2015-16 Houston Rockets Season Preview
Basketball Insiders previews the Houston Rockets’ 2015-16 season.
The Houston Rockets had an interesting 2014-15 season. They were seriously depleted throughout the season, but still managed to nab a high playoff spot and advance to the Western Conference Finals.
This summer, the Rockets improved in two ways. One, they pounced on Ty Lawson when his relationship with the Denver Nuggets had soured, picking up the speedy point guard without giving up much. But perhaps more importantly, they got healthy. I mean, a 37-year-old Jason Terry was their starting point guard in the postseason once Patrick Beverley went down last season.
Now, they are back at full strength with Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas back. Motiejunas missed the final 11 games of the regular season and the entire playoffs. Jones was injured five games into the season, missed almost three months and thencame back, but was injured a few other times throughout the year. Beverley missed several games early in the season, but then was out for the rest of the year starting in late March with a wrist injury. Superstar Dwight Howard also missed a huge chunk of the year with an injury.
This team seems on the precipice of greatness. They have two superstars in James Harden (an MVP candidate last year) and Howard, and they have good role players and young developing talent. This could be their year if everything breaks right.
Even if the Rockets hadn’t have traded for Ty Lawson, they still would’ve been considered among the favorites in the West this upcoming season. But finally getting that much-needed point guard is only going to open things for up this team even more. Guarding James Harden just got a lot more difficult with Lawson in the backcourt, and spreading the court out only means good things for Trevor Ariza’s three-point volume. Dwight Howard shouldn’t be any less effective than he was a year ago, and the power forward rotation (Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Montrezl Harrell) is one of the best in the NBA. This team is going to be insanely entertaining, but more importantly they’re also going to be insanely good.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Joel Brigham
The Rockets snapped their first-round elimination streak by reaching the Western Conference Finals last season. Once there, though, the Golden State Warriors took the series, 4-1. The Rockets have proven they can win consistently over 82 games; now, the challenge is becoming a team that could win a title. The team gets Patrick Beverley, who missed the postseason due to injury, back while looking to fill the void of Josh Smith, who left for the Los Angeles Clippers. One of the more significant changes is the addition of Ty Lawson. Any time a team brings in a new point guard, especially one who has had troubles with previous teams, there could be a transition period on the floor. Given their talent, the Rockets should still be a lock for the playoffs.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
The Houston Rockets have posted back to back 50-plus win campaigns and last season reached the Western Conference Finals. The Dwight Howard and James Harden era has gotten off to a solid start. But more will be expected of this unit during the 2015-16 campaign. The low-risk, high-reward addition of Ty Lawson could help push the team over the hump, if the veteran floor general is focused on basketball. Harden is a perennial MVP candidate and although showing signs of decline, Howard remains a force on the interior. Another 50-win campaign is a near certainty, but this team will ultimately be judged on their playoff success.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
This is obviously a talented team and I like the addition of Ty Lawson since they didn’t have to give up much and he agreed to make the final year of his contract non-guaranteed. However, when I look at Houston, I still think they’re a tier below the top teams in the Western Conference like the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder. They may prove me wrong, but I have them finishing as the fifth-seed at best this year, and I can’t see them representing the West in the Finals.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
I have a lot of respect for the Rockets and what they accomplished last season. After losing so many of their pieces from the 2012-13 season, there were some who wondered if they would even be a playoff team last year. Josh Smith became an important player for them and Pablo Prigioni gave them good minutes as well, so I think their losses will hurt. I am on the fence as to how I feel about Ty Lawson. His talent is undeniable but he is going to take touches and shots away from James Harden and it’s natural to wonder if that’s a good thing considering the success they had last year. I still think the Rockets are one player away from being a serious contender out West, but I was proven wrong last year. Let’s recall that they were one James Harden buzzer-beater away from being locked into a 2-2 series against the Warriors. I’d be surprised if the Spurs aren’t the top team in the Southwest but I doubt the Rockets will be far behind.
