The Houston Rockets had a disappointing 2015-16 season. Coming off of a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the team entered last year with very high expectations. When they failed to meet these high expectations early last season, former head coach Kevin McHale was fired. This was just the beginning of a somewhat tumultuous campaign.
Fair or not, a lot of criticism and negative attention was directed at James Harden since he’s the team’s go-to player. However, there was plenty of blame to go around for the Rockets’ struggles as injuries and egos played a big part in last season’s underwhelming results. Dwight Howard later admitted he was unhappy, Ty Lawson struggled to return to form and was waived 53 games into the season and key contributors like Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas missed a combined 88 games due to injuries.
All things considered, it was pretty impressive that Houston was even able to make the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. After losing 4-1 in the first round against the Golden State Warriors, Houston decided to make some big changes. This offseason, they went out and hired head coach Mike D’Antoni, signed free agents Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and gave Harden a four-year maximum contract extension.
Though it’s early, the additions and coaching change have produced mostly positive results through seven games. At 4-3 on the season, D’Antoni is proving many of his doubters wrong. What was once skeptical optimism is becoming reality with this Rockets team. Led by Harden, the only player in the league averaging 20 or more points, 10 or more assists and four or more rebounds while shooting above 50 percent from the field, the Rockets seem to have an identity and a trust that wasn’t there last year. However, even with Harden playing at an MVP caliber-level, Daryl Morey knows there is more work to be done.
“We pretty much think James can do anything in Houston,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “We’re happy he is showing it but we aren’t focused on it – we’re trying to improve the defense and get more wins.”
With six of the Rockets’ first seven games coming on the road and the team integrating new systems and players, a 4-3 start isn’t bad. They’ve played teams with a combined 20-21 record, which indicates the road ahead could get tougher, but the team should continue improving as they acclimate to the philosophies and players. Accordingly, there should be optimism moving forward, especially considering Harden’s level of play and the team’s improved chemistry.
Last season, the Rockets struggled for many reasons but one of the biggest was their three-point shooting. In fact, Rockets’ guard Patrick Beverley was the only player on the team who shot over 40 percent from distance. Poor three-point shooting isn’t always an insurmountable deficiency, but for the Rockets, who averaged 30.9 three-point attempts per game (2nd in the league in 2015-16), it was a major issue.
This season, they added notable three-point shooters in Anderson and Gordon, while moving Harden to the point guard position. This all played into D’Antoni’s system as our Steve Kyler stated earlier this week. And so far, the Rockets are showing they can hit from outside, which is making a huge difference in their offensive output. Three players (Trevor Ariza, Anderson and Harden) are all shooting over 40 percent from three-point range. The team as a whole ranks seventh in the league in three-point percentage at 37.8 percent, which is much improved from last year. Additionally, the team again is ranked second in three-point attempts per game.
Perhaps the biggest positive factor early this season for the Rockets is that Harden, as predicted by Patrick Beverley and company, has become a great leader for this team.
“James is playing great,” Morey told us. “He’s the leader we need to go deep into the playoffs.”
He’s certainly hitting historical numbers and facilitating an offense under D’Antoni that many had doubts about, but they still have a ways to reach Morey’s goal for this season.
“Our goal is to get home court in the first round and make a deep playoff run,” Morey said.
Morey is right in stating that the Rockets need to play better defense, regardless of whether the offense is in the upper-echelon of the league. Houston currently ranks 22nd in points allowed and is allowing teams to shoot over 52 percent from the field. While the team should get a defensive boost when Beverley returns from injury, each player needs to do a better job of working with one another, communicating and fulfilling their assignments on defense.
If the Rockets can continue to acclimate to D’Antoni’s system while progressively getting better on defense, they have a legitimate shot to become a dangerous playoff contender in the Western Conference.
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