pulled off a shocking trade, bringing in reigning sixth man of the year James Harden – along with supplementary backup pieces – in exchange for their solid if uninspiring scorer Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb, two first round picks, and a second-round pick. A day later, Harden, who had never been a regular NBA starter, was handed a max salary. It was a bold decision by the team in giving up much of their future for one bearded juggernaut.
It took only their first game of the season to realise that the gamble had paid off. Staring with a lineup of Lin, Harden, Chandler Parsons, Marcus Morris, and Asik, the Rockets got an exciting opening win against the Pistons. Harden exploded for 37 points, 12 assists, and 6 rebounds in his very first game for his new team. Two days later, he did it again, but this time playing even better against the Hawks, posting a career-high 45 points.
Meanwhile, his backcourt mate Jeremy Lin seemed to be fitting into his new environment well, too, scoring and moving the ball excellently and finding great camaraderie with Harden. The Rockets dropped their next game to the Blazers in overtime, but Harden, Lin, and another newcomer Asik immediately gratified the Houston fanbase who were doubting the franchise’s decisions. Harden was named the NBA’s Western Conference player of the week and was the league’s leading scorer at time of writing. With the likes of Parsons, Patrick Patterson, and Cole Aldrich also gradually improving, this young team has suddenly become one of the NBA’s hottest tickets, going from the most unknown to the one of the most interesting squads in the league in the new season.
An all it took was a heady cocktail of an unstoppable, underrated, likeable, and beautifully bearded scorer paired up with an exciting and also likeable Asian sensation.
Will the Rockets continue their early-season surge? Will they upset some predictions and sneak into the tough Western Conference playoffs? Like ‘Linsanity’ before it, there is an expiry date to Harden’s other-worldly breakout, and he’ll settle down to a lower (but still incredible) scoring average. The team as a whole will slow down too as they face tougher opponents who will figure out smarter ways to stop them.
But the unexpected turnaround in Houston won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Harden is an All Star caliber player, and Lin has All Star caliber popularity. Together, they might not be able to bring too much success overnight, but they have brought their fans the next best thing: hope. Hope that the new faces of the team can become a cornerstone which the franchise can then build upon to take aim at the NBA championship again.