You’re probably thinking 4th is too low for Harden’s growth as a factor, but I strongly disagree. This isn’t 1995, or even 2002 when having the best player in the league usually meant winning the championship. Those were kinder, gentler days, when a pick and roll could be trusted to deliver a shot, rather than being needed to set up a second pick and roll. In today’s league, you just need a top 5 player, but its more important to have a diverse array of weapons around him. To that end, if James Harden simply repeated his production from last season, not improving one bit, the team could still improve, just from help in other avenues. The Rockets don’t really need James Harden to get any better. But that’s not to say it wouldn’t help their chances if he did…
I haven’t written regularly in so long that I thought about making a useless list to rank items in preparation for the season. We’ll call it “the keys to the Houston Rockets’ season”, and cap it at five items because, who knows how long my attention span will last with this thing before I get tired and decide to end the series. Spoiler: I already have all five items in mind. So without further ado, I present to you, number 5…
I keep thinking back to a quote from Kevin McHale sometime early in the season, on the radio, after Houston lost to Golden State. It was before the Corey Brewer and Josh Smith acquisitions. McHale, when talking about the game, said something like “in the second half, they went small, so we had to adjust, except all of their smalls are 6’8.” A few weeks or maybe months later, Daryl Morey landed both Corey Brewer and Josh Smith, transforming the dynamics of the roster.
We saw the benefits of the Rockets’ length in the early rounds, against Dallas and L.A., when the opponents simply couldn’t match up. Anywhere you looked, there were Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, and Terrence Jones, jumping into passing lanes, running the break, and switching pick and roll coverage. Unfortunately, Houston ran into an even longer team, the aforementioned Warriors, in the Conference Finals, more pertinently, running out of firepower.
Ariza, Jones, and Brewer (thank God) are all back, but Josh Smith now resides with the Clippers, the team he tormented in guiding Houston to the Final Four. In Smith’s place are free agent pickup Marcus Thornton, and 6’6 sophomore K.J. McDaniels whose rights Houston secured for $10 million combined over the next three years. McDaniels is particularly tantalizing, and its easy to see why Daryl Morey agreed to pay the former second rounder a sum befitting of a late lottery pick. He’s already shown glimpses of elite defensive ability and when given a chance, his athleticism should further fuel what looks to be, yet again, a devastating Houston fastbreak.
This is without even mentioning 6’7 rookie Sam Dekker who many predicted would be drafted in the lottery, but will likely have to earn his time in the D-League this season.
Ariza, Brewer, and Jones are cogs in Houston’s rotation, and should bring the same merits to the table which they did last season. But will McDaniels crack the lineup? If he can bring anything, even a few minutes per game, it will allow Houston to keep James Harden fresh, a task deemed almost impossible last season. But to warrant playing time, the former will have to improve upon his disastrous accuracy (29% on 3’s) or opponents will pack the lane, daring him to shoot.
Yes, Brewer and Ariza alone will ensure Houston’s athleticism on the wings, but the emergence of McDaniels–just one more added weapon–would lift Houston to a different stratosphere, helping close the gap with Golden State. They could mix and match weird lineups, playing Harden at the ‘4’, with two fellow wings, or even Harden at the ‘1’, with three accompanying small forwards. They could trap, switch everything, and put length on star point guards for the minutes when Patrick Beverley isn’t hounding them.
Again, length will be a key for the Houston Rockets, as they enter the 2015-2016 campaign. How it seems just yesterday Carlos Delfino was the team’s sole swing option off the bench. So much has changed.
In the next installment, I’ll look at #4: the evolution of James Harden
Morey, you magnificent bastard. At the time of writing, the Houston Rockets just acquired Denver Nuggets guard Ty Lawson for literally the four worst players on their roster. Recall that at free agent’s commencement, I repeatedly stated that I preferred the avenue that saw the Rockets trade for Lawson over even potential acquisitions of Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge. And that rationale was assuming the team would have to give up Terrence Jones or the #18 pick. Instead, because of “the DUI discount”, as Forrest Walker put it, the team has landed a fringe All-Star at their weakest position, for basically a bag of trash.
Josh Smith is going to the LA Clippers. After one half-season of erratic but awesome play, he’s off to the team whose hopes he crushed in the playoffs, and Rockets fans are left wondering what to make of him.
To me, it’s obvious who to compare him to. I’ve been a Rockets fan my whole life, but I would say that I became a crazy one ( ie. one able to name every single player on the roster without breaking a sweat) in the 2008-09 season. That season, we brought along another semi-star with a history of spotty play who also really shot too many three-pointers.