Last Season: 41-41, 8th Seed in West
Off-Season Gains: PF Ryan Anderson (free agent), SG Eric Gordon (free agent), PF Nene Hilario (free agent), PG Pablo Prigioni (free agent), Coach Mike D'Antoni (!!!)
Off-Season Losses: C Dwight Howard (free agent/Atlanta), PF Josh Smith (free agent), PG Jason Terry (free agent/Milwaukee), PF Terrence Jones (free agent/New Orleans)
Off-Season Stock: I'd sooner buy stock in their broadcasting crew.
League Pass Team?: Sure, if I need a good laugh. Only on "mute" though.
At this point I'm openly wondering if Rockets GM Daryl Morey is trolling the rest of us. He built a squad last year that was quite obvious about their contempt for each other, and also for "trying," "defense," and possibly even the sport of basketball. I'm not sure I've ever watched a playoff team so brazenly proud about their barren field of bothers, which is saying something in the NBA. You would think there would be a sense of joyous optimism within the locker room, a real boost to the esprit de corps now that the black cloud of Dwight Howard and his endless farts are off to lift up the gentlemen's establishment economy in Atlanta, but I'm not sure being happier and being able to breathe without an oxygen mask will be enough to improve the Rockets. Here was a team that was roundly and rightfully criticized for their lazy, inattentive defense and their off-season solution is to sign Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon and to hire Mike D'Antoni to coach them? That takes stones, man.
Yes, D'Antoni, who's basically the lovechild of Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn, is back in the league, making the Rockets his fifth head-coaching gig in the NBA (people always forget the Nuggets!). Sure, that seems like a lot of chances for someone with a 26-33 career record in the playoffs, but take games against the Spurs out and he'd be 23-21, which is over .500 so who am I to question the hire? Better D'Antoni I suppose, than Ettore Messina or Becky Hammon, neither one of whom I want to watch lose their will to live after three months of futilely trying to get through to James Harden.
Let's start with Harden, who is just an impossible player to evaluate. No one in the league has more offensive responsibility. He puts everything on his shoulders. Every shot, every pass, every dribble of the ball. He plays 38 minutes a night and didn't miss a single game last year. Consequently, Harden feels, rightly or wrongly, that he gets to be basketball's version of David Ortiz, basically, a designated hitter. Kevin McHale somehow got through to him two seasons ago to try on defense, and Harden finished second in MVP voting and the Rockets made it to the Western Conference Finals. But last year Harden showed up to camp out of shape, McHale got canned after 11 games and the Rox tumbled to a .500 record and a rather pointless playoff series against the Warriors during which they weren't competitive even with Stephen Curry absent.
One would think Harden would be better off with a more efficient less-is-more approach to offense, enabling him to save more energy for the other end of the floor, but clearly he wants that responsibility. It's why he thrives with a caretaker defense-first point guard in Patrick Beverley, who's just a catch-and-shoot guy on offense. Morey traded for Ty Lawson to give the offense more versatility and it was an absolute disaster. Harden plain refused to work off the ball. Under D'Antoni it'll be the same script with a different font. Harden will be Steve Nash, the point guard in the offense. And whattaya know, Nash was a pylon on defense too.
Pairing Harden on defense with Anderson should be interesting to say the least. I imagine opponents will try to involve them in, oh, 1,500 pick-and-rolls throughout the season. Anderson is decidedly sub-par in his own end, he doesn't even rebound, and considering that the Pelicans couldn't stop people when he was on the floor with Anthony Davis, I don't expect them to stop anyone with poor Clint Capela at the five.While researching Anderson I was somewhat surprised to discover that he's only a career 42.3 percent shooter. (And no, his numbers aren't better against the Spurs. In fact, they're way worse.) Anderson hasn't been overly durable during his career and I would suggest he'd be a better fit as a reserve with fellow newbie Nene starting, but sadly like all Brazilian big-men he's made out of paper mache. Nene had one good playoff series against the Bulls a couple years ago for the Wiz but otherwise he was a profound disappointment in Washington, roundly panned for his inconsistent, indifferent performances. So he'll be right at home in Houston.
As for the incumbents, Trevor Ariza's still here, somehow just 31-years-old. He's got the defensive reputation, but his defensive rating was one of the worst on the club. He remains a streaky shooter and he had no business playing 35 minutes a night last year, but some of the guys they planned on getting minutes from at the three and the four were unavailable, so maybe next season he'll be fresher and more efficient with less playing time. Beverley has really developed his three-point shot but like Ariza, it's basically his only offensive skill. He plays right on the edge of that scrappy/dirty line like the Matthew Dellavedova of the West, but real-adjusted plus-minus is a true believer in his defense. Capela will be the guy to watch. The third year man gets a promotion to the starting spot in the wake of Howard's departure. By almost every conceivable metric, he was the far superior defender, but he also played more of his minutes against backups. You kinda feel for Capela, having to anchor the defense by his lonesome, and he won't have much help on the glass either, which will make challenging shots difficult.
The Rox have a few interesting pieces on the bench besides Nene. I've never been a big fan of Gordon as a starter, but as a sixth-man he can really be useful. Having him and Harden on the wings defensively at the same time sounds like a "Shaqtin' A Fool" waiting to happen though. They've also got another one-way traffic guy in Michael Beasley, who was quite an efficient scorer for them in a tiny-sample size after signing out of the Chinese League, but his on/off numbers tell the real story. He basically makes Harden seem like Kawhi Leonard by comparison. Corey Brewer will be back to fill the lane on fast breaks, make a handful of bad decisions and shoot three-pointers like Harrison Barnes with a broken wrist. Jason Terry is gone, so their only backup point guard is Pablo Prigioni, who was too old to play on Argentina's Olympic team last summer. (The cut-off was July 28, 1977, obviously.) Finally, there's Sam Dekker, who's Exhibit 6,829 for why your humble narrator should never, ever be a GM. I was all in on him after a few impressive performances for Wisconsin during the 2015 NCAA tournament and then he spent the whole season on the shelf and played two minutes. But he was more encouraging during the Las Vegas Summer League.
There's no denying the Rockets have a talented enough roster to make the playoffs. They're going to score plenty, as long as Harden's body holds up. Maybe D'Antoni's system will improve them aesthetically as his offense should get Harden into more pick-and-rolls and fewer isos, but that's assuming that Harden will be receptive to coaching, which he hasn't always been. I just don't see how they won't be a trainwreck defensively. In fact, if they can re-sign "Curry-stopper" Donatas Motiejunas I could easily see D'Antoni playing him (or Nene) at the five, which would hamper them in their own end even further. With Utah likely one their way up, I've got Houston just narrowly missing out on the playoffs, which would be the best thing for them, really. It's going to be one hell of a race at the bottom between them, Dallas, Oklahoma City and Minnesota. Ironically it'll be a bunch of high-scoring teams battling for something that's ultimately pointless.