The Houston Rockets finished the 2015-16 season as one of the biggest disappointments in the NBA. Houston got off to a slow start right away, dropping seven of their first 11 games. This resulted in head coach Kevin McHale being fired, which was just the beginning of a somewhat tumultuous campaign.
Because of struggles on the court and tensions behind the scenes, Houston made wholesale changes this offseason. They let Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones leave in free agency, hired new head coach Mike D’Antoni and signed unrestricted free agents Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson (who were previously teammates on the New Orleans Pelicans).
With the addition of more three-point shooters (Anderson and Gordon) and the up-tempo style of play D’Antoni is well known for, the Rockets seem poised to push the pace and spread the floor this year. That should give James Harden plenty of space to create for himself and teammates, which is exactly what D’Antoni wants since the veteran shooting guard is one of the game’s elite offensive players.
Just two years removed from the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets are looking for Harden to step up and be the sole leader of this team.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for Houston Rockets.
FIVE GUYS THINK
Somehow the Rockets successfully navigated an in-season coaching change, internal locker room issues and on-court inconsistency to secure a playoff berth last year. All-Star guard James Harden receives a lot of criticism, but leading the 2016 Rockets into the playoffs deserves plenty of praise. Heading into training camp, the Rockets have a new coach (Mike D’Antoni), Harden signed a lucrative contract extension and players such as Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Josh Smith are elsewhere. Veterans such as Eric Gordon, Nene and Ryan Anderson have been inserted as the team retooled on the fly. The Rockets are set to score plenty of points, but also give up a ton in return. There will be plenty of high-scoring nights that should result in another playoff appearance, but expecting anything more than a first-round visit wouldn’t be wise.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Lang Greene
It appears that the Rockets got rid of one guy who was always injured (Dwight Howard) for three guys who are always injured (Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Nene). That’s not exactly a recipe for success. James Harden is one of the more talented players in the league and will probably help Mike D’Antoni win his fair share of games, but I have fallen out of love with these guys. If everyone stays healthy, at least offensively, the Rockets will have some nice pieces that complement one another, but we’d be fooling ourselves if we thought they were still one of the top teams in the Western Conference. The guys who will give you something to watch and root for are Clint Capela and Sam Dekker. If D’Antoni is able to get Harden to buy in and share scoring opportunities (something he had difficulty with getting Carmelo Anthony to do), then these guys can overachieve. Still, I’m not expecting too much.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Rockets may have been the most disappointing team in the NBA last season. Coming off an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets struggled all of last season defensively and with chemistry. At the root of the discontent was the relationship between James Harden and Dwight Howard. Howard is now in Atlanta, so that alone may reboot the chemistry in the locker room. The Rockets also added talented, but risky players in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. The Rockets are getting a lot of spacing with Anderson and Gordon, which could open up things for Harden in the mid-range area and keep defenders honest when he is probing and attacking the basket. However, Anderson and Gordon have struggled with injuries for several seasons, so it’s possible these two could miss significant time this upcoming season. While the Rockets lost a few pieces this offseason, the chance of improving team chemistry, the additions of Anderson and Gordon and the hiring of Mike D’Antoni could get this team moving in the right direction again. Still, they will likely struggle to defend at a high level or consistently, which means their offense will need to be hitting on all cylinders.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It’s not like the Rockets walked away from the offseason with nothing, because they did sign Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Nene, but those just don’t seem like the kinds of players that shoot these Rockets back into stratosphere of elite teams, do they? Starting point guard Patrick Beverley seems to think James Harden will have another MVP-quality season like he did in 2014-15, and while that’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility, it’s a little hard to believe considering the play we’ve seen from some other candidates in the last couple of years. Harden will continue to score at an elite level, surely, but he’s not the kind of guy who lifts his teammates to some transcendent level of play. He’ll be good, but will the rest of this team?
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Joel Brigham
Between the injury concerns, defensive issues, Mike D’Antoni’s struggles in recent coaching stints, James Harden’s frustrating inconsistencies and an average supporting cast, I have a hard time believing that Houston will return to the playoffs this season. I could be wrong – maybe D’Antoni and Harden will be an excellent fit together and guys like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon will finally be able to stay healthy while providing shooting and spacing. But I think the more likely scenario is that Houston finishes around .500, with the Rockets being the team that falls out of the top eight to make room for one of these emerging Western Conference threats like the Utah Jazz.
4th Place – Southwest Division
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: James Harden
Not only is Harden the best offensive player on the Rockets, he is one of the NBA’s elite players on that end of the floor. His ability to shoot from anywhere on the court along with his creativity and court vision make him a contender for the scoring title. He could even emerge as a potential MVP candidate if he elevates his game and helps Houston exceed expectations record wise. When asked what he expects from Harden in the upcoming season, teammate Patrick Beverley recently told Basketball Insiders, “MVP and leading us to the Finals. Simple.”
