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.
ESPN.com 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.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey spoke with Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney earlier in the week about the team’s offseason, particularly the James Harden extension. Said Morey, on the extension:
“Even through trade, those deals are often made to teams that the player wants to go to. It was a pretty easy analysis in that you need the [top-tier] player no matter what and you want to be able to signal to those players across the league that if you’re in Houston, at any given moment, the team’s always going to try to take care of you—whether it be with money or a top team you’re playing with.”
In conjunction with my thoughts from last week, however, while a “signal” to top players is certainly a direct outcome of the extension, the more significant function is that retaining Harden in the first place is a necessary condition to luring another star. Essentially, it is of little use to have players think highly of how one treats its stars when one does not have a star to begin with. Thus, to build upon what I wrote last week, Houston relinquished its remaining flexibility to enter the weird stage of their history in which they’re now in: not really contending and not really seeming to have a clear plan towards contention. Just sort of hanging around, but being fun, you could call it. And as I said in the piece last week, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong therein, at least from a business perspective.
Morey hasn’t completely broken from his ideological roots, however, as the team is still playing hardball with Donatas Motiejunas, smartly allowing the market to dictate price. They did this, famously, with Carl Landry, and then Kyle Lowry, and then Chandler Parsons, and most definitely did not do this with Moochie Norris, and Maurice Taylor, and Matt Maloney [during the previous regime]. You can afford to risk goodwill with the Motiejunas’ of the world, but Harden is a different equation. If he’s upset, or if he is the center of uncertainty, it sinks the ship. I do wonder though, would a younger Morey have offered this extension?
The morning it was reported that Al Horford had narrowed his list of desired destinations to one which did not include the Houston Rockets, I tweeted that the team needed to begin exploring options to trade James Harden immediately. The thinking there was that with no real avenue to enter contention, management would be best advised to avoid the unenviable situation in which the Oklahoma City Thunder now find themselves with Russell Westbrook. Since that time, Houston agreed to terms with Harden to secure his services for at the very least, an additional three seasons.
The uncertainty now is gone. The team will have a top-5 offensive player as its centerpiece for the short future. But where do they go from here? Followers of this team during the Daryl Morey era have become accustomed to a forward-thinking strategy with an eye towards the next move. But as currently constructed, even with the expected cap increase, Houston is not expected to have funds available next summer for a frontline acquisition. It begs the question as to how the Rockets plan to improve their team.
Over the weekend, Daryl Morey called Eric Gordon “the perfect complement to James Harden.” Then, in an interview released today with Adrian Wojnarowski, Mike D’Antoni said about Harden:
I think he’s at the point where I think we can move him over. Now I don’t know yet, and we’ll experiment, we’ll talk about it, does he bring the ball up every time, does that wear him out? Does he do it a couple quarters? We have to figure out exactly his rhythm of the game…He averaged 7 or 8 assists last year, I’d love to see 12 or 13. I’d love to see where he starts the offense, and the ball gets back to him, but after the ball has moved around two or three times.
As you all know, I’ve been writing since last season about the prospect of making James Harden the full-time point guard of this team. To respond to the inquiries of many of you on Twitter: the significance in a positional change for Harden is not about Harden himself, but rather about who he plays beside and about the offense as a whole. The distinction as to whether Harden is the actual point guard or just serving as one is not of relevance – he’ll function roughly the same within the offense. But if he’s bringing the ball up too, it frees the team to start an actual shooting guard beside him, like Eric Gordon, rather than someone who can just passably hit open 3’s, like Patrick Beverley. It makes the offense that much more dangerous. [read more…]