2018 Preview — Houston Rockets

2018-19 Houston Rockets


Projected Record: 56-26 (2nd in West)

Over/Under: 54.5

2016: 65-17 (1st in West)


Key Additions:

  • Carmelo Anthony (Free Agency)
  • Michael Carter-Williams (Free Agency)
  • James Ennis III (Free Agency)
  • Marquese Chriss (Trade)
  • Brandon Knight (Trade)
  • Vincent Edwards (Pick #52)

Key Subtractions:

  • Trevor Ariza
  • Luc Mbah a Moute
  • De’Anthony Melton*

*Pick #46, traded to Suns


Summary

Strengths:

  • Harden and Paul remain a dynamic star duo
  • Offensive ceiling is enormous

Weaknesses:

  • Defense could decline significantly from last year
  • Seem to match up much worse on Golden State

Without exaggeration, this may have been the worst offseason of any team in the NBA.

Houston was essentially one injured hamstring away from beating the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals — and if a couple of their many missed threes in Game Seven found their way into the net, even that injury may not have mattered. Last year’s Rockets were almost tailor-made to give the Warriors trouble, loaded with defensive-minded swing forwards who could switch everything and frustrate opposing offenses with their virtual lack of weaknesses. They were one of the most versatile teams I’ve ever seen — in the Conference Finals against the Warriors, 6’6″ P.J. Tucker was lining up at center, and it was working!

Now, two crucial pieces of that puzzle are gone. Trevor Ariza inked a strange one-year deal with the Suns, and Luc Mbah a Moute returned to the Los Angeles Clippers. In their place are Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams and James Ennis III. The Rockets unloaded Ryan Anderson’s monstrous deal on the Suns in exchange for the extremely young Marquese Chriss and what remains of Brandon Knight, but may have given up the most valuable player in that deal, second-round guard De’Anthony Melton.

There’s a level of risk involved with the Rockets’ newfound lack of depth. Chris Paul played only 58 games due to injury during the regular season, and infamously hurt his hamstring in the Conference Finals, and James Harden missed a short stretch of regular season games with a hamstring injury of his own. Eric Gordon’s career has been a perpetual struggle to stay healthy, and Clint Capela is already dealing with injuries in the preseason. While the Rockets overcame all their health issues during last regular season, they aren’t exactly getting any younger, and the margin of error has never been narrower. If they lose someone for an extended period of time — especially Harden or Paul — it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to stay afloat.

It’s just hard to argue that the Rockets didn’t make themselves significantly worse this summer. The top end of the roster — James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker — is as good as any, and they have helpful role players like Ennis, Nene and Gerald Green that will keep things moving in the regular season. The offense will routinely blow the doors off of opponents, and should again rank near the top of the league in offensive rating. They’re still comfortably the second-seed in the West for these reasons.

“Second-seed in the Western Conference” isn’t exactly the goal for Houston, though — or at least, it shouldn’t be. As close as they were, I have a hard time fathoming why they wouldn’t bring run things back out there for another attempt. Stealing a championship smack in the middle of one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history is something worth going all-in on.

As it stands right now, the Rockets look quite a bit further away from that outcome.


Most Valuable Player: James Harden

With James Harden’s win this past offseason, all three of the best players on the 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder now have an MVP under their belt.

Harden’s winning season might be the least individually memorable of the trio; Russell Westbrook averaged a 30-point triple-double for his, and Kevin Durant’s tearful “you the real MVP” speech still gets quoted daily. But there’s a case to be made that neither have sustained as consistent a level of dominance as Harden has during his past several seasons. He may have even deserved the 2016-17 MVP over Westbrook — but we’re getting into that debate here.

Mike D’Antoni has refined the Rockets into one of the most well-oiled offensive machines in recent NBA history. They’ve never had the explosive talent of the Golden State Warriors, so they’ve put things together in more specific ways — identifying every small mismatch and hammering at it to an almost absurd extent. Harden is the key to all this; love him or hate him, he knows how to put points on the board, and there isn’t a player in the league better at getting to the free throw line. He’s averaged 10 or more free throw attempts per game in all but one of his seasons in Houston.

