Omri Casspi’s Career Poised for Liftoff With Houston Rockets

In his fifth season in the American pro league, Israeli forward is finally finding a role in a system that believes in him - from the coach down to his teammates.

Elad Zeevi
Elad Zeevi
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Elad Zeevi
Elad Zeevi

An incident last weekend during the third quarter of an NBA preseason game between the Houston Rockets and the Memphis Grizzlies helps illustrate the corrective experience Omri Casspi is currently undergoing.

It actually happened during a time-out, which Rockets coach Kevin McHale dedicated almost exclusively for a one-on-one with Casspi. It was a private lesson on a live broadcast, including an erasable board and hand gestures. Do this, don’t do that. Two minutes later, the entire Houston bench arose and clapped for the Israeli, who scored over Mike Miller. This kind of attention is usually reserved for the stars, not a player who averaged four points a game last season.

Casspi is no star but, on the eve of his fifth NBA season, feels that he has landed on a different star. His coach in Cleveland, Byron Scott, would rather watch paint dry than dedicate a time-out to him. His teammates at Cleveland and Sacramento were too busy boosting their personal statistics to clap hands for him.

However, over the last few weeks Casspi has rightfully earned those plaudits. In seven preseason games he averaged 13.2 points an outing, hitting 55 percent of his field-goal attempts and nailing 33 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Add to that 5.1 rebounds per game, and he has turned out to be the pleasant surprise on the Rockets bench.

Preseason stats are not worth much more than the paper they're written on, but when there is consistency, there is some evidence of a trend ahead of the season opener. Indeed, Casspi’s stock has been rising on the team.

“He has been playing great, been rebounding the ball so well and hustling all the time,” coach McHale - a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee - told the Houston Chronicle earlier this month. “There is nothing not to like about what I have seen from him so far.”

In contrast to Scott, who claimed last year that Casspi needs to review the playbook, McHale is satisfied with the way his Israeli player has adjusted.

McHale told the Chronicle that Casspi picked up the offense quicker than most players. McHale wants to see improvement on defense from him, but said he isn’t worried that it will come. “He will pick it up,” he said. “He is getting better all the time.

“He is one of those guys who came out and had a good start," McHale added, "and then I don’t know that he has ever been in the right situation yet. I like him a lot.”

NBA players can spend an entire career without being in the right situation. Casspi, who spent four years with teams that were mired in chaos - both among the players and administration (Sacramento) - or didn’t dream of a playoff run (Cleveland), is for the first time in his American career receiving a perfect package: a quality team aiming high; an offense based on quickness; and a defined role in the rotation in a system that believes in him – from the coach down to his teammates.

“The way Casspi has been coming in and playing, he is earning his minutes,” said Chandler Parsons, also quoted in the Chronicle.

Not the focal point

Casspi himself sounds quite pleased with his progress. He says Houston’s fast-paced style of offense suits him. He also says there is a lot of freedom on offense, and that the players share the ball, adding that he's enjoying every moment.

Others enjoy him, too. It’s a little weird to hear U.S. commentator Reggie Miller lavish praise on Casspi’s game less than two months after commentator Pini Gershon – like almost every other colleague, to tell the truth – delivered a scathing critique of him during the EuroBasket 2013 competition. The difference between Casspi in blue-and-white and Casspi in Houston’s red-and-white is enormous, but it is not totally unconnected.

“It could be that this new start is just what he needed,” says Casspi’s agent, Liron Fanan. “I can’t explain what happened in the EuroBasket, and I am not sure Omri himself could. It’s not that he didn’t try or didn’t want it. One of the differences is that in Houston the focus is not on him.”

Somehow, the Rockets were able to look past the 4.0 points per game and 39 percent field-goal shooting he averaged in 43 appearances last season. From their perspective, they picked up a hungry 25-year-old who is willing to accept a minimum contract, who can be a sharpshooter from outside as a 2.06-meter giant, and can maneuver within the team system between both forward positions.

All the signs suggest that Casspi is poised to spend a considerable amount of time guarding taller and stronger players – against Memphis he was so close to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, he could smell their sweat. Coach McHale believes that the offensive benefit at this position will cover for Casspi's shortcomings on defense.

McHale says Casspi could have a role similar to the one Carlos Delfino had for the Rockets last season. “Carlos knew how to get open and was very smart, knew how to read stuff,” McHale was quoted as saying in the Houston Chronicle, three weeks ago. “He knew how to get in the open spot.”

The ability to move to the open shot and, especially, to hit it, will determine Casspi’s future in the Rockets’ rotation. If he keeps up what he did in preseason, everyone will truly benefit. If his shooting percentages start sinking, other players – like Donatas Motiejunas or Terrence Jones – will get more opportunities at his expense.

For now, the opportunity is his. General Manager Daryl Morey is one who makes a trade on a dime. And still, he refuses to trade Omer Asik, even for a big guy who can score from outside – something that seems a more urgent need than another center alongside Dwight Howard. A big part of the reason Morey is suppressing this urge is Casspi, and his faith in the Israeli. For if there is something Morey loves more than trades, it is investing in a low-priced stock that grows in value in his hands.

Omri Casspi (right) during Houston Rockets' preseason victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.Credit: AP

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