Inside Hoops

Gutted by Jeremy Lin & Omer Asik losses, the Houston Rockets face serious bench issues: Shooters please apply

Gutted by Jeremy Lin & Omer Asik losses, the Rockets face major issues

Dwight Howard Patrick Beverley upset
The loss of Jeremy Lin and the heart of the Houston Rockets' bench puts even more pressure on starters like Dwight Howard. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Omer Asik hands
Omer Asik is a bigger loss for the Houston Rockets than many realize. Courtesy of Basketball 101
Troy Daniels Rockets
Despite his game winner in the playoffs, Troy Daniels is still trying to win his coach's trust. Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Dwight Howard Patrick Beverley upset
Omer Asik hands
Troy Daniels Rockets

It marked the final salvo from Houston Rockets guard Isaiah Canaan, both in terms of staking his claim as the rightful backup to Patrick Beverley and proving in some measure that the Rockets do have enough capable scoring in reserve to keep their extraordinary offensive attack exceptional.

In the waning moments of the Rockets' preseason finale on Friday night at Toyota Center, Canaan buried a pair of 3-pointers to stave off the San Antonio Spurs and cap a 96-87 victory. Hours prior, Rockets coach Kevin McHale had made clear his intentions to provide Canaan, and not Ish Smith, the allotted minutes behind Beverley against the Spurs and Canaan made the most of his opportunity, pouring in a preseason-best 18 points (on 85 percent effective field goal shooting) in a preseason-high 20 minutes to showcase precisely what he brings to the table.

What Canaan may lack in playmaking and defensive might he compensates for with a deft shooting touch. Lest anyone forgot, Canaan provided one vivid reminder.

"That just goes along with me doing what I have to do to try and help my team win and be effective on the floor while I'm out there," Canaan says. "If scoring is one thing that I have to do then I'll do it. If it's going out there and being a lead guard I'll do that as well.

"It's just me taking pride in my game and just always staying ready. Just working hard on my craft each and every day."

 At 37 years old, there are legitimate concerns over what Terry has left in the tank, but his resume is distinguished. 

That theme of consistency resonated with the Rockets when the subject of their punchless bench was broached. For worrisome spells this preseason the Rockets' second unit appeared rudderless offensively, and given their offseason losses and the limited minutes played by veterans Jason Terry and Francisco Garcia, those struggles aren't shocking heading into Tuesday night's season opener in Los Angeles.

Among the five Rockets who logged 900-plus minutes while starting fewer than 34 games last season, three were jettisoned during the offseason: Guard Jeremy Lin (Los Angeles Lakers), forward Omri Casspi (Sacramento Kings), and center Omer Asik (New Orleans Pelicans). In 38 appearances as a reserve, Lin averaged 11.1 points per game on 45.1/33.0/81.0 shooting. Casspi averaged 6.9 points over 69 games off the bench.

And while Asik is severely limited offensively — he averaged just 3.8 points in 29 non-starts last season — his effectiveness in the pick-and-roll served to balance the second unit well last season. And, given what the Rockets have received offensively from the reserve bigs trio of Jeff Adrien, Tarik Black and Joey Dorsey this preseason, Asik by comparison looked downright Chamberlain-esque. Their collective inability to provide the Rockets any semblance of an interior scoring threat will heap an additional offensive burden on the shoulders of starting center Dwight Howard.

"Right now we’ve got some issues, especially getting pace and getting back and getting our attack," McHale says. "We’ve spent a lion’s share of our time on defense; we’ve got to get our offense cranked up too, and that means way more north-south.

"The second unit just plays east-west. They play shell offense, just pass the ball around for someone else to shoot it. We’ve got to attack, draw two, move the ball, so we’ve got a lot of work to do over these next few days to improve that."

Some of that improvement will come by way of Garcia and Terry, both of whom have track records as capable bench scorers. Garcia has averaged 6.6 points on .434/.364/.787 shooting over 398 career games as a reserve and, with his having logged just 17 minutes this preseason, his absence must be taken into account when hashing over the Rockets' ineffective bench scoring. The same should be said regarding Terry, who made his Toyota Center debut on Friday night and has played just 43 minutes over three games this preseason.

At 37 years old, there are legitimate concerns over what Terry has left in the tank, however his resume is distinguished with averages of 13.1 points and 3.2 assists in 486 games off the bench.

Where things get tricky in terms of evaluating the offensive potential of the Rockets' reserves is sussing out the newcomers. Neither Troy Daniels nor Canaan opened last season with the Rockets, and both spent the majority of their rookie campaigns toiling in the D-League. They have since graduated to more vital roles based largely on their individual reputations as perimeter shooters and less on their production in the regular season.

Daniels, whose shooting exploits in the postseason against the Portland Trail Blazers confirmed his credentials, capped his preseason by missing four of five 3-pointers against the Spurs, dropping his percentage from behind the arc to a still-robust 40.5 percent. Canaan hit 10 of 20 3-pointers in seven preseason games and shot 21 of 44 (47.7 percent) overall in just 93 minutes. Perhaps the law of diminishing returns will kick in if additional minutes are added to their respective plates, but the Rockets would be elated to receive that level of accuracy from Canaan and Daniels.

"The biggest thing to being a pro and being on the second unit is just being consistent," Daniels says. "Coming in night in and night out and just doing everything you’re supposed to do, whether you're making shots or getting stops or helping the team get rebounds. I feel like everybody is going to take care of that before they can really figure out exactly what their role is or what the rotation is going to be."

The Greek Question Mark

A role still must be determined for Greek forward Kostas Papanikolaou, whose all-around game has earned raves yet whose shooting hasn't quite been up to snuff. Papanikolaou logged a team-high 206 minutes this preseason but shot just 33.3 percent (22 for 66) from the floor and 21.9 percent (7 for 32) from behind the arc. McHale acknowledged his consideration for utilizing Papanikolaou as a stretch-4, but that job requires superior perimeter performances.

Until such reliable shooting reveals itself, McHale will labor to keep one of his top two scorers, Howard and All-NBA guard James Harden, in play at all times. Even while considering that option, McHale acknowledged the difficulty of such minutes rationing.

"We’re going to blend more," McHale says. "We haven’t blended a lot. We’re going to have to try to keep Dwight or James on the floor with that group. One of those two are going to have to be out there. Of course there will be nights where you won’t be able to do that, but we’re going to do that as much as we can."

 "There’s definitely no concern. We have a lot of weapons on this team, and everybody can really do something great." 

Of course, some of these concerns might be unfounded. Last season the Rockets' bench finished 26th in scoring at 27.4 points per game. The reserves' offensive efficiency numbers were vastly superior — Rockets backups ranked seventh in offensive rating (105.1 points per 100 possessions) and fifth in effective field goal percentage (51.5 percent) — but by and large, the team leaned heavily on a starting unit that averaged 80.2 points per game (second in the NBA) with a 53.8 eFG percentage (second) and 110.2 offensive rating (third).

The Rockets have exchanged Trevor Ariza for Chandler Parsons at small forward but otherwise their starting unit is largely unchanged and appears capable of matching last season's stellar productivity.

After revamping their roster on the fly and concocting a renewed emphasis on defense, the Rockets will remain committed to offensive potency. If their reconfigured bench can produce up to snuff, all that was lost by way of personnel decisions might not undermine their postseason aspirations.

"There’s definitely no concern," Daniels says. "We have a lot of weapons on this team, and everybody can really do something great."