...and just like that, poof! The season has come and gone. This season flew by, probably because of the crazy fun ride the Rockets took us on this season.
This week, Ethan Rothstein (ER), Darren Yuvan (DY), Jeremy Brener (JB), Xian E (XE), and Adam Sweeney (AS) discuss the best moments of the season and a quick look into what the team needs to do in the offseason.
As always, please continue the debates in the comments.
1. What was your favorite game or moment from this season?
ER: Favorite game was definitely the double-overtime victory over the Warriors. The team played its best, the Warriors were healthy and gave the Rockets a test that they passed with flying colors. The Rockets seized the momentum to win their next 9 games and 18 of their next 20. The best moment had to be James Harden's coast-to-coast buzzer beater in the midst of the most heated part of the MVP debate.
DY: It was definitely the first-round playoff series against the Thunder. I thoroughly enjoyed the 4-1 victory and forcing the supposed MVP into the repeated fourth-quarter chuckfests. It was a reaffirmation of what we've been saying all year long about Russell Westbrook, and it played itself out exactly how we expected. The Game 1 blowout of the Spurs in the second round is a close second, but only because of the ultimate outcome of the series. Man, that game was fun!
JB: The come-from-behind miracle in Minnesota does not get as much love as it deserved. The win made it ten straight for the Rockets, and going 20-2 from December 1st until January 10th was my favorite moment of the season. It seemed as if the Rockets could do no wrong and that Houston was home to the best basketball team in the land. Hopefully that magic will be re-discovered next season.
XE: My favorite moment for the Rockets was the month of December. My favorite game the win early in the season over Golden State that established the Rockets were at least back to being good.
As an aside - I absolutely believe Zaza intended to give Leonard no space to land in order to aggravate his ankle. Zaza has been a cleverly dirty player his whole career, and he took out the guy who was kicking his team’s ass. What a miracle GS came back after that! Of course The Forklift would say it’s all fine. He can’t say anything else until they upgrade the interview module in the off-season.
AS: This is probably taking the easy way out but the entire season, save for the last two games against the San Antonio Spurs, was delightful. If the 2015-2016 season was like getting a bag of rocks on Halloween when you trick r' treat, then this season we all took a trip to the rich neighborhoods where they give king size Snicker bars. Yes, we got that nasty peanut butter taffy at the end of the street, but we also got the opportunity to watch James Harden transform into the "Point Beard," and it was beyond incredible to see a team shake off such a horrible season and fire all the 3's. It will go down as one of my favorite Rockets seasons ever.
2. What was the biggest surprise from this season?
ER: Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon largely staying healthy. Anderson got nicked up down the stretch and missed some time, and Gordon missed a few games here and there. But both guys played more games last year than they had in years, in a testament to Keith Jones and his crew. Going into the year, these deals were panned not because Ryno and Gordon didn't have talent, but because they couldn't stay on the floor. They did, and the Rockets won 55 games because of it.
DY: That Mike D'Antoni, James Harden and the Rockets made such beautiful music together. Many of us weren't happy with the D'Antoni hiring when it happened, and some of us were downright upset. I'm happy to say the coach proved us wrong, and his plan of moving The Beard to the point guard position was one of the most notable moves for any coach this year in the NBA. Harden responded with an all-time great regular season, and I'm not sure anyone quite expected that level of production coming into the season.
JB: This season was full of surprises, but I’d say the biggest surprise was the whole system working as well as it did for so long. Houston really committed to a “layups, threes, and free throws” philosophy and ran the scoreboard up on teams. The team scored less than 100 just four times in the regular season. In the regular season, where the pace is a little quicker, it worked. In the offseason, it didn’t work because the game slowed down. Houston needs to adapt their game in the playoffs to better work the halfcourt game.
XE: No D’Antoni mustache. Biggest surprise for real? James Harden, evolutionary successor to Steve Nash.
AS: The assimilation of the Rockets to Mike D'Antoni's system blew my mind. I was an admitted skeptic, even as a superfan of D'Antoni's time with the Phoenix Suns, but he made a believer out of me. We were an Amare Stoudemire type away from getting to the Western Conference Finals.
