That should be the theme for the Houston Rockets’ 2016-17 campaign. The team is looking to move past last season’s uneven effort and re-claim championship contender status.
James Harden will embrace his new role as the club’s “points guard” while also re-establishing himself as an MVP candidate. New head coach Mike D’Antoni is out to prove he can still lead a franchise to the promised land after failed stops in New York and Los Angeles.
The Rockets wasted little time giving the league a glimpse of what’s to come. At 4-1, the team is tied for the second-best record among NBA teams in the preseason and have yet to suffer a loss in regulation. Houston is averaging 125 points per game (tops among pro clubs) and shooting 47.5 percent from the field (5th), per NBA.com. Harden, fluctuating seamlessly between scorer and passer, is contributing 19.6 points (tied for second) and 10.6 assists (1st).
With the start of the new season coming soon, the Rockets will attempt to pick themselves off the mat and compete in a tough Western conference. The expectations may be lower, but the goal remains the same: bring a championship back to Houston.
2015-16 SEASON IN REVIEW
Coming off a 56-win campaign and a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets’ follow-up season fell apart immediately. Head coach Kevin McHale was fired after a 4-7 start the began with three straight blowout losses to open the year. Harden, out of shape due to an offseason ankle injury, re-developed the poor defensive efforts that made him a punchline on social media. The team took a chance on troubled point guard Ty Lawson, which failed almost instantaneously.
By midseason, Houston was a full-on train wreck. Injuries besieged the roster. The feud between Harden and Howard grew to the point that both allegedly attempted to get the other traded by the deadline.
The balance that made the team a potential title threat was non-existent. Defensively, the team hemorrhaged points on a nightly basis. Offensively, the scoring load fell squarely on Harden’s shoulders. As a testament to how bad things got, the team brought in infamous wild child Micheal Beasley in an attempt to turn things around.
The Rockets finished 41-41 and backed into the playoffs as the eighth seed, but were quickly dismissed by the Warriors for the second year in a row.
2016 OFFSEASON REVIEW
The Rockets went back to the drawing board this summer. After relying on defensive-minded coaches in the McHale/J.B. Bickerstaff two-headed monster, the club brought in D’Antoni to spice up the offense. D’Antoni watched a version of his fast-paced system succeed in Golden State and is hoping to reclaim the magic from his Phoenix heyday in Houston.
After opting out of the final year of his contract, Howard was allowed to walk back home to Atlanta. Houston attempted to replace D12 with marquee free agents such as Kevin Durant and Al Horford but settled for Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon from New Orleans.
Anderson and Gordon are ideal fits for D’Antoni’s system and will be relied upon to lighten the scoring burden on Harden. The Rockets also signed 34-year-old center Nene and 39-year-old point guard Pablo Prigioni to add a veteran presence to a young roster. Lastly, the club shipped Beasley to Milwaukee in exchange for 2014 first-round pick Tyler Ennis.
The team could still bring back center Donatas Motiejunas, a restricted free agent who hasn’t received an offer from the Rockets or another club. D-Mo was traded to Detroit at the deadline last season, but the deal was vetoed by the league after the big man failed his physical due to a bad back.
CAN THE ROCKETS PLAY ENOUGH DEFENSE TO MATCH THEIR HIGH-OCTANE OFFENSE?
Defense was the Rockets’ biggest weakness last season. The club allowed 106.4 points per game (25th in the NBA) and finished tied for 20th in defensive efficiency. Opponents also shot 45.9 percent from the field against the Rockets (19th) as well as 36.1 percent from three (21st).
On paper, Houston has the talent to be better defensively. Point guard Patrick Beverley is a former All-Defensive team selection (second team, 2014). Clint Capela was 15th among centers in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season and has the skills to be an elite shot-blocker. K.J. McDaniels was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year during his final season at Clemson. Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer are veteran three-and-d’ guys.
However, all of those players were on the roster last year when the team was a walking turnstile for enemy offensive attacks. It doesn’t help that D’Antoni’s teams traditionally struggle defensively, as well. That’s why MDA hired former Denver Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik to be the team’s defensive coordinator.
