Clint Capela was the greatest postseason revelation in Rockets history since Rudy T. invented the concept of the modern day stretch 4, sliding Robert Horry up into Chucky Brown’s spot in the lineup. Okay, maybe not. But anyone who watched this team last year, from the regular season into the playoffs was equally in shock over Capela’s insertion into the postseason rotation, and subsequent contributions. Like, this guy played like a total of seven or eight minutes the entire year and then promptly went nuts in the real games, catching lobs and blocking shots like he didn’t know what was at stake. Because, as Forrest Walker put it later, Capela literally didn’t know the difference or that there was any difference from the regular year.
But of course, the Dwight Howard maintenance plan is primarily about its namesake, Dwight Howard. There isn’t really much left to debate over its efficacy: Howard came back fresh and dominant after sitting out over half the year last season. And there isn’t much room for debate, probably, over its necessity: there’s nothing more important to Houston’s title hopes than a fresh and spry Dwight Howard; perhaps no force in the league more disruptive than a healthy Dwight Howard. And there’s historical precedent: see The Dwyane Wade Maintenance Plan (2014-2015) (Heat rest Wade for half the year), also see The Tim Duncan Maintenance Plan (2010-2015) (Spurs rest Duncan for half the decade). But would Howard be willing to comply?
If Donatas Motiejunas were to have entered this summer’s NBA draft, he undoubtedly would have been a top-5 pick. He’s a legit 7 feet, with above average defensive ability, one of the best arsenals of post-up moves in the league, and passable 3-point range (37% overall from deep). He finally started putting it all together last season before a back injury sidelined him for the playoffs. Curiously, his value remains underrated even among some factions of Rockets fans.
Motiejunas is the third most important key to the Rockets’ season because the options behind him have thinned, and the Houston roster really has no other holes. That’s an amazing point to consider: the Rockets now have star power at every other spot but power forward. (Trevor Ariza can really be considered a star among peers who play a similar role as stretch defensive wings).
Josh Smith is now a Clipper, and it will be some time before Montrezl Harrell is ready to join the regular rotation. That leaves just the mercurial Terrence Jones and Motiejunas to man the ‘4’ in a West overflowing with talent at the position. What does Houston need from D-Mo this year for a repeat trip to the Final Four?
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