2nd Place — Southwest Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: James Harden
“The Beard” is the only person who could fill this slot for the Rockets. He is a scoring machine. He gets to the free throw line with ease, his Euro-step is legendary and his shot is deadly. His offensive prowess can never be doubted.
With his high-usage as the team’s number one offensive option, especially once injuries forced him to carry the team, it’s impressive that Harden shot 44 percent overall and 37.5 percent from deep last year. Also, as the player who attempted by far, the most free throws, he sure made the most of them, shooting nearly 87 percent from the charity stripe. Seriously, in 2014-15 he attempted 170 more free throws over the course of the season than the next closest player (Russell Westbrook’s 654), and 283 more than the third player on the list (DeMarcus Cousins’ 541). Both Westbrook and Cousins missed significant time last year, but it still goes to illustrate Harden’s amazing offensive ability to get to the line.
Top Defensive Player: Dwight Howard
While Patrick Beverley deserves credit for his tough defense too, it’s clear that the 29-year-old Howard (who won Defensive Player of the Year three times in a row from 2009-2011) should receive this spot. Howard has been hobbled a bit by injuries, but when healthy, he’s still got it.
Not only does he block shots (as he does in spectacular fashion, at a rate of 1.3 per game), more importantly he changes shots in the lane and discourages opponents from taking many attempts near the hoop when he is patrolling the paint. That’s all in help defense, but Howard also guards his man well and finishes the play by securing a ton of rebounds to the tune of 10.5 a game in 2014-15. If healthy, Howard could challenge for Defensive Player of the Year honors again.
Top Playmaker: Ty Lawson
Of course, resolving Lawson’s documented off-court issues with alcohol will be a priority for him and the team, but if he can get on the court, he will really help the Rockets get over the hump. If Lawson plays to his full potential and fits with Houston, he helps them in their quest for a title. The 27-year-old averaged 9.6 assists last year, which put him third in the league, only behind Chris Paul and John Wall. If he’s starting or coming off the bench, Lawson will jump-start the offense, getting everyone involved and taking the ball to the hoop if the situation calls for it.
Best Clutch Player: James Harden
This category has to belong to The Beard. With the game on the line, he’s going to have the ball in his hands. He can get to the hoop and finish in the lane if they do a high pick-and-roll, he is one of the best isolation players in the NBA, he can shoot it from deep if you need a three and he can draw a foul and then be money from the line. He’s easily the number one option in crunch time for Houston.
Unheralded Player: Donatas Motiejunas
Motiejunas has been unheralded since he came into the league three years ago. That’s all going to change this year. He is somewhat less physically gifted than starting power forward Terrence Jones, but is more skilled. Motiejunas is a seven-footer, who can shoot and has an arsenal of post moves. In that sense, he is comparable to former Houston mainstay Luis Scola, but is five inches taller, can shoot from deep and is much more agile.
It isn’t far fetched to think by the end of the year, Motiejunas will have surpassed Jones on the depth chart and be in the conversation for the Most Improved Player award. The only question for him is his health. The talent and opportunity are already there for him.
Best New Addition: Ty Lawson
Lawson has to be the best addition to the Rockets. They drafted a couple guys in Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, but Lawson is obviously the biggest addition. He was Daryl Morey’s splashy move that could put Houston over the top if all goes as planned.
He is fast. Really fast. Lawson can handle the ball, meaning that the offense won’t stall if Harden doesn’t have it. Harden will usually have the ball and initiate the offense, but now he won’t have to. Lawson can run the break and defend his position (not as well as Beverley, but he brings a lot more to offense) and he should take some of the load off of Harden.
Who We Like
Trevor Ariza: He is a good all-around player. He can do pretty much everything well, but nothing at an elite level. With defenses focusing all their attention on Harden on the perimeter and on Howard in the paint, Ariza will fill it up as a catch-and-shoot guy. He’s a good 3-and-D player to have in the starting lineup around superstars, and he makes up for the deficiencies of the other players in the starting five. For example, Houston can switch the defensive assignments of Harden and Ariza so Harden doesn’t get torched and so he can save his energy for offense.
