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Rockets mid-season grades: Houston scores high marks in first half

The Rockets have played 41 of their 82 games. It’s report card time!

NBA: Houston Rockets at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA’s midseason break doesn’t happen until February, after about 60 percent of the season has passed. But we’re purists here at The Dream Shake, and we think midseason report cards should be handed out after the first half of the year.

At the midpoint of the 2016-2017 season, the Rockets are 31-10, comfortably in third place in the Western Conference (a far superior position to the dreaded 4-5 slot this year) and are unassailably fun. But this isn’t Harvard where everyone gets an A. This is the school of hard knocks, and these grades mean something.

Mike D’Antoni: What to say about the man behind the magic? D’Antoni came into this job with far more skeptics than believers, but he shaved his mustache, put the ball in James Harden’s hands and everything after that has worked like a dream. Move career starter Eric Gordon to the bench and have him and Pat Beverley lead the bench squad? D’Antoni handled it with ease. Trust Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell to step up into big minutes? It wasn’t an easy call at first. Bringing in Jeff Bzdelik to run the defense has worked beautifully, too. The chemistry is a thing of beauty. D’Antoni’s players trust each other, and they trust him. The same guys whose shoulders were slumped last year are playing with an edge. We laughed at Mike when he said James Harden could average 12 or 13 assists a game. The Prophet of Seven Seconds or Less has been laughing ever since. When you’re the guy everyone’s talking about for Coach of the Year 41 games into the season, you’re ready to graduate Magna Cum Laude. Grade: A+ -Ethan Rothstein

James Harden: The Beard has been a man among boys in the first half of the season. He’s been racking up triple doubles, setting records, and has put up the best MVP case for anybody in the league. I’ve never seen a player that has been absolutely dominant over the course of a season. Without Harden, this team would not be in the postseason picture. If any number needed to improve, it would be his free throw percentage (84.6% is his lowest in Houston), but Harden’s been the best player in the league this year, and he definitely deserves this grade. Grade: A+ -Jeremy Brener

Patrick Beverley: Many times this year, and in seasons past, Beverley has been considered the heart and soul of the Houston Rockets. Often times, how he goes, the team goes. He can be seen diving for basketballs, out-rebounding centers and picking up guards for 94 feet. His energy feeds the rest of the team. Starting off the year, the Rockets were 6-5 before Beverley came back, and since that time, the team is one of the best in the entire NBA. It's not all him but there is definitely a different energy when he is on the floor. He remains the ultimate role player. Grade: A -Joshua Reese

Trevor Ariza: On a team with offense to spare, defensive stoppers don't get as valued as they should. Ariza gives the team, on a night-in, night-out basis, someone that can guard one through four (sometimes even the five). Without much praise or glory, he's tasked with trying to stop the other team’s No. 1 option. Ariza is as solid as an oak table; he gives the Rockets a plus defender and someone who shoots the three well. With scorers like James Harden and Eric Gordon, Ariza can get overlooked and it's a shame he doesn't get the credit he deserves (he's never made an all-defensive team). Unlike last year, he’s engaged on both ends, and not doing too much. Grade: B -Joshua Reese

Ryan Anderson: The Rockets’ $80 million man had a lot to live up to as the franchise’s premier free agent acquisition in the offseason, and it that sense, he’s been a little too streaky and not quite consistent enough through the season’s first half. He’s often a liability on defense, with his DRPM of -0.53 ranking 85 out of 93 eligible power forwards, and his offensive rebounding, formerly a strength, has dipped to the lowest percentage and one of the lowest averages of his career. He’s been highly effective on the offensive end, however, as his three-point percentage of 40.8 and average threes made per game of 2.8 are both the second-best marks of his career. The threat of Ryno getting hot from deep is one of the essential facets of the Rockets offense. His ORPM of 2.33 is elite, placing him in the top five of NBA power forwards, and he’s also been versatile, filling in as needed at center while Clint Capela recovers from a leg fracture. Ryno may never be able to quite live up to the mega-deal he signed in the offseason, but he’s been a key component to Houston’s dominant first-half performance. Grade: B– -Darren Yuvan

Clint Capela: Capela’s been out with a leg fracture since December, but before that, he was clearly having his best season as a professional. The big man’s 11.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 24 minutes per game work out to 17.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks on a per-36 basis, and the only thing holding the youngster back was stamina issues that sometimes kept him off the floor in the Rockets’ high-powered offensive attack. But make no mistake, when Capela was in the lineup, he and James Harden established the pick and roll early and often, and a lot of Houston’s wide-open attack developed off the threat of Capela’s thunderous alley-oops from the Beard. In addition to the stamina issues, his free throw shooting still need an improvement, though the 8-point jump up to 45 percent shows he’s at least been working on it. Capela loses a little bit for those line struggles, his stamina and the missed games due to injury, but when he’s been on the court, he’s been the Rockets’ best rim protector and rebounder. They’ll be happy to have him back. Grade: B -Darren Yuvan

Eric Gordon: Gordon currently sits seventh in the Western Conference backcourt All-Star #NBAVote and leads the league in three-pointers made, all while coming off the bench. He’s avoided the injury bug up until this week, something he was never able to do in New Orleans, and Mike D’Antoni has let him fire away. Gordon has been the biggest surprise on the team this season and he should be in consideration for the Most Improved Award and has to be a shoo-in for Sixth Man. This progress from Gordon is way beyond the ceiling I had for him at the beginning of the season and he’s so exciting to watch. Grade: A -Jeremy Brener

