What a strikeout this offseason for the Rockets. Houston didn’t get close to Lebron, missed on Carmelo, even after postering him all over the Toyota Center wearing his #7 in Rockets Red (sorry Jeremy), and then whiffed BIG on Chris Bosh, dumping Lin and center Omer Asik for a few draft picks in order to make cap space for the third star that never came. A huge regression to the mean for the analytics-savvy, ping-pong virtuoso General Manager Daryl Morey. Morey’s last half-decade of stashed draft picks and trade assets had turned into James Harden two years ago, Dwight Howard last year, and the growing feeling that this was the craftiest GM in the league. Until now.
The summer got a little worse as Morey refused to pay Chandler Parsons, believing that after signing Bosh, they could use the mid-level exception to retain one of basketball’s most underpaid assets. Parsons went off to the in-state Dallas Mavericks and Houston grabbed up a very capable replacement in Trevor Ariza. Ariza was excellent on the Rockets last year and will likely remain a better 3pt shooter and defender than Parsons, but is also much older and without the upside potential.
Even more than last year, this team boils down to James Harden and Dwight Howard and what two of basketball’s most-maligned superstars can bring to the H Town. And, to be clear, that is a lot. Harden can be an electrifying player and has the scoring capacity to carry teams pretty much by himself. He is the best player in the league by a WIDE margin at getting to the free throw line and is an excellent shooter. He looked amazing over the FIBA World Cup this summer and was apparently the vocal leader of that young team. While that could be encouraging news to Rockets fans associating newfound leadership with a renewed commitment to actually playing defense, Harden didn’t really defend over the summer either.
Harden’s reluctance to defend has become one of Houston’s greatest issues, though perhaps not in the way you might think. With Ariza, the Rockets now have 4 very good defenders in the starting lineup with Patrick Beverly, Ariza, Terrence Jones, and Dwight Howard all capable of locking down their position. It shouldn’t be too difficult for a coach to design a defensive scheme to hide Harden on the other team’s worst offensive player while letting his other plus defenders do the work. The problem is the perception of Harden that emerges from this defense, as he resembles somewhat of a prima donna, more concerned with his own stats than the success of the team. It certainly doesn’t help that Howard is also considered one of the league’s more selfish players, and the combination may have had more to do with Houston’s free-agent strike-out this offseason than most people think.
Despite all of this, the two remain excellent (and possibly both top 10) players. Howard may be getting older, but he is still the most well-balanced center in the league. He has had a fair amount of injuries recently, but he still has the presence to command double teams down low on the block and the hops to average 10 boards and 2 blocks a night. I would say he continues to look like a dominant force for another couple of seasons at least.
To me, the biggest issue with Houston is the coaching. Kevin McHale has installed one of the simplest offensive “systems” in the league; Read and React where players simply see what the defense is giving them and take it. Its a big reason why Harden averaged 9 free throw attempts per game, choosing simply to drive madly into the paint rather than setting up a play. Let’s not get this wrong. Free throws are one of the best things a team’s offense can produce, but it makes for a rather boring style of play and when you rely too much on them, you will be outdone by a superior coach during the postseason.
Watching Harden flop to the line around 10 times a game is why the Rockets are listed so low. They have two of the League’s best players, are in an exciting time for their franchise, and feature a potentially top five offense. But ultimately, just like free agents during the offseason, I cannot get behind these guys as a team I want to root for in 2014.
X- Factor= Terrence Jones
Jones may be the least well-known member of the Rockets starting 5, but his growth is critical to the team this year. Jones is an excellent defender, but has yet to emerge as much of a jump shooter, meaning the paint is frequently clogged with him and Howard. The Rockets have been chasing stretch 4s to space out their frontcourt, but if this guy can make a leap in his third year and improve his 3 point shooting to somewhere in the high 30s, it will be a huge boon for Houston.