I was faced with the not completely insignificant dilemma earlier of publishing my annual preview after having watched the preseason. I had to wait. I mean, it almost seemed as though a Jimmy Butler trade was possibly imminent, right? Once I realized that I had done this last year too, I was good to go. So here we are. The opener is Wednesday evening.
The big takeaway from the preseason is that Houston appears to be much deeper than previously depicted by critics. With the emergence of Michael Carter-Williams as a viable option off the bench, in combination with a strong showing from James Ennis, its entirely possible (and probably even likely) that the Rockets don’t miss a beat from the off-season departures of swing forwards Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. Somehow though, as has typically been the case, Houston’s imminent demise has been forecasted on most other pages on the internet.
The defining development of last season’s campaign, which catapulted Houston from a dangerous 55-win team to one of the top units of the last decade, was the improvement from 18th in defensive rating a season before all the way up to seventh in 2018. Much of that can be attributed to the defensive rebounding percentage improvement from 21st in 2017 up to fourth last season. Clint Capela got tougher and more P.J. Tucker and less Ryan Anderson was a very good thing. The offense, of course, remained fantastic, dipping slightly from 114.1 to 114.0, but actually ranking first overall due to a dip from Golden State.
Pace also significantly slowed to a crawl, which really only came to anyone’s attention once the Conference Finals rolled around and it became evident that few in the national media had actually watched the Rockets play basketball. The row over playing style of a 65-win team was rather humorous.
Otherwise, Chris Paul fit in like James Harden’s long lost brother, Harden was Harden, Capela made the leap, and everything else fell into place before the most untimely injury in franchise history. So what needs to happen this season?
Franchise Trajectory and The Goal
The Rockets have been on a steady upward slope since the humiliating 2015-2016 season which saw the organization, management, and the team’s core players suffer a major public relations hit in the national gaze. To that end, the goal of the 2016-2017 campaign, as I had been writing at the time, was simply to remove the stench of the previous year from the reputation of the franchise. The team succeeded magnificently, hiring a real coach, surrounding Harden with shooters, and thrusting its way to a 55-win record. If 2016-2017 was about righting the course, 2017-2018’s mission was in sending a message regarding the team’s philosophical and institutional legitimacy. In any other year, in any other era, Houston would have entered the year as the favorite; and even in these perilous times in which we find ourselves, the Rockets almost walked in and took the whole damn thing.
Nothing else matters now except the Warriors. That’s the point we’ve reached in the climactic moment in a narrative which has inextricably intertwined the legacies of two men which began with cap flexibility as a premium and has culminated in a tax bill past the point of no return. The Rockets are now all in and there’s no going back. Everything they do this season should be in preparation for an inevitable summer rematch with a foe who has tormented them [and the rest of the league] for the past several seasons. Every set they run, every piece they consider; everything should be about the Warriors.
Questions of Philosophy
From my perspective, there are arguably two over-arching causes behind last season’s loss. First, a lack of situationally appropriate depth and second, a lack of offensive variety. To the first point, it was not that Houston was not a deep regular season team. It was that that depth had no relevance when it mattered most because only seven players were capable of staying on the floor against the Warriors. As to the second point, it can be argued that had Houston had ways to score other than reliance upon the three point line, the 0-27 tragedy would have never occurred. There are many ways to look at point #2. But the league’s best offense was downright dreadful in critical spots.
Situationally Appropriate Depth
Compiling a roster of nine two-way players is an easy edict to proffer from the ivory tower. The fact of the matter, however, is that the modern salary cap regime makes such a goal almost unattainable. The species of such a player is rare and there simply are not enough of them to go around. So a team must decide how to mitigate potential weaknesses from a situational perspective. To illustrate, last season, both Nene and Ryan Anderson were members of the Houston rotation who became unplayable against Golden State. When Anderson finally did see minutes, in Game 7, it possibly cost Houston the season. To that end, is it better to feature defenders in those bench roster spots and hope the offensive brilliance of the top-half of the roster can carry them through the stretches they need to see the floor? These are the dilemmas the Warriors make one consider.
On the flip side, Mike D’Antoni discovered, possibly by accident, that he could live with Gerald Green defensively in that series, because of the offensive explosions he provided. The counter to this though is that while Green isn’t exactly the most cerebral of players, his athleticism makes him capable within Houston’s simplified switching scheme. The conclusion might be that to the extent the team must add an offensive minded poor defender to its rotation, its better for such a player’s Achilles heel to be basketball intelligence rather than lateral quickness.