Corey Brewer: It’s safe to say Brewer is one of the most divisive players on the Rockets. Half of Rockets fans are desperate to rid the team of its best smile and one of its most positive locker room forces. These are the fans who tweet constantly about trading him, as if he’s the piece the Sixers desperately want back for Nerlens Noel. Did you know who’s No. 1 on the Rockets this year in net rating? It was Patrick Beverley for a time. But now it’s Corey Brewer, with whom Houston is outscoring opponents by 12 points per 100 possession when he plays. He’s shooting 22 percent from deep, but he’s attempting fewer shots this year (more than a shot less per game) and he’s playing fantastic defense. The Rockets’ bench has been unbelievable this year, and Brewer has been a huge part of that. Sorry Rockets fans: he’s not going anywhere. Grade: B+ -Ethan Rothstein

Nene Hilario: It’s all relative for this Brazilian big man. He was signed on a one-year $2.8 million contract, a pittance in the 2016 spending frenzy. He was likely signed for veteran leadership as the Rockets worked with a Capela- Anderson-Donatas Motiejunas big man rotation, but we all know how that turned out. Nene’s been a solid bench player, averaging 16 and 8 per 36 minutes, with a steal and a half and block to boot. His passing has been as good as advertised, and he looks like he’s dropped maybe 20 pounds since last year in Washington. The 34-year-old Maybyner Rodney Hilario doesn’t contest a ton of shots at the rim, but some of my favorite moments of Rockets games are when he gets his meathook hands on a rebound and the ball just disappears before it re-emerges in the form of an outlet pass to Harden. Has Nene been the player the Rockets expected when they nearly signed him to a $60 million-plus deal in 2011? No. But he’s making less than K.J. McDaniels this year. He’s been worth every penny, and then some. Grade: B -Ethan Rothstein

Montrezl Harrell: Trez was a question mark heading into this season, and it remained to be seen what kind of improvement he would make in his sophomore year. Even head coach Mike D’Antoni commented earlier in the year that, coming in, he had no idea what exactly Harrell was all about. Trez has since been quick to let everyone know that his game took a noticeable step up this year. Since Clint Capela went down with an injury 13 games ago, Harrell has averaged 14.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.1 block per game on 68.8 percent shooting from the field in 26 minutes per game. His per 36s look even better, at 19.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. While you would like to see an improvement in those rebounding numbers, Trez has undoubtedly earned himself more minutes, even when Capela returns, and how D’Antoni handles his big man rotation once everyone is healthy is one the more intriguing story lines of the season’s second half. Grade: B+ -Darren Yuvan

Sam Dekker: Dekker has been a bright spot as the stretch-four off the bench for the Rockets. There are games where his sheer hustle will give the Rockets such a boost during games. He only makes a third of his three-pointers, but he has been a pleasant surprise for Houston this season after he missed all but three games last year with injuries. He also is not a good free throw shooter — it looks more mental than physical when he’s at the line — but he goes out on the court, gives maximum effort, and plugs in as a very nice fit for the Rockets. Considering expectations and how important Dekker has been to the bench, it’s hard to nitpick. Hopefully the recent shooting slump (he was above 40 percent from deep at one point) turns around soon. Grade: B -Jeremy Brener

K.J. McDaniels: Poor K.J. He had a brief but real chance to earn minutes in Summer League, training camp, preseason and the regular season. He didn’t seize on it. His eFG% is .483 in his 21 games this year, he’s shot less than 30 percent from deep — that’s Corey Brewer territory — and his defense hasn’t exactly been stellar. He’s still got another year left on his extremely deep contract, but this is three straight coaches who have seen K.J. in practice and in limited game action, and have decided the Rockets are better when he isn’t on the floor. He may yet turn into a productive NBA player, but I doubt it happens in Houston. Grade: C– -Ethan Rothstein

Tyler Ennis: Tyler Ennis might not be that horrible, but man, when he does get some actual run, it's pretty tough to watch. He has an 82 offensive rating and a 112 defensive rating. That might not tell the whole story, but it sure is a few good chapters in the book of "The Ennis Experience." I still actually might be a little disappointed that the Rockets kept Ennis over Pablo Prigioni. While Houston needed him for when Patrick Beverley went down, it’s hard not to be a little salty knowing he’s here while Michael Beasley has continued his solid play in Milwaukee. Miss you, Beas. Grade: F- -Joshua Reese

Kyle Wiltjer: “The Water Fountain” (yes that’s his nickname and yes you will hear this forever) has been better than expected for Houston and in his time on the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He has 10 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block in 29 minutes of NBA action (all 10 of his shot attempts have been three-pointers) and is scoring 20.8 points on 39 percent shooting from deep. He has one job, and he does it well. I remain unconvinced that he can come remotely close to playing NBA defense. Grade: C+ -Ethan Rothstein

Chinanu Onuaku: Nanu had a brief moment in the sun when he re-introduced the NBA to the granny-style free throw. The discussion about this will have longer staying power than the Dwight Howard-Josh Smith AAU connection — you guys did know they were teammates, right? — but we’re not here to grade that form (B+, he’s hitting 72% in the RGV). He’s averaging a double-double, 11.8 points and 10.5 rebounds, in the D-League, in 27 minutes a game. He’s not scoring like Capela did when he was down there, but he’s rebounding more and blocking more shots. He’s doing just fine, and remember how young he is. He’s still just 20 — younger than Dekker and Harrell were last year — so he’s right on track in his development. Grade: B– -Ethan Rothstein

Bobby Brown: He hasn’t played enough to be an F, but he’s clearly not good enough to play. His contract is guaranteed, but don’t think Daryl Morey won’t cut him if the opportunity presents itself to add something of value (he was cut, then re-signed, during that whole Donatas Motiejunas thing). Heretofore, I plan to refer to him as Open Roster Spot In Waiting. Grade: D -Ethan Rothstein