The Houston Rockets swung for the fences in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes last summer and fell just short of the warning track.
Their consolation prize?
The cash cow known as Jeremy Lin.
Lin became an international star in 2012 when he came out of nowhere and turned the New York Knicks' season around. Despite star forward Carmelo Anthony being sidelined, Lin took over the starting point guard role and led the Knicks to seven straight wins when he played extensive minutes. New York was 8-15 before the Harvard product suddenly transformed the Big Apple into "Linsanity," the media-driven slogan for the rags-to-riches story. But there was no fairytale ending for Lin, who missed the postseason after undergoing surgery in April to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee.
Now, Lin must bear the burden of a big contract after the Rockets, who cut Lin in training camp last year, signed the restricted free agent to a three-year, $25 million deal -- an offer the Knicks failed to match despite his obvious drawing power. Lin must again wield his magic with a roster that underwent drastic changes in the offseason.
The Rockets, in Kevin McHale's first year as head coach, missed the playoffs for the third straight year as its 34-32 record put them in fourth place in the Southwest Division. Cursed with a deep yet mismatched roster, general manager Daryl Morey acquired a plethora of assets in order to land Howard from the Orlando Magic, but to no avail. The All-NBA center was eventually dealt to the Lakers, and the Rockets were left with Plan B.
The roster purge saw the departure of regulars Kyle Lowry, Courtney Lee, Goran Dragic and Luis Scola -- all double-digit scorers last season. In their place, the Rockets were left with a slew of young talent, including three 2012 first- round picks, looking to make their mark.
With those selections, the Rockets chose UConn shooting guard Jeremy Lamb (12th overall), Iowa State forward Royce White (16th) and Kentucky slasher Terrance Jones (18th). Lamb and Jones each won a national title while they were in school, and White showed flashes of brilliance in his only year with the Cyclones, leading the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks. White, however, is stricken with an anxiety disorder that heightens when he flies, an issue that kept him from reporting to training camp on time.
The big holdover is Kevin Martin, who has never met a shot he didn't like but has averaged at least 17 points the last six seasons. The 29-year-old shooting guard is in his third training camp with the Rockets and is the elder statesman for this unpredictable bunch.
Joining Martin as a veteran is Carlos Delfino, a much-needed free agent acquisition who will provide stability off the bench. Delfino, entering his eighth year, has averaged at least nine points per game the last four seasons.
"We have a lot of young guys. We have to find a rotation, so we have a lot of stuff to do," McHale said. "It's going to be a hell of a challenge...but we have to find a way to get it done."
2011-12 Results: 34-32, fourth in Southwest; Missed Playoffs.
ADDITIONS: G James Harden, C Cole Aldrich, C Omer Asik, C Donatas Motiejunas, G Jeremy Lin, G Toney Douglas, G/F G Carlos Delfino, F Daequan Cook, F Royce White, F Terrence Jones
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Jeremy Lin SG- James Haren SF- Chandler Parsons PF- Patrick Patterson C- Omar Asik
KEY RESERVES: G Carlos Delfino, G Shaun Livingston, G Toney Douglas, F Marcus Morris, F Royce White, F Terrence Jones, F Daequan Cook.
FRONTCOURT: In the first year A.Y. (After Yao), the Rockets had Marcus Camby and Samuel Dalembert fill in at the center position. But both defensive stalwarts are gone and in comes third-year pro Omer Asik, a 7-foot free-agent signing from the Bulls. The Turkish big man saw less than 15 minutes per game in his two seasons with Chicago, but his height should allow Houston's guards to cheat a little more defensively as he occupies the middle.
Joining the raw Asik in the frontcourt are Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson -- both of whom will turn 24 during the season. Parsons started 57 games in his rookie campaign and nearly averaged double-figures (9.5 PPG) while shooting an efficient 45 percent from the field. The Florida product has a nice outside game, but can be a liability on defense.
Patterson, a first-round pick two years ago, is another 6-foot-9 forward who can be overmatched on the blocks but can play an up-tempo pace that McHale is looking to implement.
BACKCOURT: Martin will be the beneficiary of Lin's slash-and-kick game. With the Knicks, Lin allowed the likes of Landry Fields and Steve Novak open looks on the perimeter and will do the same with Martin, who can also create his own shot and take it to the rim. Martin has made only 38 percent from behind the arc over his eight-year career, a percentage that may increase with Lin creating more space.
The one aspect of Lin's game that calls for legitimate questioning is his decision making. His 3.6 turnovers per game would have ranked as the fifth most in the league if he played enough games, and his 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio needs improving. A third offensive system in three years (Lin played with the Warriors his rookie year) will likely slow his development, but a full offseason knowing he has secure roster spot will prove vital for the level-headed 24-year-old.
"I looked at my stats and figured out what I'm bad at, what I'm below average at and how can I make myself better," Lin said. "Every day I make a lot of mistakes in practice. So as I continue to cut down on those and grow my game, hopefully I'll be able to evolve as a player."
BENCH: Delfino, Shaun Livingston and Toney Douglas are the only known commodities coming off the pine for Houston. Livingston, the fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft, has battled back from an infamous knee injury in Feb. 2007 that limited him to 48 games the next three seasons. He put up respectable numbers (5.5 points, 2.1 assists) in a backup role for the Bucks last season and will be asked to provide similar production behind Lin and Martin. Douglas, acquired in a July trade that sent Camby to the Knicks, is an inconsistent shooter, but gives the Rockets another option on the perimeter.
No one else on the roster possessions more than three years of NBA experience. Forwards Marcus Morris and JaJuan Johnson look to build off so-so rookie campaigns, so the club hopes it hit the jackpot with either Lamb, White or Jones.
Lamb and Jones were among the scoring leaders in Summer League play and have developed a winning pedigree under the tutelage of their collegiate coaches. White, if he can somehow manage his anxiety issues, may be a draft-day steal with his all-around game.
Donatas Motiejunas is another rookie from Lithuania who figures to see extended minutes behind Asik. The 7-footer was selected with the 20th overall pick in 2011, but opted to play in Europe last season and led his team to a Polish League title.
COACHING: McHale took over for the reins from Rick Adelman and guided the Rockets to an over .500 record in his first season. Anything less than the playoffs this time around will likely be viewed as a step backwards, but an entirely new roster has changed McHale's blueprint.
The former Celtics great, known for his prowess in the post in his playing days, will try to run his opponents off the floor, especially in a Southwest Division filled with veteran clubs.
OUTLOOK: Expect the Rockets to come out of the gates slow, but Morey, one of the prominent users of advanced metrics in player analysis, will help McHale figure out Houston's optimal lineup by the turn of the calendar year. The Rockets may be out of the playoff hunt relatively early, but will be very busy at the trade deadline considering their depth across the board. So stayed tuned in Houston, win or lose.