While some people focus on the negatives with Harden, many forget that he averaged 29 points, 7.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game last season. Few players can put up those dominant over the course of a full season. As an electric scorer and underrated playmaker, Harden has a chance to thrive in D’Antoni’s offense, which could lead to career-high numbers and immediate success for the Rockets. Many talented, attacking guards have benefited greatly from playing in D’Antoni’s fast-paced, high-scoring attack and Harden could be the latest.
Top Defensive Player: Clint Capela
Overshadowed by Dwight Howard last season, Clint Capela was one of the most surprising players for the Rockets. The 22-year-old has turned himself into an extremely valuable defender, specifically in pick-and-roll situations.
His size, athleticism and speed allow him to do a really good job in defensive switches and rotations. A positive defensive plus-minus player in each of his first two seasons, Capela should only continue to improve as he continues to gain experience and approach his prime.
His rim protection is still questionable at times – mainly due to his 6’9 frame and inability to match-up with taller, more physical bigs – but many believe Capela is the key to Houston’s defensive success. Given the fact that Harden, Gordon and Anderson aren’t known for their defense (and each can even be a liability at times), Capela will likely play a significant role in setting the team’s defensive identity.
Top Playmaker: James Harden
Some elite scorers struggle when it comes to playmaking, but Harden does both. He is a very good facilitator and his ability to pass out of double teams and create opportunities for his teammates is impressive. This will come in handy in D’Antoni’s offense, especially now that he should have more shooters surrounding him than in the past.
In Harden’s press conference after agreeing to a multi-year extension with Houston, he mentioned that he’s been watching Steve Nash and wants to emulate the point guard’s game. That’s certainly something to keep an eye on this season, as it would make Harden even more of a playmaker. Nash obviously thrived under Coach D’Antoni in Phoenix and Harden hopes to duplicate that success.
“He had his own pace of the game,” Harden said of Nash. “You could never speed him up, you could never slow him down. That’s what I took away from Nash.”
It’s evident Harden is trying to become a better leader and, with that, should come more creating from the dynamic guard. Expect Harden to exceed his 7.5 assists per game from last season since he has an offensive-minded coach, up-tempo system, three-point shooters in his supporting cast and a reinvigorated mindset entering this season.
Top Clutch Player: James Harden
Harden is the Rockets’ best weapon in clutch situations since he can create his own shot, knock down attempts from all over the court, draw fouls and make the right play should one of his teammates become open. When the clock is ticking down, Harden will have the ball in his hands.
Last season, during fourth quarters and overtimes with less than five minutes remaining with neither team ahead by more than five points, Harden ranked second in the league in points scored. It’s evident that he relishes the opportunity to make plays and hit big shots in crunch time.
The Unheralded Player: Sam Dekker
The 18th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft had an impressive Summer League. With many concerns about his injury history, he’s looking to prove that he can be a viable back-up to veteran swingman Trevor Ariza. With D’Antoni now in town, Dekker could be a good fit for the new head coach since he can shoot the ball and is efficient on offense. Not to mention, his ability to rebound and defend multiple positions makes him even more intriguing. In Summer League, Dekker averaged 16 points per game while shooting over 55 percent from the field. While it’s just Summer League, it’s one of the few times Dekker has gotten to showcase his game since being drafted. His back issues kept him out for most of last season, and Dekker’s rookie year was limited to just three games.
He still needs to work on his lateral movements and he must stay in front of players defensively, but Dekker could be a good fit for this new coaching staff and their system. And, at 22 years old, he’s one of the few Rockets players who still have a lot of untapped potential and room to develop.
– Oliver Maroney
Top New Addition: Eric Gordon
Ryan Anderson could’ve been the player listed here, but I believe Gordon has more to offer this team if he’s healthy. In the past four seasons, Gordon has played in just 64.6 percent of games. Now, he’s supposedly healthy, reinvigorated and ready to play. If that’s the case, Gordon will help Houston’s outside shooting and spacing, thus creating more room for Harden to operate with the ball in his hands. Gordon’s ability to hit the outside shot will be critical to Houston’s success. Expect Gordon to have a bounce-back campaign if – and that’s a big if – he’s fully healthy. With that said, Anderson is a very good pick up for a D’Antoni-led team and he will certainly help spread the floor too.
– Oliver Maroney
WHO WE LIKE
- Mike D’Antoni
D’Antoni is an extremely innovative and smart basketball coach. Some would say that his ideas were years ahead of their time and ushered in the modern offensive attacks we see around the NBA. However, others have criticized him for failing to tweak his approach to fit his personnel or focus more on the defensive end. Regardless of how you feel, there’s no question that D’Antoni is very experienced and respected around the league.
In Phoenix, D’Antoni took over a Suns team that went 21-40 and turned them into a 62-win team one season later. He obviously couldn’t get them a championship, but he did create a winning culture with a very dynamic offensive scheme.
After his head coaching gigs in Denver, Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles, D’Antoni has experienced varying levels of success and learned a lot. He has a 455-426 regular-season record and has twice led his team to the Conference Finals. Having worked with Harden with Team USA, he knows what to expect from the star shooting guard. That history should help expedite the adjustment period in Houston.