Terrence Jones: As of now, Jones is the starting power forward for the Rockets. He is an energy guy for sure, but he’s more than just that. He has some definite skill. While he doesn’t shoot much from deep, last year he converted on a little over 35 percent of his three-point attempts, which is quite good for someone his size. He may lose his starting spot to Motiejunas as the season progresses, but possibly not if he can consistently hit the deep ball with more volume, spacing the floor to help out Howard and Harden.
Patrick Beverley: Depending on the status of Lawson, Beverley could be starting alongside Harden like last year or be an absolute lockdown defender on the second unit. There is something to be said for a team being able to lockdown their opponents’ “spark off the bench.” If the opposing team’s bench can’t get anything going offensively, their starters have to come back in earlier than usual, causing them to be more tired at the end of the game. If Beverley is coming off the bench, he’ll need to work on his playmaking as he won’t be able to rely on Harden to initiate the offense. It’s also possible we’ll see Lawson and Beverley alternate as starters depending on matchups.
Corey Brewer: Brewer is like that energy guy in pickup basketball that plays intense defense on one end and is also somehow the first guy to leak out for the easy “almost cherry-picking bucket.” The 29-year-old journeyman can hit the occasional three-pointer, but doesn’t have a great percentage from behind the line. He is that spark (in every facet of the game) for the Rockets and always give them a chance to get back in the contest with his smart hustle plays.
Sam Dekker: Dekker, along with Montrezl Harrell, were great additions to Houston’s depth acquired through the draft. Dekker will probably play more than Harrell because he is a bit more polished and can stretch the floor with his three-ball. There aren’t too many minutes available for Dekker or Harrell, but regardless, they could make an impact for the Rockets, especially if there’s an injury.
Clint Capela: Right now, Clint Capela is the only backup center to Dwight Howard, although Motiejunas can play center in a pinch if called upon. The 21-year-old from Switzerland hasn’t played much, but there certainly is potential there. The Rockets could be in a bind if Howard gets hurt, because Capela is so raw, but the young center will be able to learn from Howard, continue his development and potentially make an impact in his reserve role.
You can certainly see Daryl Morey’s fingerprints on this team’s offensive philosophy, as they focused on threes a lot last year. The Rockets were first in three-pointers attempted and made last season, while they were dead last in two-pointers attempted. They also excel at playing fast, as they had the second-fastest pace in the league.
Led by Harden and Ariza, the Rockets ended up third in the league in steals with 777 on the season, which ends up being just under 9.5 steals per game as a team. To further illustrate this point, Houston forced their opponent into a turnover 14.6 percent of the time, which was fifth-best in the league. Also, last season, the Rockets were great at causing poor shots from deep. Houston ranked first in opponents’ three-point percentage in 2014-15.
Many players on the Rockets can’t shoot free throws. They were second in free throws attempted and fifth in free throws made, due to the Hack-a-Howard strategy some Rockets’ opponents employed and Harden’s knack for getting to the line. All of Houston’s big man rotation from last year (Howard, Jones, Motiejunas, etc.) shot free throws basically right at 60 percent or worse, bringing down the team’s average to 71 percent, making them the fourth-worst free throw shooting team in the NBA.
While the Rockets are the seventh-best offensive rebounding team, they are horrible rebounders on the defensive end. They grab the defensive rebound 72.9 percent of the time, which is third-worst in the NBA.
The Rockets are a turnover and foul prone team. They committed 16.7 turnovers per game, which puts them as the third-worst team in that category. They were also the fourth-worst team in terms of committing fouls with 22 per game.
The Burning Question
Will the Rockets be able to stay healthy enough to reach their full potential?
Really, health is the biggest question with this team. They clearly have the talent (in superstars and quality role players). They have a good coach in Kevin McHale. They have continuity and chemistry within the team, aside from adding a talented piece in Lawson over the summer. The only obstacle is can this team stay healthy enough throughout the season to make the playoffs (almost certainly) and will they be at full strength for a Finals run? The answer to that question will largely determine just how well this season goes for Houston.
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