The Houston Rockets entered last season with high expectations. Houston was coming off their appearance in the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the eventual Champions, the Golden State Warriors. Houston was powered by James Harden, Dwight Howard and the analytically oriented principles implemented by general manager Daryl Morey. The Rockets finished the season with the 6th best defense and 12th best offense in the league.
Following their loss to the Warriors, the Rockets made one of more the interesting moves of the 2015 offseason in trading for Ty Lawson. Lawson was in the midst of several off-court issues involving alcohol, so the Rockets made a shrewd move by trading non-guaranteed contracts and a protected 2016 first-round pick for the speedy point guard. It was a bold move that came with little risk after Morey convinced Lawson to drop the guarantees on his roughly $13.2 million salary for the 2016-17 season.
Unfortunately, Lawson was beyond ineffective in his time with Houston and the rest of the Rockets’ players were unable to recapture their success from last season, which led to the firing of former head coach Kevin McHale after the team started 4-7. The team struggled all season, barely qualified for the postseason and lost to the Warriors in the first round in five games.
“The season from the beginning wasn’t going our way,” James Harden said. “We had too many distractions, a bumpy road this entire season.”
At the forefront of the distractions was the rocky relationship between Harden and Howard. The animosity between Houston’s two top players trickled down the roster, a problem that never corrected itself.
“That’s going to happen,” Terry said regarding distractions. “I’ve been around this thing a long time. You will be faced with all types of adversities and how you come through those is a sign of the type of team you have. Our team was just not strong enough mentally to get through those adversities and learn. A lesson for [Harden] as a star of a team, you have to deal with certain issues and still be able to be mentally tough to bring your level of play up with your team and get them to where you want them to go. It happens.”
With Howard now in Atlanta, the Rockets don’t need to worry about the shaky relationship between its two top players. However, the hope is that Harden learned from the situation and will be able to be more of a unifying presence for the Rockets moving forward.
“We just didn’t have the chemistry needed,” Terry said. “It’s one thing to put the pieces together on paper, but it has to be a tight-knit bond with a group of guys to do something special, and our group just didn’t have that this year.”
While Terry had some nice insight on the team’s internal issues, he won’t be around moving forward to help turn things around. The Rockets reportedly have opted to not offer Terry a contract for this upcoming season, which is one of the smaller moves the team made this offseason.
Howard opted out of the final year of his contract and signed a three-year deal with his hometown Atlanta Hawks. Houston also renounced the rights to Terrence Jones and Josh Smith. The Rockets then hired Mike D’Antoni to take over as head coach, drafted Chinanu Onuaku (37th) and Zhou Qi (43rd) in this year’s Draft and then signed sharp shooting power forward Ryan Anderson (four-year, $80 million contract) and Eric Gordon (four-year, $52.9 million contract) in free agency. Then, in an interesting and unexpected move, the team restructured and extended James Harden’s contract to a four-year, $118 million deal with player option on final season. Our Eric Pincus recently broke the minutia of restructuring player contracts, using Harden’s as an example of how such a deal works and the logic behind it for both sides.
Houston also signed Nene to a one-year, $2.9 million contract, which is a really solid value for a big man like Nene. Houston has also reportedly lined up deals for Gary Payton II, Kyle Wiltjer, Isaiah Taylor to a two-year, partially-guaranteed $1.4 million contract and Pablo Prigioni. And while Houston has yet to re-sign Donatas Motiejunas, they have the inside track on him since Motiejunas is a restricted free agent and most teams used up a significant part of their respective cap space already.
Like the gamble on Lawson, Morey is taking a risk by signing Anderson and Gordon. Anderson, age 28, suffered a season-ending neck injury in January 2014 and it took a long time for him to fully recover from that setback. He has suffered other smaller injuries since then, including an MCL sprain in February that kept him sidelined for a significant period of time. Having said that, when healthy, Anderson is an elite shooter at power forward and should fit nicely as a pick-and-pop partner with Harden and floor-spacer next to Clint Capela, the Rockets’ young, rim-protecting center.
Gordon comes with risks and upside as well. In his first few seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, Gordon established himself as one of the best up-and-coming shooting guards in the league. However, after being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in the deal for Chris Paul, Gordon has suffered a plethora of injuries and has only managed to play in an average of 53 games per season over the last four years. However, Gordon is still just 27 years old and when healthy is one of the best knock down shooters in the league. As of March 13 last season, Gordon was shooting 46.1 percent from distance and was benefiting from a small tweak he made to his jump shot last offseason. Combine his shooting with his ability to take the ball off the dribble in specific situations, and he too could be a valuable addition for a Houston team that struggled on offense all of last season.
In fact, the Rockets shot more three-pointers than any team but the Warriors last season, yet they were ranked 19th in three-point percentage. For a team that specifically targeted an abundance of three-point opportunities, the team lacked the consistent shooters to capitalize on the strategy. Adding Anderson and Gordon means that the Rockets can now space the floor more effectively, especially in lineups where Anderson plays as a small-ball center and Trevor Ariza plays at power forward.
How the team comes together will come down in large part to how Harden manages to pull the team out from the disappointment of last season. Stars are supposed to lead by example and in that regard, Harden needs to commit himself to playing with effort on defense consistently. This is especially true since Howard is now gone, Capela is still very inexperienced and Anderson is a below average defender at power forward. The Rockets should be explosive on offense, but will need to come together collectively to maintain a league average defense this upcoming season. Harden has a huge role to play on this front.
Another important dynamic will be the relationship between D’Antoni, Harden and the rest of the team. D’Antoni ushered in the modern era of pace-and-space in Phoenix and knows how to run a dynamic offense. If he and Harden can get on the same page and utilize their bolstered shooting in a way that allows him to be more of a playmaker and less of an isolation scorer, the Rockets could improve significantly on offense. Of course, all of this is contingent on Anderson and Gordon staying on the court, which has been an issue for them over the last few seasons.
Morey took some risks this offseason after taking one with Lawson last season. These moves may not make the Rockets a legitimate championship contender this upcoming season, but they are the kind of moves a team needs to make when they are trying to climb the rankings with dominant teams like the Warriors standing at the top of the hill.
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