Team Name: Houston Rockets
Last Year's Record: 41-41
Key Losses: Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas(??), Josh Smith, Jason Terry, Ty Lawson (mid-season), Michael Beasley J.B. Bickerstaff/Kevin McHale
Key Additions: Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Nene, Pablo Prigioni, Chinanu Onuaku, Tyler Ennis, Mike D’Antoni
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
The biggest additions were the Rockets’ double-dip into the New Orleans Pelicans starting lineup, signing Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to four-year deals totaling $133 million. After dropping the war chest on that pair, they signed Nene, still a capable backup center, to a one-year deal worth $2.9 million. We’re going to go ahead and say the Rockets signed three capable, yet injury-prone, rotation players for $136 million, which sounds a lot better than parsing it out.
Most notably, the Rockets probably breathed a sigh of relief when Dwight Howard opted out, and by all appearances, made no effort to re-sign him, even when it became apparent he wasn’t going to get close to the maximum contract he sought. Based on the toxicity of the locker room last season, a large chunk Rockets fans consider this addition by subtraction.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Offense. With James Harden now surrounded by shooters and big men who will be willing to get out of the paint to clear space for his drive, this offense should hum. Mike D’Antoni’s teams have always scored at a good clip, and he hasn’t had an offensive stud to build around like Harden since Steve Nash.
Harden has also embraced his leadership role on the court and in the locker room. He’s averaging double-digit assists in the preseason so far, and D’Antoni said (while laughing, we should point out) that Harden could average 12-13 a game this season. No one has done that since John Stockton, so we’re skeptical, but a double-double doesn’t seem out of the question. The offense will be just that potent. Zach Lowe thinks it will be behind only Golden State this year, and it’s hard to disagree right now.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
The defense. Duh. D’Antoni’s rep on D is as bad as his offensive rep is good, and the Rockets were one of the league’s worst defensive teams before losing Dwight Howard and adding the turnstiles that have been Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.
But, a lot of the issues last year were due to a team-wide malaise. Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley are studs on that end. Clint Capela has length, bounce and timing enough to be a good-to-great rim protector in place of Howard. James Harden has nowhere to go but up.
Anderson is a problem, but the bet is he’s worth more points on O than he gives up on D. If he’s off on a night, Nene could come in to the 4 — or Capela is athletic enough to guard down a position — and all of a sudden the Rockets have a good defensive lineup. K.J. McDaniels was a college defensive player of the year and is maybe the best wing shot-blocker since Dwyane Wade (if we’re accepting LeBron is not a wing because he’s a LeBron).
The other glaring weakness is durability. Harden played in all 82 last year and put up historic numbers. If he’s hurt, the Rockets are sunk. Around him, Beverley, Gordon, Anderson and Nene have all had trouble staying on the floor their whole career. The Rockets have some depth, but not a lot.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Last year, this team had its eyes on the Larry O’Brien trophy, and this writer picked them to take it. He was not alone in being very, very wrong. This year, the team is talking championship, but most fans would be satisfied with a second-round appearance in the playoffs and cap space in the offseason to go after a real second banana.
5. Is the media narrative correction for James Harden already happening?
Yes. Last year was a deadly combination of a worse-than-expected team, involvement with a Kardashian (now over), locker room clashes, piss-poor defense and a social media environment that can generously be described as reductive. Harden dropped 29-7.5-6, led the league in minutes and free throws by a mile and was the difference between a playoff team and maybe a top 7 pick. Yet, he failed to make any All-NBA teams, which are voted on by the lamestream media.
This summer has been different. Harden signed long-term with the team and has embraced his leadership role, organizing offseason workouts with every member of the team weeks before training camp began. He’s in shape, looks terrific in the offseason, and now most of the talk is about how much he can emulate Steve Nash in his back-to-back MVP years. It’s James Harden Rememption Season. Catch the fever!
6. What is going on with Donatas Motiejunas?
Who knows? He was a restricted free agent with a qualifying offer on the table until Oct. 2, when it expired. He’s still a restricted free agent, and we’re two weeks away from the regular season. The saga is well-worn ground at this point: the balky back, the failed trade to Detroit canceled over said back, the all-around post-wizardry, the seven-footedness.
He’s a genuine curiosity because he could be an All-Star-caliber player — seriously watch his passing highlights and tell me there’s not more than a little Marc Gasol in him — and he just turned 26 last month. He played at the end of last season and hasn’t had any setbacks this summer that we’ve heard of. No other team has been rumored to have even a glancing interest in him, and the Rockets’ roster is full of NBA players without him. But who couldn’t use a 7-footer who’s among the best post scorers and passers in the game that can hit 37 percent from three? The whole thing is very weird, and there’s no movement whatsoever, not even from one of the leakiest front offices in the league in Houston.