It took James Harden’s Houston Rockets three years to go from also-ran to championship contender … and just three games for us to give up on them.
Life comes at you fast in the NBA, faster than a baseline cutter disappearing behind your back while you daydream about breakfast defection, and the 2015-16 Rockets were in no way ready for its arrival. Coming off 56 wins, a Southwest Division title and Houston’s first Western Conference finals trip since 1997, the Rockets became the first team in NBA history to open a season with three straight 20-point losses. They briefly righted the ship, but they lost the capacity to inspire confidence that they’d be a factor in the title picture; that underwhelming start set the tone for an inconsistent, mediocre season marked by offensive explosions and defensive implosions.
Neither Kevin McHale nor J.B. Bickerstaff could coax reliable two-way effort from the Rockets, as the team frequently looked to be playing at half-speed and with a quarter-portion of passion. The spiritual sluggishness seemed to stem from a schism — interpersonal, stylistic, both, whatever — between Houston’s two stars.
After working himself into playing shape, Harden continued to produce exceptional offensive numbers while playing a massive amount of minutes. But he rarely seemed in sync with center Dwight Howard — the three-time Defensive Player of the Year signed in the summer of 2013 to give Harden the All-Star running buddy needed to compete for titles — while doing so.
Mere months after coming two or three baskets shy of taking a 2-0 lead on the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals, Harden and Howard had stopped clicking. The effects rippled throughout the roster, with multiple Rockets — Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Terrence Jones, Josh Smith, you name it — playing at times like shades of the contributors they’d just been. The result: a 41-41 sneak into the playoffs and a short postseason stay, as Golden State canned Houston in five games.
Howard’s now in Atlanta, and hope for a Rockets rebirth lies in Harden’s insistence — after a year that “wasn’t great at all,” capped by shock-to-the-system snub in All-NBA voting — that he’s ready to “do whatever it takes to win.” Mike D’Antoni steps in for Bickerstaff, eager to wipe clean the bad taste of his sour endings in New York and Los Angeles, and intent on turning the Rockets into an offensive juggernaut.
If he can, Houston should be fun to watch again, and might even be really good. If he and defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik can’t figure out a way to improve on last year’s 20th-place finish in points allowed per possession last year, though, the Rockets could once again come crashing down to earth.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Team chemistry is through the roof in Houstonhttps://t.co/3Zy1TtAEe5
— No Coast Bias (@NoCoastBias) February 24, 2016
Check out the excitement from the guys on the Rockets bench… pic.twitter.com/EvQVrT8mDn
— Sean Farnham (@SeanFarnham) April 22, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
I think so. At season’s end, it was abundantly clear that the Harden-Howard partnership had run its course, and that Houston had to move in a new direction. Hiring D’Antoni — whose run with Howard in Hollywood didn’t go super hot for either party — telegraphed general manager Daryl Morey’s intentions.
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The summer simplified things, offering a statement of purpose and a confirmation of identity: the Rockets are Harden’s team, they’re going to try to bury opponents underneath an avalanche of buckets generated out of an uptempo spread pick-and-roll attack, and they’re going to be constructed as such. Hence, the redistribution of Howard’s money to stretch-four sniper Ryan Anderson, imported on a four-year, $80 million deal, and shooting guard Eric Gordon, added for four years and $53 million.
Gordon (a career 38.3 percent 3-point shooter) and Anderson (37.7 percent) combined for 244 triples in New Orleans last year, despite both missing significant time due to injury, and seem like perfect fits next to Harden in D’Antoni’s offense. The 6-foot-10 Anderson can draw defensive attention away from the paint, punish defenders who leave him alone by knocking down those open looks he says he’s been seeing, or serve as a source of supplemental offensive income on the block.
Anderson averaged 1.01 points per possession in the post last season, 12th-best among players who used at least 50 post-up possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data. As noted last winter by ESPN Insider and former Phoenix Suns basketball operations executive Amin Elhassan, “there is room for post-ups within the D’Antoni playbook.” Yes, “they’re usually there to create a reaction from the defense, thus manufacturing a shot attempt elsewhere,” and the coach would generally prefer to have Anderson parked at the arc, but it wouldn’t be too surprising for the coach to look to take advantage of interior opportunities for a player who, on a per-play basis, was a more efficient post scorer last season than LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins and Brook Lopez.
Gordon, too, could prove a hand-in-glove fit in a combo guard role, capable of acting as a primary scorer and initiator on bench units while also complementing Harden’s game when they share the floor.
He offers a solid shooting option to work off the ball while Harden operates — Gordon averaged 1.06 points per spot-up possession last season, per Synergy, landing him in the 77th percentile among NBA players, alongside Love, Khris Middleton and Kelly Olynyk — who can also make something happen with the ball in his hands. Gordon actually posted a significantly higher effective field-goal percentage off the dribble last year than he did off the catch, according to SportVU player tracking data. He also logged nearly the same number of drives to the basket per game as failed Rockets acquisition Ty Lawson while producing more than twice as many points off drives per contest, and has averaged more than 3.5 assists per 36 minutes of floor time five times in eight pro seasons.
For their signings to pay dividends, of course, they’ll have to stay on the court. Anderson and Gordon missed a combined 173 games over the past three seasons, and their health woes didn’t start in the Big Easy; since entering the league in 2008, Anderson has averaged 60.5 games per season, while Gordon has averaged just 52.2.