“The ability and the talent is there,” Bzdelik said in June, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “There needs to be a mentality where all five guys understand that it takes all five guys to get a stop, everybody’s involved, and if one guy doesn’t do his job, he’s an outcast.”
That mentality starts with Harden, whose lack of interest in playing defense became fodder for anyone with a Vine account. Harden’s inability to stay in front of his man allowed opponents to attack the paint at will. As a result, the Rockets allowed opponents to shoot 63.1 percent from within six feet, fifth-highest in the league.
Harden believes the addition of other scorers around him will free him up to focus more on defense, per NBA.com’s Lang Whitaker.
“And now with the more talent that’s going to release some offensive pressure off me, I’m going to be able to go out there and play both ends of the floor at a high level. It’s really difficult to go out there, play all 82 games, lead the league in minutes and have to do everything offensively. I mean, no one else had that weight on their shoulders in the league. So like I said, it doesn’t really bother me. I focus on what I gotta do and I just go out there and do it.”
If Harden can recapture the modest defensive effort that made him an MVP runner-up in 2014-15, the Rockets could have enough balance to be a dark horse contender this season.
Harden carries the momentum from a dazzling preseason into the regular season and instantly becomes one of the league’s best point guards. The combination of D’Antoni’s free-flowing offensive scheme and Harden’s uncanny court vision allows “The Beard” to flirt with becoming the first player to lead the league in scoring and assists since 1972-73.
Finally a starter in an offense committed to feeding him the ball, Anderson feasts on the open looks Harden provides and becomes a fringe All-Star. His ability to score on the perimeter and in the paint mixed with his underrated work on the boards makes him a 20/10 candidate. Gordon, determined to shed the injury-prone label that has followed him his whole career, sets a career-high in games played (current best is 78) and thrives both as Harden’s backcourt sidekick as well as the team’s de facto sixth-man.
Entering his third season, Capela is a prime candidate to make “the leap”. His scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking numbers have improved each season since entering the league in 2014, and he no longer has to worry about Howard’s presence stunting his growth. While not polished at putting the ball on the floor, the 22-year-old should still see enough opportunities in pick-and-roll and alley-oop situations to put up decent offensive numbers.
Meanwhile, a bench mob consisting of Gordon, Brewer, Nene, McDaniels, Prigioni, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell should provide the team with more depth than it had in years. Bzdelik’s defensive influence should make the club less one-dimensional, and maybe even breathe life back into Ariza’s career.
The success of the Harden-Anderson-Gordon-Capela starts giving D’Antoni 2004-05 flashbacks when a Suns team led by Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson and Shawn Marion won 62 games en route to a trip to the conference finals.
The Rockets will be hard-pressed to topple Golden State or even San Antonio, but if the team realizes its potential, it can be a tough out in the postseason.
Injuries to the supporting cast places the fate of the team in Harden’s hands for a second straight year. The increased scoring burden causes The Beard to become a defensive laughingstock yet again. Anderson, suddenly a $20 million man, shrinks under the pressure of his big contract and being a No. 2 option for the first time in his career. Ariza’s scoring decline continues while his once-solid perimeter defense takes another step back.
Capela somehow fails to fend off a resurgent Nene for the starting center job and the demotion to the second unit ruins his confidence, which halts his development. Beverley, already dealing with knee irritation that may require surgery, misses significant time and robs the team of its best perimeter defender.
The bench, while deep, struggles to find an identity without Gordon, who goes down with another “fluke” injury that costs him a chunk of the season. By midseason, an antsy Daryl Morey starts working the phones in an attempt to salvage the season as well as his job.
Rather than replicating the Suns’ glory days, D’Antoni’s Rockets more closely resemble his dysfunctional Knicks and Lakers squads that attempted to overwhelm opponents with offense in lieu of playing stout defense. The Rockets fail to make the playoffs in a deep Western Conference, and social media gets flooded with hundreds of “Can the Rockets win with James Harden?” think pieces throughout the summer.