Yet, much like I mentioned with Damian Lillard, there has been a difference between Regular Season Harden and Postseason Harden in recent years. The raw numbers are still there — he’s a mortal lock for 28 points and eight assists a night — but the vaunted efficiency has tended to vanish in the playoffs. Where his true shooting percentage is a virtual lock to surpass 60% in the regular season, it’s hovered around a much more average 55% in the past few postseasons. He made only two of 13 three-pointers in the Western Conference Finals’ infamous Game 7. In other words, when Harden looks mortal, so do the Rockets — and they’ll need him to be better than ever if they’re going to make an improbable Finals appearance this season.

And in the meantime, those Thunder teams will continue to look like one of the most incredible “what-ifs” in NBA history.

X Factor: Carmelo Anthony

Watching a few quarters of Thunder basketball last season would quickly tell you why the Carmelo Anthony signing is a problem for the Houston Rockets. In theory, Anthony’s isolation-heavy offensive style actually fits kind of well here; the Rockets essentially bludgeoned teams to death with isolation sets for Harden and Paul all of last season, hunting down mismatches and exploiting them as repeatedly as possible. You could make the case that Anthony could thrive in the same kind of way.

Except he’s not good at it anymore. Anthony is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he’s now 34, and he’s the only person who doesn’t seem to be aware of his declining skills. While he actually shot decently well in catch-and-shoot situations last year (55% effective field goal percentage), those accounted for only half his shots. The more he dribbled last season, the worse he shot from the field — he posted an eFG% of 42% when dribbling seven or more times, and those were almost 10% of his attempts!

Then there’s the defense, which may be the most substantial issue Anthony creates in Houston this season. He can’t guard anyone. He never really has, but it’s reached a new level in recent years, as his lack of defensive effort has been matched by his declining physical ability. I would say he’ll be like Ryan Anderson was for the Rockets in recent seasons, but at least Anderson tried. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which Anthony is playable against the Warriors — it’s not like he’s guarding Durant or even Draymond Green any time soon.

Don’t Forget About: James Ennis III

To Houston’s credit, concerns about Ariza’s and Mbah a Moute’s departures will become a little quieter once people are introduced to James Ennis III.

Ennis is an drifter, joining his fifth NBA team in as many seasons. He’s bounced from Miami to New Orleans to Memphis to Detroit to his present home in Houston, without spending more than 120 games in any one place. Last season, he was one of the quieter pieces available at the trade deadline (and one of my favorites), ending up in Detroit in exchange for only Brice Johnson and a second-round pick.

His transience is a little surprising, considering he’s the kind of versatile, two-way wing that teams covet so highly these days. Defensively, he’s physical and annoying on the perimeter and doesn’t quit on plays — his longest NBA tenure was in Memphis, and he clearly inherited some of the “grit and grind” culture — and he knocks down threes at a league average rate. He may already be Houston’s best perimeter defender. Prime Ariza he is not, but if he can provide 80-90% of what Ariza did during his time in Houston, the Rockets might be in better shape than people expect.


Second Opinion

Dave DuFour, On the NBA with Dave DuFour (@DaveDuFourNBA)

Trevor Ariza was the biggest signing of the off-season for the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. Ariza was integral to the success of the biggest challenge the Warriors faced last season, the Houston Rockets. With his ability to switch effectively on defense, and his spot-up threes, Ariza will be sorely missed by a team that was tailored made to battle the Champs. Throw in the additional loss of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, an often overlooked cog instrumental to the Rockets’ regular season success, and Houston may have a problem in 2018-19.

Replacing those two fantastic “3 and D” guys are Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis, and Carmelo Anthony. Their is an argument to be made that Ennis is the most useful of those three, but the odds are Carmelo winds up with the most minutes. That’s a problem. Carmelo’s unwillingness to accept a lesser role in Oklahoma City, arguably, shot them in the foot. More accurately, shot them in the foot with bricks. His defense has been bad for a long time and since everything should be viewed with the Warriors in mind, he will be completely unplayable in the playoffs.

MVP James Harden was amazing last season and Chris Paul was very good. If the Rockets have any hope of repeating last year’s performance, they will need both to run it back. Clint Capela took a leap last season and, after signing a good contract for both parties, should be able to match last year. Ultimately, championships are won on the margins and, unfortunately, the Rockets’ margins became a lot more slim.


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