It remains to be seen what kind of minutes and production D’Antoni might be able to pull out of young pieces like second-round center Chinanu Onuaku (best known for his underhand free throws, but also a strong rebounder and tough interior defender) and pick-and-roll point guard Tyler Ennis (acquired in the deal that shipped Michael Beasley to Milwaukee), or how Morey resolves the contract status of traded-then-returned and still–unsigned restricted free agent Donatas Motiejunas. Ultimately, though, the veteran additions will tell the tale.
There’s a reason Bobby Marks of The Vertical suggested that the Rockets’ medical team might have a bigger impact on this year’s club than D’Antoni. Keeping Anderson, Gordon and Nene — a perennial health risk who looked good for Brazil at the 2016 Summer Olympics and whose one-year, $2.9 million deal could prove a bargain if he can provide high-post playmaking and interior “damage” — on the court could be the difference between a rise back up the Western ranks and a trip to the lottery.
Potential breakout stud:
Clint Capela, the Swiss eye-opener whose rising production helped alleviate concerns about moving on from Howard, who seems tailor-made for D’Antoni’s system … and who could be asked to clean up a lot of messes.
Born to parents from Angola and the Congo, Capela attended the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education in France — the training center that produced Tony Parker and Boris Diaw — and started playing pro ball at 18. After two years in France’s top pro league, Capela declared for the 2014 NBA draft, where the Rockets — intrigued by his mix of offensive efficiency and defensive upside, and the athletic gifts he displayed at the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit — chose him 25th overall.
Capela spent most of his rookie season in the D-League, averaging 16 points on 60.1 percent shooting, 9.7 rebounds and three blocks in 24.4 minutes per game at Rio Grande Valley. Despite making only 12 appearances for Houston during the 2014-15 season, McHale called Capela’s number in the playoffs, believing his work as a dive man in the pick-and-roll and as a ground-covering rim protector would help the second-seeded Rockets. Capela rewarded the faith in limited minutes, showing flashes against the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and Warriors that suggested he merited a bigger role.
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He got it last season, playing 77 games (35 starts) and continuing to impress, averaging 13.3 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.4 steals per 36 minutes of floor time. Houston was bad defensively last year overall, but with Capela on the floor, they allowed 103.1 points per 100 possessions, which would have ranked 13th among 30 NBA teams for the full season.
Opponents shot 49.3 percent at the rim with Capela defending, according to SportVU — a top-30 mark among rotation bigs that was a tick stingier than starrier names like Al Horford, Karl-Anthony Towns … and Howard. Capela’s length, quickness and opportunism also helped force turnovers at an impressive rate for a player so young. The only two players in Basketball-Reference.com’s database to post at least 90 blocks and 50 steals in 1,500 or fewer minutes before the end of their age-21 season are Capela and Andre Drummond.
On the other end, Capela wreaked havoc in the screen game, averaging 1.17 points per possession finished as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy. Only seven bigs with least 100 such possessions under their belts were more efficient finishers than Capela, who converted nearly two-thirds of his attempts at the rim. Not bad for a dude who won’t turn 23 until May. (One major offensive caveat: opponents will look to send Capela, just a 37.9 percent free-throw shooter last season, to the line at every opportunity rather than allow him to finish.)
Whether the Rockets are still in the hunt when Capela celebrates his birthday could depend on how well he handles another significant jump in playing time — just 90 NBA minutes as a rookie, nearly 1,500 as a sophomore, and more on deck this year, whether or not he starts — and increased responsibility as Houston’s last line of defense.
With liabilities Anderson and Gordon added to an already leaky core of perimeter defenders, Capela will see a steady stream of drivers. He’ll have to learn how to balance stemming penetration with protecting the rim, as well as the finer points of footwork and positioning when guarding the pick-and-roll. If he can quickly develop the experience needed to deploy his length and athleticism while acting as the high-volume dive man Howard never wanted to be, Capela could be a major factor in Houston turning things around.
Determined to prove he’s one of the best players in the world, Harden hits the ground running, leading the troops by facilitating D’Antoni’s offense and showing real defensive commitment. Anderson and Gordon stay healthy and light it up from outside, while Capela and Nene prove more-than-adequate replacements for Howard, setting the stage for Houston to finish with a top-three offense and a 15th-or-better defense.
Ariza and Brewer have bounce-back seasons defensively, Patrick Beverley remains an elite pest who can hit 3s, and one of Houston’s young wings — say, newly healthy Sam Dekker or super-athletic K.J. McDaniels — provides a spark. Harden wins MVP, leading Houston back to 50-plus wins, a top-four seed and another crack at the Dubs.
If everything falls apart:
The free-agent additions can’t stay healthy, placing an outsized creative burden on Harden. That again comes home to roost through lackluster defensive effort that dispirits the whole roster, as Houston posts another bottom-10 finish in defensive efficiency.
As losses mount, so does frustration, fraying the relationship between Harden and D’Antoni in ways that evoke each man’s past failed partnerships. The imbalanced Rockets finish below .500 for the first time in 11 years, leading owner Les Alexander to clean house and sending Houston into a full-fledged rebuild.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
45-37, seventh in the Western Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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