3. Who has played their last game as a Rocket from this year's team?
ER: This is a great question, and it's impossible to say. Nene is the easy answer, since he's the lone free agent, suffered a serious injury and is super old. But he was hugely important, cheap, and I wouldn't be surprised if he comes back. If it's not Nene, I wouldn't be too shocked if Trevor Ariza or Ryan Anderson were shipped out for someone who can create a little more offense for themselves. Ariza is on the wrong side of 30, but he has an affordable deal and plenty of value. But the playoffs once again showed how limited the Rockets are when the ball winds up in his hands. Teams try to get it there.
DY: I'm going to say Trevor Ariza. He has a good contract, but the Rockets could really use some additional athleticism on the wing, and I think Daryl Morey makes a concerted effort in the offseason to upgrade the small forward position. In fact, there were rumors early this year they were attempting to do just that by going after Danilo Gallinari, and even though that move never materialized, I think management realizes they need some additional punch from that position. Ariza is getting older, and his game is showing signs of impending slippage. The easy answer is also Nene. That's a bad injury for someone his age, and who knows if we ever see the big man back on the court.
JB: I’ll say Bobby Brown for sure. Nene was one of the best bargains of the offseason, and he will get a raise from somebody. If the Rockets want to meet that price or if Nene is willing to take a hometown discount, he’ll stay. I’d say it’s 50/50 at this point. However, I think we’ve seen the last of Montrezl Harrell in a Rockets uniform unfortunately.
The Rockets have groomed Harrell into becoming a three-point shooter to better fit the Rockets scheme, but I also feel that there are many guys in the draft or around the league that can do what Harrell can do. He’s a dying breed in the league and he can no longer pass on his energy alone. His trade value is probably as high as it ever will be, and maybe they can swap Harrell in a package to get a 3-and-D guy or a post defender that provides a little more size.
XE: I really have few problems with this roster, though it needs some additions. Mostly it needs to be used and trusted to handle whatever situation comes up. If you want to see the most glaring difference between MDA and Popovich, it’s that he had guys ready to plug in and trusted them (mostly) and MDA didn’t. If there are plausible options that are never tried, it’s on the coach. Maybe they aren’t that plausible, but when the difference in game five is three points in OT, you have to wonder if there weren’t a few minutes that could have been claimed.
Oh, well, I imagine the most easy cut is Official Harden Plushy Bobby Brown. But perhaps Harden is at that LeBron James stage where there’s just going to be a buddy on the roster. So if not him, then really any of the 10th player on guys, depending on what Morey comes up with.
AS: I wouldn't be opposed to seeing Ryan Anderson go in a trade for a two-way player who performs in the regular season AND playoffs. Yes, shots are tougher to make against playoff-caliber teams but dropping a full .150 percentage points isn't acceptable, especially for a guy who exists to stretch the floor. And yes, I am aware that Harden shot at a lower clip than Anderson. It was nice to see Anderson go down low against the Spurs when Nene went out, but come on. Ryno is 6-10" for crying out loud. If you can't get a few garbage buckets in the post at that size then you gain Shawn Bradley status.
Don't be shocked if Nene walks also. He earned a bigger contract, if only for his career performance against the Thunder.
4. What is the biggest change this team has to make for next season?
ER: Adjust their attitude about rest. The Warriors and Cavs look fresh and terrifying right now. It's no coincidence that the Rockets looked tired, particularly James Harden, in the last few weeks of the season and the playoffs. Leading the league in total minutes is cool one year. It should not be a trend. Harden has played 81, 82 and 81 games the last three years. I'd like that to come down to 77 or 76 next year.
DY: The Rockets need a little more size and some additional help on the wing. The lack of talent in the front court was exposed in the playoffs, and the Rockets definitely need another 3-and-D guy and/or some additional scoring punch on the wing. Even if they end up keeping Ariza, he can't do it all and would need a serious reduction in minutes moving forward as he heads into his 14th season.
JB: Get some defense. This team was 2nd in offense, yet 18th in defense. If this team was a Top 10 defense, I reckon the Rockets are still playing now. It was an improvement from last season, but they still have a long way to go. If the Warriors can be a top-tier defensive team as well as a top-tier offensive team, then the Rockets can to. I’d like for Houston to try and follow their defensive model. Maybe it’s a personnel change or maybe it’s a scheme change. That’s up for the team to decide, and I have faith they will make the right moves.
