Houston Rockets – Off Season Report

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2015/2016 Record: 41-41 (1st round exit)

Ins:

Ryan Anderson FA – 4yrs / $80mil
Eric Gordon FA – 4yrs / $53mil
Nene FA – 1 yr / $2.8mil
Pablo Prigioni FA – 2yrs / $2.2mil (Non -Guaranteed 2nd)
Gary Payton II FA – Undrafted Rookie (Non-Guaranteed)
Chinanu Onuaku DR – Pick #37
Kyle Wiltjer FA – Undrafted Rookie (Non-Guaranteed)
Bobby Brown FA – 1 yr / $980k (Non-Guaranteed)
Isaiah Taylor FA – Undrafted Rookie (Non-Guaranteed)
Zhou Qi DR – Pick #43 (Unsigned)

Outs:

Dwight Howard FA – Hawks
Jason Terry FA – Bucks
Terrence Jones FA – Pelicans
Andrew Goudelock FA – Maccabi Tel Aviv
Josh Smith FA – Unsigned

Off Season Analysis:

There’s just one question needing an answer when it comes to the Houston Rockets off-season; who is running the show?

The 2015/16 season for the Rockets was a disaster. The fact they even made the playoffs in the end was a minor miracle but they were under no illusions of how their season fared. Houston GM, Daryl Morey, had the responsibility of turning things around. Or did he? Long-time Houston owner Leslie Alexander made his feelings known almost immediately after the Rockets were bounced out of the first round. Change was coming.

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Cue Mike D’Antoni. The first move of the off-season, after a lengthy interview process to say the least. I’m sure Morey must have installed a revolving office door to deal with the absurd amount of candidates. This all despite him being long rumoured to favour a Jeff Van Gundy reunion. A move that his owner may not have been as keen on and looks to have flatly overruled after insisting on an open process. Alexander and Morey flanked their new coach at his introductory press conference and before a single question was even asked, the owner chose to address any negative feedback on the hire. It was a strange move to make and further proof that Alexander had his fingerprints all over that decision.

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S0, what can Rockets fans expect from a D’Antoni led team? I am a Pringles (RIP to the Stache) tragic who grew up rooting for the 7 seconds or less Suns, so I can confidently say you can bank on a number of non-negotiables. Expect a small rotation, players playing up a position, pace, space and lots of lobs and threes. Basically the modern day NBA right? Well yes, but without a lick of defence. While the Rockets added defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik to their bench, I wouldn’t expect a great leap in this area. Like Raja Bell and Kurt Thomas in the past, D’Antoni will charge Beverley and Capela with the responsibility of fixing everyone else’s mistakes on that end of the floor rather than becoming a team D unit. And don’t expect any rookies to get a look in either; Mike is not a fan of putting guys out there before they’re ready.

Speaking of rookies, next on the summer agenda was the draft. The Rockets were armed with just two second round picks (remember Ty Lawson on the Rockets?), which became two very raw but very different big prospects. Zhou Qi had the second biggest age controversy leading into the draft but remains a long term stretch prospect. He will remain in China for the time being but for now the Rockets have re-engaged the Chinese market. On the other hand Chinanu Onuaku is a defensive C who anchored a very good college defence last season but at least for now, is best known as the underhand FT shooter. The Rockets did a good job of adding prospective talent with their late picks but perhaps their best move came straight after the draft concluded, swooping on Gary Payton II as an undrafted free agent. Payton is a feisty point guard with all the defensive tools his Dad possessed, while perhaps not quite the same overall ability.

June became July and free agency opened in the NBA. Perhaps the biggest question for the Rockets early was what would happen to Dwight Howard. Despite feigning interest in bringing him back, Howard packed his bags for Atlanta and the Rockets quickly turned their attention to how to spend their dough. And spend they did. $133 million was forked out for the services of stretch 4 Ryan Anderson and combo guard Eric Gordon. That’s a lot of cheddar but health permitting; both guys could certainly flourish under a D’Antoni/Harden led offence.

Anderson is a career 38% three point shooter and there should be no question what his job is on this team. Shoot. His defensive and rebounding deficiencies will be largely glanced over by his coach in favour of the creation of potential mismatches and space for Harden. Think of him as a very expensive door stopper. Rooted to the ground and creating wide open lanes on both sides of the ball. Gordon’s role is a little more interesting below the surface. As a SG it is hard to see how he could start, however that doesn’t mean he won’t play significant minutes with Harden on the court too. To me Gordon projects to be the perfect 6th man for this team, often playing alongside Harden, taking some of the pressure off him with ball handling duties and taking advantage of their dual inside/outside threat. Finally, the additions of Nene and Pablo Prigioni later in the piece are no doubt to provide a good veteran presence at a low cost and they should slot into the second unit.

