Mavericks' Chandler Parsons embarks on a season of redefinition
"Dwight [Howard] and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets," Harden told The Philippine Star. "The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We've lost some pieces and added some pieces."
Harden was cold, but right. Parsons' departure was an inconvenience to the Rockets, but hardly some ruinous development. Houston would roll on. Trevor Ariza was signed for a fraction of what Parsons would have cost, filling the same position if not quite the same role. With him the Rockets remain a sure, mid-tier playoff team, anchored around two stars just as Harden described. Some pieces were added, some pieces lost.
The "role player" tag, though, applies to Parsons only in context. For the Rockets he was just that: an accessory to Howard post-ups and Harden isolations, ready to knock down three-pointers or cut into open space. Yet in terms of ability, Parsons is capable of far more. Dallas thought so much of Parsons' game and potential that it signed him to a $46 million offer sheet -- a salary far too rich for any role player. He won't be paid that wage to wait patiently on the weak side. The Mavs have far bigger plans for Parsons, beginning with more prominent placement in the team's offensive workings.
• MORE NBA: Parsons No. 56 on SI.com's Top 100 of 2015
"I'm ready to have a bigger role, be more of a leader and that's why I came here," Parsons said at the Mavericks' media day Monday. "I think I'm ready for that."
Parsons was just as ready for that kind of responsibility last season, even if Houston's offensive system didn't quite allow for it. When in the half-court, many of Parsons' touches came as the result of broken action elsewhere on the floor. A pass out of pressure might find its way to Parsons, who could hoist up a shot, initiate a counter drive or slow things down to run a makeshift pick-and-roll. So many of those opportunities, however, came as the result of a possession where the Rockets had accomplished little. Not all kick-out passes are created equal. It would be one thing for Harden to drive deep into the paint and find Parsons unattended in the corner. More often, though, Harden would dribble down the shot clock in an attempt to break down his man off the dribble, then swing the ball to Parsons on the wing as a last resort.
In doing so, Harden had not displaced the defense. He hadn't forced a rotation or given the play any kind of momentum. It's to Parsons' credit that he was able to wring as much value from those possessions as he did, though that in itself was characteristic of a Rockets offense that -- even in its general efficiency -- proved too stodgy and too deliberate. Such a style reinforced the distinction between stars and role players that Harden invoked above. By implicit hierarchy there was Harden, Howard and everyone else.
Dallas' read-and-react system is more democratic. It calls on a wider variety of players to handle the ball and make decisions on the fly. There are set plays to get the ball in the hands of Dirk Nowitzki or Monta Ellis, to be sure, though they come strengthened by fluidity and misdirection. When an opponent bends too far in their coverage -- of Nowitzki, Ellis, a cutting Tyson Chandler or any other Mav -- then Parsons will find prime opportunity to attack. It's in those situations that Parsons is at his finest. If given a single step, Parsons can slice through an opposing defense to exploit it from within.
For a team that moves the ball as well as Dallas does, Parsons will be a natural extension of the system. He has terrific awareness. The ball doesn't stick in his hands. He's suited to play off of other creators, though boasts a growing skill set to adapt to situational needs.
"We want him, obviously, to expand and evolve his game," Nowitzki said of Parsons. "He's only 25. He's still not in his prime. He can still get a lot better. But we like what he brings to the table and that's his versatility…He can handle a screen-and-roll for his size. For 6-9, he's an unbelievable passer in the drive-and-kick game. His three-pointer is much improved. He's going to be in a lot of situations for us."
Parsons will cut, screen, drive, shoot, hand off, read the floor and find his teammates. His responsibilities will range wide and include, among a variety of other things, more traditional pick-and-roll play. Rarely, though, will Parsons be given the ball on the perimeter and asked to make something of nothing. Instead, he'll be set up to drive against a defense leaning one way or the other -- the product of quick reversals and planned shifts in direction. Dallas finds so much of its excellence in this kind of choreography. There are options and alternatives at every juncture of every set, but the Mavs' base offense is rooted in just the kind of simultaneous action that allows a player like Parsons to attack at a place and moment of weakness. In time, Parsons will feed off of the gravity of his teammates, who will in turn benefit from his supplementary drives and pick-and-rolls.
"I'm going to make the job easier for [the rest of the team], too," Parsons said. "I think having a wing like Monta on the other side is going to help us both out. It's going to relieve pressure for both of us. We both can create and we're both going to score a lot of points, but I think we have multiple options. We can hurt you inside with Dirk. Me and Monta can score out in transition. Pick-and-roll is going to be hard to stop with us, and we have so many versatile guys off the bench to give you different looks.
"Offensively, this system right here is perfect for a guy like me with a lot of up-and-down, a lot of free-flowing offense. If I get a defensive rebound, I get to push it. I can play pick-and-roll very well. I think the offense is perfect for me here and I think I'll really enjoy playing with the guys who are going to be with me."
There's more to Parsons' optimism than preseason pleasantry. He's waited for this kind of opportunity and this kind of contract. Dallas leapt at the chance to give him both -- an affirmation not only of what Parsons has done, but of what more he could do.