XE: In personnel the team needs, requires, a guy who can play defense and get rebounds with big PFs. It’s too bad if the Rockets can’t always be five out, but just getting wrecked on the glass sometimes kills them. The style of play, that has players moving up a traditional position size or two, puts a tremendous physical demand on players on defense and the boards, which is the trade off for the putative offensive gain.
Anderson’s defense simply isn’t good enough to leave him out when opponents are ignoring his shot, you might as well bring in a bruiser.
So a PF/C (I’d rather a guy who can play up to C than a guy who moves down to SF because it’s likely that guy is really either a big SF or small PF). I know basketball is supposedly positionless now, but the Rockets got beat by a traditional look executed very well.
Also, Dekker or Williams needs to be able to spot Ariza meaningful minutes, and one of them possibly Anderson or Harden as well.
AS: Maybe we just need to get the word "defense" tattooed on every Rockets player's forehead when they come back to the Toyota Center. But at this point we know what to expect on the defensive end of the court from Houston, so could we get P.J. Tucker or somebody, anybody who comes into the game with a defensive mentality? Please? 3-and-D players should be at the top of the list, followed by a role player who can protect the rim.
5. Was this season successful?
ER: Unquestionably. The Rockets have an awful taste in their mouths to wash out somehow, but they won 55 games, made it to the second round of the playoffs, took a 61-win Spurs team to 6 games and have all of their key players, save Nene, under contract for next season. It was their first year under D'Antoni/Bzdelik, and if they can mentally recover and have another great summer, there's no reason they won't be better next year.
DY: Absolutely. I don't think anyone out there, including myself, predicted that the Rockets would be as good as they were this season. In my preseason predictions, I had the Rockets for about 47-48 wins, and they obviously exceeded that comfortably. Don't let the disappointing finish fool you, this was the fourth-highest win total in franchise history, and no one saw it coming. That's definitely a successful season in my book.
JB: I’m going to be very Steinbrenner-y in my approach to this answer. The Rockets did not win the championship, so this was not a successful season. Only one team has a successful season, and that is the team that hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy. However, given from where they were last season, this team has made significant strides towards hoisting the trophy. They still have a long way to go, but I like the progress they made this season.
XE: Absolutely. Without question. The Rockets reestablished themselves as a premiere team, and a very good destination for players with a particular set of skills. It’s reasonable to think they’re the 4th best team in the NBA right now.
Remember, the Rockets beat the Spurs in Game 1, or easily could have, by the score they lost by in Game Six. You’re never as good as your best game, and never as bad as your worst. Also - this is the pain of a very high variance team. It can look this bad. I was honestly very pleased the Rockets were able to grind out a win against a team that played exceedingly negative basketball in OKC, with very good personnel to do so. The Spurs were able to add offensive execution to their league-best defense. But even the very worst game wasn’t so much a scoring explosion by SA, but rather an offensive collapse by Houston.
If there’s a silver lining, Game Six should destroy any complacency with the Rockets regarding championship aspirations. They need more - either more development from their roster, or outside help.
Long-term my worry is that MDA won’t make any meaningful changes in his approach, which means the Rockets are just going to be in one dice rolling contest after another in the playoffs.
AS: Of course this season was successful. If you are a Rockets fan I beg you to not get burned by walking on the coals of the hot takes going around. Let's remember that this was a team that ESPN NBA experts in the preseason had seven spots below the Oklahoma City Thunder and below the freaking Minnesota Timberwolves in their NBA Power Rankings, and the consensus was that they may barely make the playoffs by, oh, Fox Sports. Don't forget that other writers said they would maybe win 43 games over at CBS Sports, and you damn well better believe this season was a success. This season was the Rogue One of the Rockets' franchise existence. It was enjoyable, exceeded expectations and had some badass moments, but now people are ready to tear it apart because it wasn't a classic like the 1993-1994 season, AKA The Empire Strikes Back for the Rockets. Years down the road we will remember James Harden as a Hall of Famer and not remember the collapse against the Spurs. Time softens the edges. Ask Tracy McGrady. By the way, T-Mac, I love ya but slow the roll on criticizing Harden. You made it out of the first round one time with the Rockets and you didn't even play that postseason. Put the rock down when throwing at that glass Toyota Center, friend. I'm down with The Beard for life.