A final point here pertains to Carmelo Anthony: to the extent that he is unplayable against Warriors lineups, is there logic behind featuring him heavily in Rockets bench lineups during the regular season? Such a reliance/dependence could be harmful when it matters as the process would invariably come at the cost of sacrificing experimentation in other areas. The rebuttal might be, however, that Anthony’s scoring prowess holds long-term big picture value because his production during the season keeps Harden and Paul fresher towards the finish line. The point here though is that D’Antoni must experiment with bench options excluding Anthony in preparation for the conference finals.
Houston cannot find itself in another situation where it is down to only seven players. They must develop players and experiment with lineups to mitigate against this possibility.
Should D’Antoni vary the offense?
- The question of whether Houston should vary its offense might be moot if Paul had not gotten injured.
- The likelihood of an 0-27 stretch is so improbable that it holds little remedial value. What transpired was a near mathematical impossibility. Would you alter your behavior on that basis?
- Movement for non-shooters: Houston famously had the least on-court player movement of any team in the league last season and for good reason. They want the efficiency that predictability provides. If Paul and Harden know where their supporting parts are at all times, it reduces the chances of turnovers. Less is more. But in the preseason, we saw a historically bad shooter in Carter-Williams almost concede his implausibility as a shooter and repeatedly cut off the ball to the basket behind guard penetration. Surely such adjustments are favorable to an Ariza carte blanche green light?
Look, the Rockets don’t need to overhaul their system as some have hilariously suggested. It may be radical, but it works. They’ve found a formula that plays to their personnel even if it upsets the sensibilities of most of the viewing public. All they need are minor tweaks.
The problem facing the Rockets, which not so coincidentally seems to plague most great teams is that there is little room for internal growth or player development. All of their core pieces are at or past their respective primes with expected regression on the horizon. Surely at this point, Harden can only make marginal improvements upon MVP production? Paul is due for a decline and Eric Gordon’s run of good health is essentially house money. And with Capela making the leap last season, is there really any realistic upward trajectory? I’ve submitted that the next step for the big man would be overcoming the stamina issues which have hindered him his entire career to where he can average greater than thirty minutes per game. But some of you presented to me the notion that perhaps Houston–so reliant on small lineups–does not want him playing more and to the exclusion of some of their best units. I’ve come around to this thinking.
The avenue for improvement is the reclamation projects. I’ve already heaped sufficient praise upon Carter-Williams but we haven’t even seen Brandon Knight yet, a guard who, if returning to pre-injury form, undoubtedly can provide the sort of depth and insurance needed in the backcourt to keep Paul fresh. Knight, for the first time in his career, will be asked, rather than to be a lead guard, to be simply playable, something the likes of Bobby Brown were not, a reality the consequence of which required D’Antoni to keep his stars in the game during late leads simply out of fear.
I was skeptically optimistic regarding Marquese Chriss, but its fairly evident after his lethargic showing in the preseason that he does not fit into the team’s future plans. A pity.
And then there’s Anthony who has done and said all of the right things and looked good to boot, manifesting himself for the first time in an NBA uniform into the unicorn fans have cited, but never actually seen, featured during Olympic competition. He’s not a game changer by any means. But the national commentary regarding his acquisition completely misses the point. Anthony wasn’t brought in to replace Ariza or Mbah a Moute. Such a false equation necessarily places the focus upon his shortcomings, which predictably has been the essence of most analysis on this topic. Anthony is Anderson’s replacement. He can do everything Anderson could do, as well as other things like attacking closeouts. The question is whether he will remain content in this role. But make no mistake, that latter question is an entirely different one than whether Anthony can replace Ariza.
Emotionally, how does one recover from a loss so crushing? The 1993-1994 Rockets did it on the heels of an agonizing defeat at the hands of their hated rivals, the Seattle SuperSonics, in a Game 7 thriller the previous year. I’m sure Hakeem Olajuwon and the old gang took something from that battle into the next year.
I’ve said often that the greatest cruelty of the Harden era is Paul’s age or that the two did not find one another earlier. With Kevin Durant looking poised to potentially leave the bay area out of boredom next summer, this juggernaut Rockets team undoubtedly would have broken through just from waiting it out altogether. But time is Houston’s enemy as it is unclear how much of it Paul has left. I devoted many words last season speculating upon Paul’s expected career progression, wondering if he could age in the same manner as Steve Nash or John Stockton, his forebears at the position, and two other hyper-cerebral floor generals who had little to no reliance upon their athleticism but played at high levels in this sport into their late 30’s. This was all written before Paul became unavailable in the two most important games of the season.
The hamstring injury could be dismissed as a fluke but such a line of thinking is willful ignorance or denial at best. The sudden ramp up in minutes during that series almost certainly was contributory in the devastating end result. And to that end, that is the Houston Rockets’ main objective this season: keep Paul healthy into May and have lineups available to ensure that he is not overextended. Had these objectives been secured last season, it’s a fair bet this preview would have assessed the team’s chances at defending its 2018 title. But we look ahead.