Can James Harden win the MVP this season?

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.

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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.

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Morey: DeAndre Jordan was biggest miss

In a recent podcast interview with’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).

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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.

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Predicting the West in 2017 recently forecasted the Rockets to finish 8th in the West, behind the Jazz, Thunder, and Grizzlies.  Not surprisingly, the Warriors and Spurs are predicted to finish atop the standings, followed by the Clippers and Portland.

I have no problem with the top three, and I think the Clippers would be wise to hang onto their nucleus and hope for the best.  But Portland is too high at fourth.  Why the excitement over the Blazers?  I don’t think they’re better than Houston.  And same goes for the Thunder.  Westbrook will keep them competitive, but sixth is far too high.  I do agree, however, that Utah will probably finish somewhere within the realm of respectability.

The ESPN piece notes that “the departure of Dwight Howard cost Houston a strong interior presence on defense,” a point which is not very factually accurate.  The Rockets will sorely miss his rebounding, but Dwight Howard was not very good defensively last season.  I’ve beaten those numbers into the ground.

I honestly think the Rockets can finish as high as second in the West.  Anyone outside of Houston would call that statement crazy, but you’d think I was crazy two years ago if I told you the team would end up finishing second – and this iteration has just as much talent, if not more.  Similarly, the Rockets could easily be as low as missing the playoffs altogether.  The range for this team is very wide.

They’re better just from removing Dwight.  And you’d think finally surrounding Harden with actual shooters could lift the team to new heights.  On the flip side, the defense has the potential to be very bad.  Injuries are also a risk.

Eighth is very fair.  There’s no reason for anyone to expect anything of this team.  Maybe that’s when they’re at their best.

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