Basketball fans are in a pretty luxurious place heading into this season. Last year there was really only one predominant storyline going into October, and that was about the lack of basketball for the foreseeable future.
This year, with the knowledge of the season starting at its scheduled time, we get to revert to the old ways of making outlandish predictions about the future of the NBA with little to no knowledge to base those predictions on other than the borderline-irrelevant previous season.
The ‘it’ concept
To better understand this, perhaps a definition of ‘it’ team will help. For me at least, The NBA’s ‘it’ team is simply defined by being the media darling with the talent to win. Last year it was clearly OKC. With their explosive and fast paced offense combined with the humble coolness of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s stupid glasses, they created a likeable unit that was easy to sell and even easier to root for.
Given that they built their team through smart trades, good draft picks and the development of fundamentals combined with smart coaching, to like the Thunder feels palatable. They are not over-paid ego-monsters like some of The Association’s elite. In the words of my girlfriend, “They all seem so nice!”
The year before that it was probably Derrick Rose’s juggernaut of a Chicago Bulls team. It followed the same formula; build through the draft, hire a good coach and win games.
A pick for next year’s ‘it’ team might be someone like the Minnesota Timberwolves. Kevin Love’s scruffy lumberjack beard and laid-back personality during pressers make him the perfect candidate for the ‘it’ team’s requisite star. That’s actually a new sports theory, have a semi-talented guy with a beard on your playoff team and everyone’s going to jump on your bandwagon. See: James Harden, Brian Wilson, Brett Keisel. Way more concrete than “Ewing Theory.” We’ll call it “Beard Theory.”
Rockets fit the model
Going forward, past the season immediately in our future, the odds on who’s going to become an ‘it’ team becomes pretty wide-open. I’ll gladly throw a red hat in the ring for Houston to lock down that spot by the 2013-14 season.
The Rockets are a perfect fit for this role if you simply follow the formula. Lets take a look at the potential talent for the coming years and guess their talent ceiling.
The obvious poster-boy was the source of one of last year’s biggest NBA story lines. Everyone got tired of hearing the words Jeremy Lin by the time his miraculous rise to basketball glory was complete. All the eye-rolling at horrible Lin puns didn’t stop him from winning the espy for breakout athlete of the year and locking down a fat $25 million contract for 3 years of play with Houston.
Everyone seems to believe that The Rocket’s current imprint on the Asian market will have a significant impact on the marketability of Lin, however, it’s important to remember that that relationship was formed by Chinese citizen and unofficial world ambassador Yao Ming. We’ve met Yao Ming, and Jeremy Lin is no Yao Ming.
Though he is an intelligent, moral, down-to-earth (he won’t stop sleeping on people’s couches!) guy with an under-dog story to boot. If his production stays on par to last year (14.6 ppg, 6.2 ast on 27 minutes) then he could easily be an all-star, only further propelling him into the favor of the national audience.
Last year, Chandler Parsons showed by far the most promise of any Houston rookie, locking up a starting spot at the small forward. The faux-hawk sporting Joshua Jackson look-a-like plays a surprisingly bouncy game, averaging almost 5 rebounds and 10 points on 28 minutes.
In the 2011-12 season, his put-backs made for several Sports Center highlights and his clutch, buzzer beating three at the end of the OKC game was one of last years few happy moments for Red Nation. Not to mention it seems as though him and new teammate, Lin, already have a buddy-buddy thing going on, which as The Thunder will tell you, looks great for the press. And Foot Locker.
Jeremy Lamb is another potential bright spot for Houston in the coming years. As The Rockets top pick in the 2012 draft at #12 out of UConn, it’s possible that he has the highest ceiling of any player on the team. Given his impressive scoring ability (11 ppg in college) and length (4.5 rpg) scouts at the NBA Summer League were apparently wondering why he slipped all the way to #12.
If you check out the pictures he’s tweeted since being drafted by the Rockets, it’s evident that he already has the Russell Westbrook swag down pat. Hopefully that style will translate to his pro-game, but if even if his potential is never fully realized, he should be a dangerous shooter and effective rebounder. Lamb could perhaps bottom out as something along the lines of a quicker Nick Young. That’s a pretty low-risk, high-reward scenario.
Royce White is already somewhat of a fan-favorite in Houston. Most people who followed the draft closely already know about his battle with anxiety, disciplinary issues at Minnesota (which appear to have been a misunderstanding at best and a lapse in judgment at worst) and fear of flying that caused him to fall out of the top 10 picks in the draft.
Those issues are a blessing in disguise for the Rockets who snagged White with a steal at #16 with their second pick.
He’s truly the x-factor for this model of ‘it’ team success in that he has a beard that balls out a little harder than J-Hardens. The fact that he’s a 6’8” deft passer with a soft touch and solid rebounding ability is really just gravy.
Donatas Motiejunas was acquired by Houston via the 20th pick in the 2011 draft owned by Minnesota. He is a 7-footer with an incredibly smooth 3 and great inside touch. With a 25 point showing in this year’s NBA Summer League he definitely gives the Rockets a much needed inside presence to pair with Omer Asik.
On top of his innate scoring ability and intimidating size, he also has the attitude needed to survive as a big man in the NBA. Here he tells Dwight Howard via a post-draft press-conference to “Catch me if you can.” Awesome.
Dark Horse- Machado
Scott Machado is a Brazilian-American rookie point guard that caught the Rockets eyes after going undrafted. As a complete package, a lot of questions remain about his ability to control the flow of a pro-style game. However, he has some individual aspects that make him an incredibly intriguing prospect.
If you have never heard of him, that’s understandable, he went to Iona. Oh, he also led the ENTIRE NCAA with a stunning 9.9 assists per game last year. Machado is full of surprises like that.
As fellow RantSports.com writer Colin Flosi, pointed out to me when we were discussing the Rockets prospects; at the 2012 NBA Combine, Machado did 17 reps on the bench press. For reference, Tyler Zeller did 16, Tony Wroten did 0 and Austin Rivers did 1. That’s a strong guard.
He then went on to have a great showing in the NBA Summer League averaging 8 points, 5.6 assists and 2.2 rebounds per game. I don’t know if he’s going to be the phenomenal player that he could be, but I don’t want someone else to find out. This could go down as a great move by GM Daryl Morey.
What could be the biggest question mark in the Rockets ‘it’ team aspirations is Head Coach Kevin McHale.
Everything looked great at the first half of last season, with Houston at one point reaching fourth in the Western Conference. However as the season progressed, some kind of collapse, spurred by the absence of Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry took its toll.
I’m not sure if there was anything the former Celtic-great could have done to prevent the slow spiral out of the playoffs, but if finishing in the middle becomes a regular trend, he might not be left with a leg (foot) to stand on. Following Rick Adelman is a tough task, but with tools like Asik and D-MO, maybe McHale will bring knowledge of low-post prowess to the weakest part of The Rockets arsenal.
His time as an announcer definitely puts him at ease during interviews and it appears he has a good relationship with the team. That likeability will go far in garnering the sadly irrelevant Rockets some much needed attention from the national media.
All of this is of course speculative for now as The Rockets aren’t in a position to immediately dominate the league. Will Houston be the Southwest’s answer to Oklahoma City’s cool, young, athletic team of the future in the next couple of years? Maybe not, but with the amount of youth and potential talent they’ve acquired over the last several months, it’s clear that they’ve found a successful model and are doing their best to replicate it.