After an underwhelming 2015-16 campaign, the Houston Rockets spent the summer working on a different approach.
Three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard is now back home in Atlanta. Interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff wasn’t retained and now works for the Memphis Grizzlies. Role players Terrence Jones and Jason Terry were allowed to go elsewhere without much resistance.
General manager Daryl Morey shifted his focus to the offensive side of the ball. He hired uptempo architect Mike D’Antoni to lead the team back to glory. He gave All-Star scoring dynamo James Harden a $118 million extension while surrounding him with sharpshooter Ryan Anderson and combo guard Eric Gordon. The Rockets will make up for their lack of ideal defensive acumen by being one of the most exciting teams in basketball this season.
The mandate remains to bring a title back to Space City. A year after making the Western Conference Finals, the club went 41-41 in 2015-16 thanks to a combination of injuries, poor chemistry and putrid defense. Morey believes the changes made in the offseason will once again make the Rockets a championship contender.
That seems like a tall task with Houston having to go through juggernauts in Golden State and San Antonio just to make the Finals. However, if Morey is serious about restoring the team’s winning ways, there are some questions that need to be answered first.
Can Jeff Bzdelik Fix Houston’s Porous Defense?
Two years ago, the Rockets were able to make a deep postseason run by combining a solid offense with stout defensive intensity. The team ranked sixth in defensive efficiency and 12th in offensive efficiency in 2014-15 even with Dwight Howard playing only half the season due to injury.
Last season, Houston maintained the offense but took a nosedive defensively. The team dropped 14 spots in defensive efficiency and gave up 106.4 points per game (25th in the NBA). Injuries played a role in the Rockets’ inability to get stops, but a lack of effort was the real culprit. Harden came into the season overweight, and the heavy scoring burden left him with no energy to put up a fight at the other end. Howard’s lack of involvement in the offense caused him to check out mentally on an almost nightly basis. Perimeter stoppers Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley also faltered under the pressure of having to hold together a unit leaking points from all areas of the court.
Making matters worse, the Rockets didn’t do much to address their defensive woes in the offseason. D’Antoni’s teams traditionally have a lax approach on defense. Anderson and Gordon are among the worst defensively at their respective positions. Howard, while a shell of the dominant rim protector he once was, is being replaced by inexperienced 22-year-old phenom Clint Capela.
That’s why D’Antoni made it a priority to bring in former Denver Nuggets head coach Jeff Bzdelik as his defensive coordinator. Bzdelik’s first order of business is getting his new team to buy in to the concept of playing defense, per NBA.com:
“You go through history, and I think 19 out of the last 20 championship teams were in the top 10 in both categories,” said Bzdelik. “And that’s what I’m telling our guys — if we truly want to win a championship or aspire to be in The Finals and have a chance, and you don’t commit to both ends? Then you’re kidding yourself. We are telling them that from day one, alright? Like, want to walk the talk? Then do this. Everybody.”
Bzdelik will have his work cut out for him with this roster, but the defense has the potential to be salvageable. Harden proved capable of playing modest defense two years ago, and teammate Corey Brewer vows “The Beard” will return to form this season. If Gordon and Anderson can alleviate some of the scoring burden off Harden’s shoulders, that will free him up to exhaust more energy on D. Meanwhile, Beverley, Ariza, Capela, Brewer and youngster K.J. McDaniels have the chops to give Houston the balance it once had.
Will the Harden-Anderson-Gordon Trio Mesh Well Together?
The Rockets have tried for years to surround Harden with a supporting cast that will bring out the best in him and take Houston to another level. Howard was signed in 2012 to be the Shaq to Harden’s Kobe, and that relationship soured much like its predecessor did. Ariza was signed a year later, and he’s been adequate as a 3-and-D specialist/third wheel. The team also chased big names such as Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Kevin Love and Mike Conley in an attempt at building a powerhouse, but came up short on all counts.
This season, Gordon and Anderson will be tasked with succeeding where guys like Howard, Jeremy Lin and Ty Lawson have failed.