- Ryan Anderson
After Houston struck out on other big names in free agency, Anderson was paid a lot of money from the Rockets (four years, $80 million). Now that he’s in Houston, he must get acclimated to his new role and fit within the high-scoring offense.
Anderson’s mobility, versatility and ability to stretch the floor are what make him so valuable and tough for opposing defenses to contain. The Rockets have never had outside shooters like Gordon and Anderson around Harden; as long as they’re healthy, it should help Houston space the floor and thrive under D’Antoni.
Shooting over 42 percent from the field and 36 percent from three last year, Anderson continued to look like one of the more effective stretch-fours in the NBA. The biggest issue for Anderson has been his injury history, as he’s appeared in just 60 percent of games over the past three seasons.
- Clint Capela
As previously mentioned, Capela is one of the best defenders on this team and – perhaps most importantly – he still has room to grow. The third-year player has a lot to offer Houston, and a breakout campaign from him would make this team much scarier.
Say what you will about Dwight Howard, but he’s still an elite rim protector that Houston depended on. Capela has some big shoes to fill, but he could be a very good answer for the Rockets long-term.
- Patrick Beverley
Beverley is the only true point guard on Houston’s roster, which shows how much the front office believes in him (and how important he is to the Rockets). He’s certainly the team’s heart and soul, and there’s no question that Houston relies on him to do “the dirty work.” His hustle plays and energy on defense are badly needed, and that kind of play can be contagious; players seem to feed off his intensity. His attitude and high confidence is why he’s been so successful against all odds, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down now. Opponents may feel like Beverley is a “pest” since he’s very good at pushing buttons, he’s the kind of player everyone loves to play alongside. He’s a key piece for the Rockets on both ends of the floor and you know exactly what you’re going to get from him each night.
– Oliver Maroney
SALARY CAP 101
The Rockets went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to invest in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. The space was also used to renegotiate and extend the contract of James Harden. The team also used their $2.9 million Room Exception to add Nene. Now over the cap, with 14 guaranteed players, the Rockets have yet to make the signings of Gary Payton II, Kyle Wiltjer, Isaiah Taylor and Bobby Brown official, but the four will eventually be fighting for one open roster spot.
Then again, the team still has a qualifying offer out to Donatas Motiejunas, making him a restricted free agent and possibly the Rockets’ 15th player – if they can agree to terms. The team’s qualifying offer of $4.4 million to Motiejunas expires on Oct. 1, but even after that date he’ll remain restricted and the Rockets will retain his Bird Rights. Looking ahead, the Rockets project to have about $12 million in cap space next summer, with a $102 million league projection. That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Sam Dekker and Clint Capela before November.
– Eric Pincus
The Rockets have a top-five player in James Harden and an offense that could be top-five in the league. With Mike D’Antoni and new acquisitions Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, they have the outside shooting to take their scoring to an entirely new level this season. The question is whether they can be healthy as a team and, of course, if they can be defensively sound. They’re deeper than many give them credit for and although D’Antoni typically doesn’t utilize too many players in his rotation, it’s never a bad thing to have solid depth – especially with so many injury-prone players on the roster.
– Oliver Maroney
The Rockets are clearly weak on the defensive end of the floor. Harden is a decent defender when he’s flourishing and focused, but there are lapses and effort issues when he’s not engaged. But it’s not just Harden – this whole team is constructed with offense in mind. With Pat Beverley, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela being the only known defensive quantities, where will the other help come from? They can try to hide some of the weaker defenders, but that may be difficult. Defense is D’Antoni’s weakness as well, so it remains to be seen how he’ll try to address the issues on that end.
The other big red flag for the Rockets is their health. Beverley, Gordon, Anderson and Dekker among others have all had their fair share of injuries that kept them out for long stretches. If they can’t stay healthy, it’s going to be difficult for D’Antoni and company to implement their style of play and get this team to reach their full potential.
– Oliver Maroney
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the additions of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon catapult the Rockets to a top-six seed?
If Harden can have an MVP-caliber season and the offense shows improved outside shooting efficiency and their new acquisitions stay healthy, Houston could be a dangerous team in the playoffs. With their depth, added offensive firepower and upgrade on the sidelines, they have the talent to return to the postseason. But that’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and it remains to be seen if this team will be able to gel and put those issues behind them.
It will also be interesting to see how long it takes the Rockets to adjust to D’Antoni’s system and overall philosophy. While it could work very well with this group, they may get off to a slow start as the team gets acclimated (especially since they have new focal points like Anderson and Gordon trying to adjust to a lot of factors too). Losing early in the season led to a lot of issues in Houston last year and digging another big hole early on could be bad for this team behind the scenes.
No early injuries, a relatively easy transition to D’Antoni’s system and quality production from the new acquisitions Anderson and Gordon could go a long way for the Rockets as they look to improve on last year’s 41 wins.
– Oliver Maroney
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