Passing Free

Kevin McHale's genius: Despite Jeremy Lin drama, Rockets turning into NBA's most unselfish team

Kevin McHale's plan: Despite Jeremy Lin drama, Rockets most unselfish

Dwight Howard post Rockets
The Rockets are trying to get Dwight Howard the basketball — and that effort alone means plenty. Photo by Mike Young/Getty Images
Kevin McHale, Jeremy Lin, Rockets, basketball, November 2012
Kevin McHale will tell you it doesn't matter who starts at point guard. Houston Rockets/Facebook
Chandler Parsons Thunder
Chandler Parsons is another willing passer.
Dwight Howard post Rockets
Kevin McHale, Jeremy Lin, Rockets, basketball, November 2012
Chandler Parsons Thunder

Perhaps dazed by the lingering afterglow of the Dwight Howard honeymoon, Houston Rockets fans likely overlooked the construct of the team's starting lineup for its most recent preseason game.

With versatile small forward Chandler Parsons earning the night off, Howard was flanked in the front court by Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi. The backcourt tandem featured James Harden and Patrick Beverley, the latter of whom was set to start at point guard even if Jeremy Lin, who departed the arena before tip off with an illness, was available.

Of note: Not one member of that quintet was with the organization 365 days earlier. In fact, including the seven reserves who earned playing time in the Rockets' 108-104 preseason victory over the Orlando Magic last week, second-year power forwards Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas were the only members of the 12-man rotation who opened the 2012-13 season on the training camp roster.

 Everybody passes and everybody shares, and working through the debate on who does so first feels trite given the unselfishness of the participants. 

Through continuing roster upheaval the Rockets have managed to establish an identity and cleave to it. Preseason games are about fiddling with personnel groupings and developing rotations, yet the Rockets have grown impervious to change heading into Monday night's preseason game against Dallas. While they speak sincerely of seeking cohesion and camaraderie and chemistry, the Rockets appear to be managing fine through all the flux.

"I think the guys that played here last year are a lot more comfortable inside of our offense and it flows a lot better," Rockets coach Kevin McHale says. "Sometimes you get the other guys out there and it gets a little stagnant, but I like what we've been doing with the ball so far."

What's not to like?

Casspi, one of those "other guys" McHale referred to, descended from orbit with his shot (2-for-10 shooting) against the Magic, yet matched reserve guard Aaron Brooks with a team-leading five assists. Garcia, acquired from the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 20, 2012 at the trade deadline, chipped in 11 points and four assists. Harden, whose one-year anniversary of joining the organization comes Oct. 27, teamed with Beverley to total 34 points, 14 rebounds and six assists.

After raising eyebrows by assisting on 65.5 percent of their made baskets through their opening three preseason games, the Rockets recorded 25 assists on 35 field goals against the Magic in preseason game number four. That's a robust total, one that's exceedingly impressive given the odd mix of personnel.

Casspi earning the starting nod amounted to an expansion of his burgeoning role as the power forward in the Rockets' small lineup. Casspi had excelled playing alongside other reserves but last week offered an opportunity to mesh his talents with those of Howard and Harden. The results were uneven, with Casspi going scoreless while totaling two assists during the first half (Harden and Howard did not participate following the intermission).

But with Jones and Motiejunas scuffling, and with Omer Asik and Greg Smith ailing, McHale took the logical step in examining whether Casspi could fill the void at the four and work effectively alongside the two players expected to carry the Rockets deep into the postseason and perhaps into title contention.

"He played better with different people, too, so you've got to see who he's playing with, and I think him playing with Dwight or Omer will help him, too, because those guys can really rebound," McHale says of Casspi. "But he's been rebounding really well for us (Casspi is averaging 13.6 rebounds per 48 minutes this preseason). It'll be kind of an ongoing thing."

Best Offense IN NBA?

At this clip, the sample size argument against the Rockets' offensive proficiency will be muted in short order. Their assist rate thus far, 66.9 percent, is extraordinary, as is the Rockets' effective field goal percentage of 56.2 percent (the Miami Heat paced the NBA with a 55.2 eFG% last season; the Rockets finished fifth at 52.5 percent). While projecting regular season success based on preseason results is an exercise rife with folly, the Rockets' sharing and shooting is promising considering the fact their primary rotation players have yet to dominate the minutes allotment.

 "We've been moving the ball phenomenally. It's not really a thing where we've been fortunate, it's just been happening naturally." 

That compliment is difficult to fish out from the Rockets' collective modesty. Howard frequently notes that significant time passes before teammates unfamiliar with one another discover the synchronicity that serves as the foundation for title contenders, but no amount of humility can negate the progress the Rockets have made thus far. Even against the Magic, against whom the Rockets struggled to feed Howard with post entry passes once he established position on the block, their efforts to showcase his offensive skills spoke to their desire to get him involved.
Howard did not record an assist, and his most memorable offensive contribution outside of an alley-oop dunk courtesy of a Harden assist was his soaring block on former teammate Jameer Nelson, a defensive gem that Harden turned into a transition 3-pointer on the offensive end. The Rockets bogged down offensively attempting to showcase Howard, but their intent was just.
"We don't want that to happen. I don't want that to happen," Howard says. "So I've got to find other ways to get the ball: running, transition, get the early screens. It's something we've all got to work on. We'll be fine."
There is mounting evidence confirming that declaration. Before their pace slowed after halftime the Rockets hit 11 of 22 3-pointers in the first half, a stretch that included their determined attempts to feature Howard in the post. Their passes remained crisp and on target and, much like they did last season, the Rockets routinely hit uncontested perimeter shots that were available.
With each assist and with each effective shot, skepticism wanes. McHale, Howard and Beverley dismissed the significance of who ultimately wins the starting point guard role and, from their vantage point, their argument is irrefutable. Everybody passes and everybody shares, and working through the debate on who does so first feels trite given the unselfishness of the participants.
"That's our game," Beverley says. "Penetrate, kick, extra pass. We're all about the extra pass and it's been a blessing that we have guys that can make a lot of shots. Add Dwight and add as much attention he gets, and someone has to double on him and you have open shots.
"We've been moving the ball phenomenally. It's not really a thing where we've been fortunate, it's just been happening naturally."