In this week’s episode, I looked back on one of the most controversial moves in Houston Rockets history: the 1996 trade that sent budding stars Robert Horry and Sam Cassell to Phoenix for future Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. Many feel now that the deal was ill-advised, prematurely breaking up a team that had won consecutive NBA championships. However, as I explain in Episode 103, I still maintain to this day that the move was the right one to make.
It wasn’t until after I had finished recording the episode that I remembered that during All-Star weekend in Houston a few years back, I had actually asked both Horry and Cassell about their thoughts on the trade. Interestingly, Horry, unsolicited, mentioned the Kevin Willis angle, a twist on things I touched on briefly in the ‘pod:
I remember watching them and I was saying to myself, if they would’ve added Kevin Willis and Eddie Johnson to us…those were the two pieces that we needed. Two other veteran guys that could deal with some inside presence, a guy that could give us some outside shooting. If you look at it, we would have had a great lineup, we would have been able to compete. I’m not saying we would have won a championship, but we would have been right there to compete. And I know Utah wouldn’t have beaten us.
Cassell mentioned the flurry of injuries the team suffered in 1995-1996, an important backdrop to the trade. He also responded, when I asked if he was surprised when he heard news of the trade, that he was, and that “[he] never got a chance to be the starting point guard for [the] organization.” That Cassell would feel this way makes perfect sense, but is so revealing to hear after all of these years. Those old enough to remember will recall that amongst the fans and the media, point guard was a major controversy at the time, with many people clamoring for the more talented Cassell to replace Kenny Smith in the lineup. For his part, Sam said all the right things at the time and played his role, never creating a stir. But you can sense the resentment in his voice in this clip – almost a feeling of being robbed of an opportunity for which he had bided his time for so long. It’s always interesting to discover, after the fact, the emotions that might have existed behind the scenes.
Patrick Beverley thinks so. The no-brainer choice as the frontrunner would be Russell Westbrook not just because you can see him obliterating every usage and shot attempt record in existence, but also because if the Thunder have any degree of success this year, the media will be all over the narrative. Durant and Curry would seem to cancel each other out and I see Lebron taking an even greater step back to save himself for the stretch run. Anthony Davis would be a natural choice if the Pelicans could manage to not be horrible, leaving you with just Chris Paul and Blake Griffin who will both be injured for extended periods.
That brings us to Harden, who, despite producing at historic levels in 2016, couldn’t even make his way onto an All-NBA team. Remember when the Rockets were lovable? Does Dwight Howard leaving remove the stench of negativity that had been surrounding this team? Many of you seem to think so, but I’m wondering if people hate Harden for Harden, or if people just hate anything associated with Dwight Howard. Because people definitely hate Dwight Howard.
Jason Terry very recently expressed his disappointment with his former team saying that “they didn’t know what they wanted to do,” and ultimately remarking that his former teammates that had been jettisoned were “a trash can of Rockets that [had] been thrown away.”
First, that I’m writing on this is a good indicator that its late August. Secondly, its hard to blame Terry for the obvious frustration he felt over last season’s outcome. After actually starting down the stretch during the team’s most successful season in two decades, Terry clearly returned with a belief that the team would do big things and build upon its 2015 campaign. But its hard to interpret Terry’s true meaning here. On the one hand, he criticizes management on a string of desperation moves, but then by the same token, expresses his bewilderment that certain underperforming players were not brought back. I mean, Terrence Jones…really? That’s not exactly the sword to fall on when trying to make a case against Morey’s summer.
Above all of this, I think its amazing to recall that the team reached the West Finals with Terry as its starter, especially given the competition at that position. In theory, even an average level replacement should have catapulted the team.
In a recent podcast interview with ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz, Daryl Morey named DeAndre Jordan, in response to the question as to what player he most regrets missing out on. Jordan, of course, was the 35th overall pick in 2008, born in Houston, attending high school in Humble, and college at Texas A&M. More importantly, Jordan’s game is essentially identical to what Morey had in mind when he signed Dwight Howard, before the latter embarked upon his quest for self-reinvention.
Houston took Nicolas Batum that year at 25, but ended up with Ron Artest and Joey Dorsey through trade. Batum was a miss, but Artest was instrumental that season; Dorsey did not become “Ray Lewis with a basketball.” Looking back over that draft, a lot more teams than just the Rockets have reason for regret. Aside from Russell Westbrook, Jordan turned out to be far and away the most valuable player selected. (Ironically, current Rockets Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson were also both selected that year, at 7th and 21st respectively).
About the only thing I hate more than predictions are schedule analysis. For the most part, you play everyone, right? But I suppose this year will be a bit different than most because the Rockets will be implementing a new system while trying to integrate new pieces. Wait, wasn’t that relevant last year too when they added Ty Lawson? In any event, you’d ideally want them to start out against like the Lakers, 76ers, and Kings. Instead, they’ll open against the Lakers, and then play two in a row against Dallas, before paying the defending champs a visit. They’ll get their first glimpse of old buddy Dwight Howard just a few days later when they go up to Atlanta on November 5 to face the Hawks. As for the rest of the schedule, eh, I’ll pass on providing any thoughts. The chips will fall where they fall and everything will even itself out.
As I noted some weeks ago, one of the big stories to watch will be the adjustment period for James Harden. What I’m most interested in is whether there is pushback from Harden: does he acclimate immediately to D’Antoni’s preferences, facilitating the offense or does he start the season out holding onto the ball, resorting to old habits? The success of that relationship will dictate the team’s season. On paper, the Rockets have the potential to have one of the league’s very best offenses. But you have to think there could be some growing pains.
The other schedule related question pertains to the rotation. Last year, Houston opened with Ty Lawson as the starter before eventually pulling the plug and sending him to the bench. If you listened to Mike D’Antoni, you’d think Eric Gordon might have a chance to start next to James Harden. D’Antoni also expressed a belief that Clint Capela could become a star in this league. Daryl Morey, however, quickly noted in a summer league interview that Gordon will come off the bench; teams also like to start out game with dependable vets, so I wouldn’t be shocked if Nene is the ‘5’ on opening day. This is all to say that it could be some time before D’Antoni settles on a lineup with which he’s comfortable. (J.B. Bickerstaff went the entire season without getting to that point).
As I’ve been saying since the dust settled, I’m getting very excited about this upcoming year. I truly believe the team will be better just from removing Dwight Howard. I know everyone is sleeping on the Rockets this year, but I don’t see why they can’t replicate the success of 2015.