We are starting a new tradition here at TDS, and we are calling it the TDS Tuesday 5-on-5. Every Tuesday, we will pose five questions to five TDS contributors on current Rocket topics. This week, we discuss Sam Dekker’s struggles, Troy Williams, James Harden’s MVP chances, and how the Rockets should handle things down the stretch.
If you have a question you would like us to answer in next week’s roundtable, post it in the comments and continue the debates!
This week’s panelists include Jeremy Brener (JB), Darren Yuvan (DY), Adam Sweeney (AS), Xian E (XE), and Ethan Rothstein (ER).
1) Should Sam Dekker be in the playoff rotation given his recent struggles?
JB: We have already seen Dekker’s minutes decline with Lou Williams coming in. He only played five minutes in last night’s win, and despite scoring 5 points, he was a -14. I’m a huge Dekker fan, but he needs to prove himself in these last handful of games. If he continues to go out there and have double digit plus-minuses, then yes, he should be benched. I hope that he can overcome this slump that he’s in for the last month and come into the playoffs with a little rhythm so that he can give the Rockets some solid playoff minutes. However, if the playoffs started today, I would bench him. Something needs to change between now and mid-April.
DY: Mike D'Antoni is known for short playoff rotations, meaning Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, and Nene are the only sure things come postseason. And Dekker has been struggling, especially with his three-point shot. He's likely hitting the rookie wall, given this is his first full year in the NBA. The guy has never played this much basketball in one season before, and it's typical for guys in their first year to struggle after the All-Star break.
That being said, I think the Rockets are going to need his athleticism and versatility at some point in the playoffs, and I do think he will and should see some playing time (and play well), even if he's not always a steady member of the playoff rotation.
AS: Absolutely. The saying "Smoke them if you've got 'em," comes to mind right now. Dekker is battling through back spasms at the moment, so it would be advisable to rest him for as long as it takes during the regular season, and there is potential for his return to disrupt the flow of the current rotation, but he has potential as a spark plug when the starters need rest. It appears to me that his recent struggles and injury issues are somewhat symptomatic of the larger issue; this is the first time Dekker has played this many games in a season. As painful as it sounds, he has to get those minutes at some point, so he should be in the rotation so long as it doesn't affect his long-term potential or the Rockets' chance at a title. Keep him on a short leash and shut him down if the results are discouraging.
XE: I think Dekker should be in the rotation but after a week’s rest. I think he’s mostly tired from playing so many games and his back issues. His role is to give the team his energy, basket attacks, and rebounds more than shooting. Some rest should restore that and hopefully, he’ll be there for the team come playoff time.
ER: You never know how someone is going to perform in the playoffs. Dekker was a key figure on an NCAA Championship team, so it's hard to see him shrinking from the moment. While he's clearly not a 40 percent shooter as he was in the beginning of the year, it's not unreasonable to think he has another hot streak in him. I think D'Antoni gives him a shot early in Round 1, and if he hits a three or two, he gets some time. But I don't expect to see him much in second halves in the playoffs. He'll get a few minutes in some first halves if Ryno is in foul trouble.
2) Grade the Troy Williams signing.
JB: If Mr. Morey cleared all that cap space to sign him, then he must be someone worth the chance. He started 13 games for the Grizzlies early in the season, so he has some NBA experience, but he needs some grooming in the Valley. He was shooting less than 25 percent from three for the Grizz, and that’s a major red flag for me, but he seems to be doing well in the D-League. Hopefully, he’ll make it big, but this was another low-risk, high-reward signing by Morey. I doubt it was his first choice, but he will do. Grade: B
DY: The young swingman has looked good in the D-League, averaging almost 22 points per game with the Vipers. Unfortunately, the D-League is littered with guys who can fill it up at that level who never materialize once they step up, and Williams is a subpar three-point shooter knocking down just 32 percent of his triples in D-League action, so there's definitely work to do before he makes an impact at the next level. But I do think that once any playoff difference makers were off the table in the buyout market, picking up a young scorer with potential was a solid move. Grade: B-
AS: Incomplete. Yes, this feels like a way out of answering the question but asking for an opinion on a player who has pretty much only been lighting it up in the D-League (Daniels is averaging 21.8 points on 55% shooting with 5 rebounds in his time with the Rio Grande Vipers). It's like asking me to tell you whether the Star Wars: The Last Jedi is good. I mean, I've heard good things but need to see it on the big screen. There really isn't a large enough sample size for us to know what to expect from Williams, but this feels like a classic Daryl Morey move. He signs a player with potential, they light it up for two weeks in the Association, and then Morey packages him to a team like the Los Angeles Lakers for a true impact player like Lou Williams, and we all snicker and high five as we reap the benefits. Grade: INC
XE: He’s not the signing the Rockets hoped for, as I’m sure the Rockets would have preferred Andrew Bogut or Terrence Jones (just kidding). Williams is exactly as useful as KJ McDaniels, ostensibly without whatever it was about KJ that caused four coaches to prefer (almost literally) anyone else to him. Grade: B
ER: I guess Daryl Morey likes his long-term upside, but it just feels pointless to me. I hope to one day ask him what happened with the roster spots this season. He still deserves to be Executive of the Year, but from Donatas Motiejunas to K.J. McDaniels to the weirdness with Andrew Bogut and Omri Casspi, there are some mystifying things I'd like an explanation on. Grade: D
3) Who is James Harden’s biggest competition for MVP?
