NBA AM: Fixing the Houston Rockets

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Many writers and fans predicted the Houston Rockets would make a deep playoff run this year after advancing to the Western Conference Finals last season. Instead, they took a step back, losing in five games as the eighth seed to those same Golden State Warriors – and mostly without Steph Curry.

Everything started going downhill when the Rockets fired Kevin McHale after the team wasn’t responding to him following a 4-7 start to the season. General manager Daryl Morey explained the move by saying that “there isn’t time in the tough Western Conference to wait for a turnaround.” They promoted J.B. Bickerstaff as the interim head coach.

While the Rockets battled throughout the season and ultimately squeaked into the playoffs at 41-41 (just edging out the injury-plagued Utah Jazz), it was still a big step down from the previous year’s 56-26 record and battling the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.

Mostly, their defense just seemed to fall off a cliff. In 2014-15, their defensive rating was eighth in the league (allowing 103.4 points per 100 possessions). This year, they allowed 108.1 points per 100 possessions, ranking for 21st in the league. That’s a pretty significant slide, especially for a team with minimal roster turnover (their top nine players from the previous year were still on the roster and played major minutes). Their offense wasn’t the problem, as their offensive rating actually got better from 107 points per 100 possessions to 108.3 (12th to seventh), but their defensive regression really did them in this last season. Their effective field goal percentage was seventh in the league both years, but their defensive deterioration is highlighted by their slide from giving up the seventh-best effective field goal percentage of 48.6 percent to 23rd in the league at 51.6 percent.

Combine that with the chemistry issues and occasional apathy (Harden looked like he was sleeping as they were losing to the Warriors, no one seemed to care when Harden made a game-winning shot, etc.), and this Rockets team has some issues it needs to fix this offseason.

What needs to happen?

Hire the Right Coach

The number one priority is to hire the right coach.

In order to move to the next phase for the franchise, the Rockets need to hire the best coach for this roster. Many names have been linked to the opening, with former Rockets coach and current broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy topping that list. The “incumbent” J.B. Bickerstaff withdrew from consideration after meeting with management, according to The Vertical. Other names that have been linked to the vacancy are David Blatt, Mike D’Antoni, Sam Cassell, Chris Finch and maybe even Frank Vogel.

One of the most important jobs for this coach is to motivate Harden to be a better leader. The best basketball players make their teammates better and while he is one of the top 10 best players in the league, Harden doesn’t make his teammates much better as he can be selfish on offense and unreliable (to say the least) on defense. Whoever the head coach ends up being, he will need to bring cohesion and chemistry back to the locker room and hold Harden accountable as a leader and star of the team.

Free Agency

It certainly seems like we’ve seen the last of Dwight Howard in a Rockets uniform (especially if they bring in D’Antoni as the head coach). While Howard is still a productive player (he averaged 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 62 percent shooting last season), he turned 30 years old in December and is on the downside of his career and has an injury history. Howard has a player option in excess of $23 million, but seeing as he can probably get a comparable long-term deal from another team with an increased salary cap, he’ll probably walk elsewhere. The Rockets would probably be happy to sign him to a smaller deal, but Howard seems to have his eyes elsewhere. Center Clint Capela seems to be developing nicely and, if Howard is gone, can slide into the starting spot easily despite his relative lack of experience.

Morey has some important decisions to make at the power forward spot. Both Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas are restricted free agents. Motiejunas was traded to Detroit at the deadline, but it was voided due to a failed physical (back problems). Because of this, Houston may decide to just sign Jones. However, he has also had his injury problems as well as a disappointing follow-up season to a promising 2014-15 year.

Both players have been in the league for four years (all with Houston). Jones has played 178 games, while Motiejunas has played 214. Both are reasonably productive with seemingly untapped potential, due to role and injuries. Motiejunas has the more serious injury, but also could garner a bigger deal in free agency. The best approach may be for Houston to wait and see what is offered and then match the lower deal, but probably keeping Jones is the way to go.

The Rockets have several other locked in contracts led by Trevor Ariza, whose contract is $8.2 million this upcoming year and decreases each subsequent season. That’s pretty good for a 6’8 veteran wing who can still defend at a high level, is consistent year to year and can knock down three-pointers. The decreasing deal for Patrick Beverley that is at nearly $6.5 million this season also looks good for an excellent perimeter defender.

It will be interesting to see if Houston brings back Jason Terry at under a million dollars per year as a veteran presence, since he is 38 years old. They will probably attempt to bring back Josh Smith on another bargain contract. It will be most intriguing to see what kind of deal Michael Beasley gets after resurrecting his career in China and then Houston. He racked up impressive numbers overseas and got his chance again in the NBA and made the most of it. In 20 regular season games for Houston, he averaged 12.8 points in only 18.2 minutes per game as a reserve. In the five playoffs games against the Warriors, it was 10.4 points in 16 minutes. Signing Beasley to a two-year contract at a nominal salary would be a good way to bolster that second unit without breaking the bank.

Unfortunately, Houston can’t help rebuild the team very well through the draft this year as they don’t have a first-rounder and only two second-rounders (37th and 43rd overall).

The Rockets were dead last in defensive rebounding percentage in 2015-16 so it would benefit them to invest in someone, even a cheap big, who could focus on crashing the boards. That could be Terrence Jones if he could stay healthy and continue his development, or someone like Festus Ezeli (who may be very expensive) or Zaza Pachulia if they don’t want to play Capela a bunch yet. Also, since Houston was 27th in the league in turnover percentage (14.2 percent), going forward they need to hone in on players that excel in efficiency and valuing possessions.

The Rockets were 16th in assists during the regular season. While that is middle of the road, if they have aspirations of a deep playoff run anytime soon, they will need to focus on moving the ball and not relying so much on Harden’s elite isolation ability.

They were also bottom third in opponent’s three-point field goal percentage (36.1 percent), which needs to improve next season. With teams like the Warriors in their way, you can’t compete giving up good looks from behind the arc.

Get Harden Back on Track

The success of the Rockets starts with James Harden.

Harden is the Rockets’ franchise cornerstone. Howard was supposed to be the second fiddle, but with that experiment seemingly over, where do they go from here? They’ll need to find someone to pair with him, but Harden also needs to evolve a bit.

On the court, Harden is great offensively. He was third in three-pointers made only behind Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. He was also (by far) first in free throws with 720 (second was DeMar DeRozan with 555 made free throws). That lines up well with what is known as “Morey-ball,” which emphasizes free throws and three-pointers in the offense. Unfortunately, Harden also leads the league in turnovers (by 32 over Russell Westbrook). While he is the third-best player in the NBA when it comes to offensive win shares and extremely effective on that end, he is frequently a turnstile on the defensive end and a liability. At times, he is the epitome of a one-way player. But his offense is so prolific and difficult to replicate that he is worth it.

What Harden seemingly needs to work on is his leadership. Veterans like Jason Terry can only do so much. The onus is on the team’s superstar to lead the way by example. If Harden occasionally conveys apathy on defense, that can rub off on the team. Accountability is key. The next coach might even consider benching Harden during a game if his lack of effort on the defensive end continues.

Also, reports came out during the Rockets’ series with the Warriors that Harden had opted not to take the team bus to games multiple times during the season. At the very least, it’s not a good look from a team’s leader. He needs to create a culture of teamwork, brotherhood and togetherness. It starts at the top with him. Communication is essential and it just doesn’t seem like it was there for the Rockets this season.

Daryl Morey has a lot of work to do and some tough decisions to make, but he’s proven he’s up for the challenge.