The Rockets decided last offseason to part ways with Dwight Howard, a decision partly motivated by a belief that his cap figure could be better spent, and partly borne from confidence that third year big man Clint Capela was ready to take over at the position.

I detailed extensively last season how production-wise, Capela was just as good as Howard, and how the team fared better with Capela at center.  This data formed the basis of my argument that Houston would be best served in parting ways with Howard in free agency.

So how is Capela doing thus far?  In games played through Friday night (December 3), Capela is averaging 12.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.9 blocked shots in 26.3 minutes per game.  While he’s shooting a sparkling 63% from the field overall, he’s still shooting an abysmal 45% from the free throw line.  Extrapolated out per 36 minutes, those numbers come out to 16.6 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks, a stat-line that would have Capela mentioned amongst the top tier big men in the league, except that at this point in time, he’s incapable of playing such heavy minutes.  Unbeknownst to me before this season, stamina is a hurdle Mike D’Antoni and the coaching staff hopes Capela is able to eventually overcome.

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At the time of writing, November 23, the Houston Rockets sit at 9-5, and tied for the fourth best record in the Western Conference.  Their .643 winning percentage projects out to a 53-29 final finish, with most of their games having been played without starting point guard Patrick Beverley.  Were the season to end today, James Harden would have the second highest odds of winning the league’s MVP award.  Newcomers Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson have contributed, and Clint Capela and Sam Dekker (and K.J. McDaniels)–young players from whom the team desperately needed contributions–have each broken out in a big way.  By almost all measures, the season to date has gone best-case-scenario for these Rockets.

Thus far, the Rockets are fifth in the league in shooting, and fifth in three point percentage (19th last season, despite attempting the second most).  The Rockets are leading the league in attempts thus far from downtown.

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For as long as I’ve been watching this team, especially since the time I’ve been covering it here on this page, in the minds of the fans and Houston sports commentariat, there has been some understood path towards contention.  As far-fetched as the plan may have been, its existence was settling, evidence of greater hope and a sense of direction.  Hakeem, Clyde, and the gang would hold on for one last run.  Steve, Cuttino, and then Yao would grow into a power, and then after them, McGrady and Yao – maybe they’d stay healthy.  Later, the hope was to pair Chris Bosh with Yao, but we know how that ended, and we’re still waiting after all these years to get back that iPad.

The Harden era always involved some eye towards free agency, driven by public comments regarding future cap flexibility.  First, the [successful] target was Dwight Howard.  Then, Carmelo Anthony, Bosh again, and LaMarcus Aldridge.  Daryl Morey’s focus was squarely pinpointed upon finding that elusive third star to complete his Big Three.

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Can James Harden lead the league in assists?

I’ve been writing about the prospect of James Harden winning the MVP this season for some time now, expressing my belief in his chances.  Amin Elhassan of ESPN.com, in this week’s Truehoop podcast, posed the question as to whether we would be seeing, in Harden this year, the first player since Nate Archibald to lead the league in both scoring and assists.  The latter possibility was one I had not yet seriously considered, despite recognizing the odds of an overall Harden explosion across the board.

But a quick glance at the statistical league leaders reveals Harden sitting atop the group in assists per game at 12.0.  The only other usual suspect is Chris Paul sitting at third at 7.0.  The cynic of course will point out that all of the league’s brightest stars are playing under severe minutes restrictions, but Harden himself is averaging “just” 31.7 minutes per game, a figure that will normalize closer to 40 when the games begin to count.

Digging into the weeds, in three games this preseason, at a 29.0 usage percentage, Harden is assisting on 47.4% of his teammates’ field goals.  He’s averaging 35.2 assists per 100 of his own possessions, with an assist to turnover ratio of 2.57.  Last year, for the regular season, Harden had a usage rate of 32.5%, assisted on 35.4% of his teammates’ field goals, and averaged 20.6 assists per 100 of his own possessions, with an assist to turnover ratio of 1.64.  Overall, he averaged 7.5 assists per game in 38.1 minutes.

This is the very definition of sample size theater, particularly when including a game against the Shanghai Sharks, but so far, with a lower usage, Harden is assisting more than he did previously.  That’s partly because he has better shooters surrounding him (Ryan Anderson last season averaged 2 threes per game at 37% and Eric Gordon averaged 2.5 threes at 38%) and partly because D’Antoni’s offense is putting him in better positions to produce.  While the ball is still in Harden’s hands, so far, its with his teammates in motion, rather than watching him dribble the air out of the ball.






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What impact will Nene have this season?

Before David Stern nixed the deal that would have sent Chris Paul to the L.A. Lakers, (in a move that raised eyebrows across the legal ethics community), Daryl Morey’s masterplan for rebuilding his team involved pairing Nene with center Pau Gasol.  As we know now, that never happened, James Harden is a Rocket, and the rest is history.  After what seems like a decade later, Nene is finally a Rocket, now at age 34, after having spent the past five seasons in Washington.  The big man has been drawing raves in camp thus far, with Mike D’Antoni even calling him a top-5 center when healthy.  I personally was ecstatic upon hearing news of the signing, given the incredible value of the deal.  Even despite his age and injury concerns, one would think a player of Nene’s caliber would be able to garner an offer higher than the $2.9 million at which he agreed, especially in this market.

But he’s here now, at least for this season, and that is a boon given the team’s need to bridge the gap between Dwight Howard and Clint Capela.  I would not be shocked to see Nene starting on opening night, at least long enough until Capela is ready to take over the job and demonstrate that he can play starter’s minutes without incurring early fouls.

What can the Rockets expect from Nene this year?  He still averaged 17.3 points per 36 minutes, and shot 54% from the field last seasons.  47% of his shots came around the basket, 18% came between 3 and 9 feet, 13%  came between 10 and 15 feet, and 21% came between 16 feet and the 3 point line.  He shot 70% near the basket, 45% between 3 and 9 feet, 39% between 10 and 15 feet, and 39% between 16 feet and the 3 point line.  The Rockets have already talked a lot about Nene initiating the offense out of the high post.

While Clint Capela and Nene both had a defensive rating of 103 last season, Capela averaged 16.7 rebounds per 100 possessions, compared to the 11.8 per 100 possessions which Nene posted.  Capela ate up 18.7% of the rebounds in his vicinity, compared to just 13.2% for Nene.  Capela also grabbed 23.2% of the defensive rebounds available during his playing time, while Nene brought down just 18.7%.  I’ve written extensively in support of my premise that the Rockets would not miss Dwight Howard this season defensively and at the rim.  However, it appears Nene will not provide much help in the one department where the Rockets will miss Howard – on the boards.  That’s perfectly fine for essentially a vet minimum acquisition.  I just wanted to make that point clear in case anyone had any delusions of grandeur.  Rebounding will still be a problem.

Overall, this was a great pickup, even factoring in the expected 20 games Nene will likely miss due to injury.  If he can further mentor Capela and buy the team some time until the third-year center is ready, the Rockets will get great return on their investment.






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