No one feels sorry for the Houston Rockets.
They have had many injuries and have rarely been at full strength this season. Young players have had to step in and play more than coach Kevin McHale ever would have planned.
McHale, however, hasn’t conceded the season while starters Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones have missed significant amounts of time.
“Development sounds really good, but if you’re trying to win a playoff spot in the West, you have no time for development,” McHale said. “You’ve got to play.”
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The Rockets have done that and are off to an 18-5 start.
Besides the offensive brilliance of All-Star James Harden, unheralded Donatas Motiejunas, Tarik Black, Kostas Papanikolaou and Isaiah Canaan have seen their roles grow – when they haven‘t been injured themselves, of course.
“A lot of times, as a young player in our league, you don’t get an instant chance to come in and play, especially on a team that’s winning,” McHale said. “And they’ve done something with the opportunity, and that bodes well for them.”
Even without Howard, the Rockets have managed to play improved defense. While Harden leads the NBA with 26.5 points per game, he’s even bought in defensively after admittedly being less than focused on that end of the floor in the past.
Harden might propel himself into MVP contention for his efforts, but the way the reserves have not allowed the Rockets to slip might be more valuable.
“With every injury is an opportunity, and how well your team does depends on how well they do with their opportunity,’ McHale said. “A lot of guys in our league, and I’ve been in the league a long time, they get an opportunity and don’t do very well and they’re out selling insurance.”
Beverley is back and Howard returned to the lineup Saturday.
So while it’s been fun to see younger players contribute, McHale can begin to see how a team some expect to compete for the NBA championship really looks.
Black at center has been a cool story, but it’s not a story that’s likely to end with an extended playoff run.
“You’re not really seeing your team out there and you’re not being able to say in a perfect world we’re playing our guys this many minutes,” McHale said. “Substitution patterns are a little more set when you have all your people.”
All his people or not, McHale has the Rockets on track for success.
Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler decided against signing a contract extension with the team in October, opting to play out this season to prove his true worth.
That’s looking like a smart move.
Butler is averaging 21 points and shooting 48.7 percent, both career highs. No longer is Butler known as just a defensive player, which will increase his value.
Butler said last month he planned to stay with the Bulls, even after not signing an extension.
At this rate, it will cost more to keep Butler a Bull.
Kevin Love is averaging 17.6 points and 10.1 rebounds this season. Those are fine statistics for many forwards, but they represent a major dip in production for Love in his first season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Love’s scoring is at its lowest since the 2009-10 season, Love’s second in the NBA. His rebounding is at its lowest since his rookie season.
It’s not entirely unexpected. When Love was traded to the Cavs, he went from being the man in Minnesota to option No. 3 in Cleveland for a chance to win a championship.
“I think we played pretty good for a team full of toilet paper,” Lakers guard Jeremy Lin, after the Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs in overtime on Friday. A day earlier in practice, Kobe Bryant said the Lakers were “soft like Charmin” toilet paper.