JB: I think this is a very close three horse race between James, Russ, and Kawhi. LeBron is out of the race for me because he takes too many nights off. Russ is third, but if his team can make a furious run down the stretch and get the fifth seed while averaging a triple-double, that’d be very impressive and there will be some voters that won’t be able to not give it to him. I think they will end up sixth or seventh, which is why I don’t think Russ is going to win it.
Kawhi is in second for me because they have a chance to lock down the top seed in the West over a team that won 73 games last year and added a former MVP to their team. Kawhi is the backbone of that team just like James is for the Rockets and Russ is for the Thunder. He also is quite possibly the best two-way player in the league. He is not only an MVP candidate but a DPOY candidate as well.
However, I think James will take this MVP trophy. I might be a little biased because I follow the team religiously, but seeing how James has taken control of this team and lead this team to what is looking like a double-digit win improvement is nothing short of astounding. Nights like last night prove why he will win this year’s MVP.
DY: I made a list in my MVP article last week, and in my mind, it's Kawhi Leonard running in second behind the Beard. The Spurs are an elite squad and one of the title favorites. He's having a remarkable year on both sides of the ball.
That being said, Russell Westbrook is clearly Harden's biggest competition for the actual award (rather than the one in my brain). Some people are just obsessed with the triple-double, and I've said before I just don't think it's that simple. I truly believe Harden is doing more with his surrounding group than Westbrook is doing with his, and that's the definition of "valuable" in my book. The Rockets are a top-three seed and a contender for the title. The Thunder are not. That's the difference between the two. Though the Thunder have been playing well lately, they're still 8 games back of the Rockets in the standings, and when the raw numbers are equal (and they are... you can look at any number of statistics and metrics to make a legitimate case for either guy), the deciding factor should be who's leading his team to a better performance. That's Harden.
AS: Russell Westbrook, if only because the media loves to create drama and is obsessed with flashy stats. (LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are far more worthy candidates but that is another discussion.) The NBA pundits have been driving home the "Russ is the little engine that could" narrative and wanting to give Russ the MVP ever since Kevin Durant bolted OKC for the golden pastures of the Warriors. He has most definitely proven his merit as an individual player and deserves credit for keeping the Thunder afloat but the Devil is in the details. The likelihood of a player putting up shiny numbers increase greatly when said player shoots 4 more shots per game than, oh, every other player in the NBA, and if you wrote a book about Westbrook's season it would be titled, "Fifty Shades of 2005-2006 Kobe." His numbers are inflated and giving James Harden the MVP would be a black eye for the NBA media, who failed to even consider him for All-NBA honors last season (Which still pisses me off), but that doesn't change the fact that Westbrook is single biggest threat to Harden bringing the MVP trophy to H-Town.
XE: Westbrook. It’s tough to give it to a guy, LeBron, who despite being maybe the best player in the world, has to lead his all-star filled roster to a worse record in the weaker conference. Kawhi is excellent but not as excellent as Harden. Westbrook has the gaudy counting stats, but in the end, the Rockets are a ton better team with Harden more efficient and providing more assists.
ER: Kawhi Leonard. It's just impossible for voters to justify giving the award to Westbrook over Harden unless they really think two rebounds a game matter that much. Leonard is playing on a team with a better record, that beat the Rockets more often than not, playing better defense than anyone else on the planet. Will I be upset if he wins over the Beard? Of course. But I will understand someone's argument. Anyone who votes for Westbrook over Harden, and voted Curry over Harden in 2015, which most voters did, should have their vote revoked.
4) Should the Rockets give their players more rest to prepare for the playoffs?