Anderson should have no problem fitting in. As an elite stretch 4, he should thrive on a team that loves spacing the floor. Harden’s ability to drive and kick will also open up plenty of scoring opportunities on the perimeter for the 28-year-old. The key for Ryno will be staying healthy, which is something he struggled with during his time in New Orleans.
Gordon’s ability to mesh with his new squad will be a bit trickier. As a versatile offensive guard with the ability to attack the basket or shoot the three, his skill set is similar to Harden’s, creating a redundancy in the backcourt when the duo play together. Score-first guards like Lin and Lawson struggled to find their rhythm playing alongside Harden in the past, and both are much better passers than Gordon is. The tandem could also be a train wreck defensively.
That means Gordon will either have to pick his spots as a starter or accept a sixth-man role. Gordon was a starter for most of his career with New Orleans and Los Angeles, so it would be interesting to see how much he’d enjoy moonlighting on the second unit. In theory, D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense will create enough looks for everybody, but that’s contingent on getting the stars to buy in.
Can D’Antoni Return Harden to MVP Form?
Harden underwent quite the fall from grace last season. After finishing second in MVP voting in 2014-15, Harden didn’t even make an All-NBA team the following year. That’s despite leading the league in minutes played, made free throws, free throw attempts and finishing second in scoring behind Stephen Curry. Rather than focus on the work Harden was putting in offensively, critics were quick to point out his flaws as a defender and leader.
D’Antoni may not be able to make Harden less of a punchline on defense, but his offensive philosophy has elevated his stars to new heights. Steve Nash won back-to-back MVPs as the engine behind D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” offense. Amar’e Stoudemire immediately went from high school standout to multi-time All-Star under D’Antoni in Phoenix, while role players such as Joe Johnson, Leandro Barbosa and Shawn Marion became household names.
Shortly after news of D’Antoni’s hiring broke, Harden made headlines by claiming he had “a little bit of Nash” in his game. The comparison is a little far-fetched. Nash was an elite facilitator who led the league in assists per game five times during his Suns tenure. Harden is a breathtaking scorer who hasn’t averaged less than 24 points per contest since coming to Houston four years ago.
Still, Harden is a skilled passer who led the Rockets in dimes in each of the last three seasons. If D’Antoni can convince his franchise player to get others involved more often, it’s not unrealistic to think Harden could be the team’s answer at point guard.
The other key to restoring Harden’s image will be getting to try harder on defense. It’s hard to fathom Harden wanting to go through another season of scrutiny like the one he just endured, and with a new pay raise coming his way, the pressure is on for him to hold his own at the other end.
The 2016-17 MVP field is deep, but the odds aren’t insurmountable for the league’s best shooting guard.
Will the Young Guys Step Up?
The Rockets have a solid core in Harden, Anderson, Gordon and Ariza, but the team also has a wealth of young talent just waiting to be developed. If Houston is going to become a contender, it is going to need some of its top prospects to step up.
The most likely candidate to break out is Capela. Still only 22 years old, the Swiss Superman has the starting center job to himself with the departure of Howard. The team signed Nene this summer to bolster the frontcourt, but at 34 years old and entering his 15th pro season, he’s better suited for a backup/mentor role.
Capela’s ability to protect the rim will be huge for a Rockets crew looking to improve defensively. He swatted away 92 shots as a sophomore last season, which was second-best on the team. Howard led all Rockets with 113 rejections, but he also played 809 more minutes than Capela.
Thus far, Capela has shown limitations as a scorer. He averaged just seven points per game last season, which was nearly triple his output from his rookie campaign (2.7 PPG). The hope is that D’Antoni’s system and the space created by Anderson’s shooting will help Capela improve on those numbers.
In addition to Capela, guys like K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell have a chance to stand out. Dekker was the team’s 2015 first-round pick, but played just three games due to back troubles. If he can find his shooting stroke, the 21-year-old could catch on as a versatile combo forward. Harrell and McDaniels saw some playing time early, but were pushed aside for veterans as the team made a late postseason push. With a new coaching staff in place, the trio has a new lease on life in the NBA.
The Rockets’ foursome will do most of the heavy lifting, but depth is going to be important if Houston is going to climb the ranks. That means the pressure is on the team’s inexperienced supporting cast to master the learning curve quickly.