Discussing what I felt were the keys to the Rockets’ then-upcoming season, I wrote back in July of 2015:
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.
My elation over Brewer’s return is particularly ironic given his abysmal season, but more on that later. I went on to write:
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.
Setting aside the tragic humor inherent in my previous perception of “the gap” between Houston and Golden State, its interesting to note that the latter point was one we were all screaming in regards to as recently as one week ago. When he actually did play, K.J. McDaniels did seem to bring the dynamic I spoke of in that previous piece, giving the team flexibility, and at times allowing it to play James Harden at point guard. Indeed, McDaniels had far and away the highest net rating on the entire team at +18.9, though that figure should be taken with at least a small grain of salt, given the sample size. But for whatever reason, McDaniels rarely played, failing to crack the rotation, appearing in only 37 games and averaging 6.4 minutes per contest. He shot 40% overall and 28% on 3’s, likely the cause for Bickerstaff’s reluctance, though those numbers are almost identical to Corey Brewer’s.
Jones was abysmal, posting by far the worst net rating on the team (-10.5) and costing himself millions over the course of a nightmare season. As I noted in Part 2 of this series, Jones was also a member of most of Houston’s worst five-man units. But enough on Jones for our purposes here, as I’ll focus on the power forwards in a different piece.
Ariza and Brewer, players that made up the strength of Houston’s 2015, both took drastic steps backward this season. Ariza shot 42% overall and 37% on 3’s, after shooting 40% overall and 35% on 3’s last season, thus, an improvement. But it was on the defensive side of the ball where he really declined, finishing with a DRPM of -0.46, good for 45th among all small-forwards, right behind such notable defensive stalwarts as Chandler Parsons (#42) and Chase Budinger (#44) and one spot ahead of Joe Johnson. (Note to those clicking the link: you have to scroll over to Page 2 to find Trevor, a point which initially left me wondering if I had missed him). Ariza last season was a +2.36, good for seventh. The greatest misnomer concerning the Rockets pertained to Ariza’s defensive abilities this season, challenged only by the misperception surrounding Beverley’s. Trevor Ariza was not a good defender this season, and his individual decline might have been the biggest factor in Houston’s overall decline.
And then there’s Brewer. Aside from the illusions created from the occasional steal and perhaps the “random chaos” factor, Corey Brewer never was a good defender. After shooting 43% overall and 28% on 3’s, Brewer slipped to 38% overall and 27% on 3’s this season. Brewer started the season shooting 33% overall and 20% on 3’s in November, and then closed it out by going 32% overall and o% on 3’s in April. I wish I was making this up. Brewer was so bad, you might say he was unplayable, except that he appeared in all 82 of the team’s games, with his spot in the rotation never really in jeopardy, averaging a steady 20 minutes per night. With Corey Brewer on the court, Houston had a net rating of -2.2; when Brewer didn’t grace the court with his presence, the team was a +1.4.
I thought the continued steady contributions of Ariza and Brewer, with the emergence of McDaniels, would be a major factor in Houston taking the next step this season. The former two players’ respective declines, and the failure of the latter to crack the rotation, contributed significantly to Houston’s disastrous season.