JB: In terms of rest, minutes need to be cut. James doesn’t want to take nights off, which is cool by me. Every time he goes out there, he’s a treat to watch, and he doesn’t have a huge injury history. Guys like Ryno, Eric Gordon and Bev who have been injured this season and in the past should see some minutes getting cut. Ariza is also playing 34 minutes per game at 31 years old. I’d like to see him take it easy down the stretch especially when the Rockets will see a lot of meaningless games down the stretch with the 3-seed all but locked. Nene is the only player who has seen actual DNP-CD’s in games, and I don’t think that’s necessary for the other guys, but I’d like to see guys like Lou Williams and Sam Dekker and even Montrezl Harrell get more minutes because you can’t have enough depth in the playoffs.
DY: I'm not a big fan of outright resting. I think the best way to be sharp for the playoffs is to be playing actual basketball, so I'd like to see all the Rockets active down the stretch. That being said, I'm not opposed to cutting back on minutes for The Beard, Trevor Ariza, and Ryan Anderson if the three-seed is locked.
AS: Yes, rest is going to be critical as the Rockets make their first legitimate push for a title in the James Harden era. It's also never a bad idea to borrow any chapter from the Gregg Popovich "Book of Playoff Success." This Rockets team is filled with high risk - high reward players like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson who, while possessing the ability to shoot the lights out of the Toyota Center, are just as likely to sprain their wrist or ankle getting out of their Toyota Camry. As soon as the 3 seed is locked up, Mike D'Antoni should work a balance of rest and repetition for the starters. Hell, the Rockets have an entire team of robots devoted to measuring stamina and players' health preservation. Lock Eric Gordon in a hyperbaric chamber or one of those pods from the Alien movies if it means he will go for 20 points and a handful of 3's a night in the second round of the playoffs or better.
XE: Yes, once the three seed is locked, days off and low minutes would be ideal for guys like Harden, Anderson, Ariza, and Gordon.
ER: Yes. Look at Nene if you want to see the value of rest. The one player whose minutes the Rockets are trying to manage happens to look like a 10-year-younger version of himself. It's not a coincidence. Mike D'Antoni is a players coach and James Harden wants to play. But down the stretch, his and Trevor Ariza (and Patrick Beverley, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon's minutes for that matter) should all go down for nothing more than precautionary reasons. There will soon be nothing to play for, and the Rockets should act like it.
5) Which Rocket needs to improve his game the most down the stretch?
JB: Ryno. It’s tough because he’s been good all year but he is possibly the Rocket X-Factor for the postseason. In the Rockets wins against Golden State and San Antonio this season, Anderson has been solid, but in losses, he’s been off. Anderson will have a game every 7-10 days where he has a great shooting night and is a major part of a Rockets win. His most recent example is when he made four of his seven threes in the win against Cleveland last week. I think he needs to show up more often than he does now, especially when the Rockets go into long series with the best of the West.
DY: I'm going to say, Trevor Ariza. He's been extremely streaky all season and appears to be back in a mini-shoot slump over the last 2 games. He had a nice run for about a week or so after an earlier prolonged slump, but that's just more evidence of how streaky he's been this year.
He also needs some redemption from last year's playoffs, when he shot just 4-28 from beyond the arc against the Warriors. It's no secret that when Ariza is shooting well, the Rockets also tend to do well, so I'd really like to see the swingman in peak form for the postseason run. I think his shooting could be key to how far the Rockets can go.
AS: Lou Williams, specifically on the defensive end of the floor. Williams was traded to be an offensive lightning bug and nobody expects him to be the second coming of Gary Payton but playoff basketball is a whole different ballgame. He has to bring some effort (Any effort!) to both ends of the court in a format where every possession is critical. If Kevin Love can bust his hump to stay with Steph Curry in the NBA Finals last season, Williams should be able to reach into his reserves and give at least what equates to a defensive attempt that is equal to the average NBA reserve. There will come a time when shots aren't falling for the Rockets in the playoffs and that is when Sweet Lou will need to step up on D.
XE: Lou Williams. His defense is so awful that if he’s not scoring, he’s a howling void on the court. His offense is definitely better than Corey Brewer, but Brewer’s defense was better than Lou’s, which is something that the Rockets miss. I don’t mind Lou’s offense but he needs to pick it up a little on the other end.
ER: It all comes back together, doesn't it? Dekker is the missing piece to everything the Rockets do. If they can have a competent backup to Ryan Anderson that is confident knocking down three-pointers, this team is complete. It has starters and backups in every role except that one. Trevor Ariza is filling in admirably, but to achieve max flexibility, Dekker needs to contribute.