But let’s talk about health, you didn’t think I would skip over it that quickly did you? The team was desperate to add good talent around their franchise guy in James Harden but is it worth it if they aren’t there 30% of the time? In a possible 1312 games over the last 4 seasons, the Rockets 4 major recruits touched the floor just 937 times. And let’s not forget touching the floor is very different to being a solid contributor too. That’s not exactly what Harden wants to hear when he has averaged 78 games in the same time frame, all while carrying the entire team on his shoulders. But at least, that achievement was not lost on the organisation.

With the spike in the salary cap, an opportunity arose for most teams to renegotiate and extend their existing players. In short, the team must have enough cap room for any increase in salary and the player must be three years into their four to five year current deal. With Harden potentially hitting the open market again next season (he held a player option) Morey and the Rockets moved to lock him up, at least for a little longer. The new deal became 4 Years / $118mil, with a player option again available to Harden going into the 19/20 season. It essentially saw Harden paid his max salary starting right away and means a $10+ million raise for the next two seasons, all in exchange for a longer period of contract with the Rockets. Win win.

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If there was any doubt in the past, the new contract and subtraction of Howard means  James Harden has been given the keys to this brand new fast red car. Patrick Beverley recently commented in a great article by Oliver Maroney for Basketball Insiders, to expect “MVP and leading us to the Finals. Simple” from the franchise guy. There are also various other accounts that we are in for a new and improved Harden this upcoming season. So take a max contract, no Howard, as well as a new found fire in the belly and pair it with his new coach and what can we expect? Well, if there is one thing D’Antoni can do it is maximise his main ball handler’s talents to the absolute full. This is the man who guided Steve Nash to back to back MVP’s and gave us the sporting theatre that was Linsanity. Expect Harden to play a lot of PG, with Capela anchored in the paint and three shooters around the arc. They may struggle to play defence but the offence will be pretty.

But what does it all mean? I for one am not as critical as some when it comes to what the Rockets are going with. Any time you have a top-5 talent in his prime, you must do everything you can to play to his strengths. While the history books for D’Antoni and his lack of care for defence don’t shine too brightly when it comes to the ultimate success, there wasn’t much point in the Rockets trying to turn this team into something it is not. Instead, they have gone ALL IN and I don’t mind it. You could say Morey has gone ALL IN too, perhaps with his last major move for the franchise. Here’s an #ozwoj for you. When this upcoming season is all said and done, if this newly developed car spends more time in the shop than on the road, Daryl Morey will no longer be the GM of the Rockets. It is obvious to me he already has one foot out the door and whether he jumps or is pushed, Morey is GONE if this latest experiment fails in Year 1.

TBC: Donatas Motiejunas is still a restricted free agent. The Rockets extended the qualifying offer and therefore retain the right to match any offer he signs with another team. Interestingly, Houston are 1 short of the maximum 15 players for the roster. If D-Mo stays, that could spell the end for Payton, Brown, Taylor and Wiltjer. If he goes, expect Payton to win the battle for the last spot as the third string PG.

Grade: B

2016/17 Prediction: 45- 37

League Pass Meter: 9/10

Maybe I’m just hopeful but I am going to take the beard half full approach on this season. This team is going to be really fun to watch when in full flight. Completely downhill, space, shooting, must watch basketball. If healthy, it should also provide a decent Year 1 record to build on.

Depth Chart:

PG: Beverley Prigioni Payton II* Brown*  Taylor*
SG: Harden Gordon McDaniels
SF: Ariza Brewer Dekker
PF: Anderson Beasley Harrell Wiltjer*
C: Capela Nene Onuaku

* Salary Likely Guarantees 10th Jan 2017

Salary Cap Situation:

2016/17 salaries: $92,371,448 (under the cap team)
2017/18 salaries: $83,329,915

Max room: $18.6mil
Min room: $7.1mil

Future Assets:

Incoming:
2017 2nd (Nuggets)
2017 2nd (Blazers)

Outgoing:
2017 2nd (Knicks)
2019 2nd (Knicks, Magic or Pistons)

2016/17 Questions:

What can Harden average under D’antoni?

Will Capela take the next step as a legit starting C?

Can Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon play 82 games between them?

Can Morey turn his assets and salaries into another major move?

How far can the Rockets reach going all out on Offence?

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