2016/17 Record: 55 – 27 (Second Round Exit)
2017/18 Salaries: $122,406,494 (Over The Cap Team) – full HOU salary cap situation – here
Incoming Draft Picks: CHA/MIA/MEM ’18 2nd (Least Favourable).
Outgoing Draft Picks: ATL ’18 1st (4-30), PHI ’18 2nd, ORL/NYK/SAC/DET ’19 2nd.
The Houston Rockets have been to the NBA Finals a total of four times in their history, taking home the Larry O’Brien trophy on two occasions. Since joining the Rockets for the ’07/’08 Season though, Daryl Morey is still searching for that elusive first trip to the NBA Finals as the General Manager. It would be a welcome return for the franchise since winning it all back in 1995.
The first real chance for Morey came in the formative years of his Rockets career, with a team built around existing Houston favourites Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. Bad luck with injuries can be blamed in part for that team’s struggles (only reaching the Second Round in ’08/’09) and eventual demise, forcing Morey to hit the reset button. He then spent a few lean years back in the middle of the NBA pack, trying to build his own contender from scratch.
Enter, James Edward Harden Jnr in 2012.
Somewhat of a gamble at the time, the trade for Harden propelled the Rockets right back into the Playoffs in year one. Plenty of running mates have joined Harden along the way, most notably Dwight Howard, and the Rockets have strung together five consecutive post-season campaigns since. For all its success though, the Rockets have still only reached the Conference Finals once in that time and while it’s an improvement, Morey is still chasing a debut Finals berth.
Next step, Christopher Emmanuel Paul in 2017.
The Rockets and Morey pulled off an unlikely trade on the eve of Free Agency, sending a mixture of role players, young talent and draft picks to the Clippers in return for Paul. Now Morey has another All-Star duo, this time in the back-court, to perhaps rival his first dynamic duo from 2007 and almost certainly surpass the more recent Harden/Howard pairing.
Over two offseasons Houston’s GM has built a roster that resembles the Rockets ’08/’09 squad for experience and where its stars are placed.
Most Experienced Eight – ’08/’09:
Dikembe Mutombo (17 Years), Brent Barry (13), Tracy McGrady (11), Rafer Alston (9), Ron Artest (9), Shane Battier (7), Yao Ming (6), Brian Cook (5).
Most Experienced Eight – ’16/’17:
Nene (15 Years), Trevor Ariza (13), Chris Paul (12), Ryan Anderson (9), Eric Gordon (9), Luc Mbah A Moute (9), James Harden (8), PJ Tucker (6).
Paul and Harden are placed in identical situations to where McGrady and Yao found themselves previously, with plenty of veterans surrounding them on the roster. Perhaps the key difference for the new Rockets squad is that all eight of the current crop are expected to be key contributors on a nightly basis. At least they hope so. The ’08/’09 team only received a small contribution from the likes of Mutombo and Cook (9 games each) as well as Barry (15 minutes per), plus relied heavily on the younger Luis Scola, Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry. Of the less experienced Rockets in ’17/’18, only Clint Capela should feature heavily.
The key new additions of the last two seasons all feature in the most experienced eight but also share Morey’s quest for the Finals. While Trevor Ariza (’08 & ’09) and Harden (’12) have both been there before with previous teams, Morey has signed a bunch of guys with ambitions tied to his own in the last two offseasons.
Mike D’Antoni – Conference Finals in ’05 & ’06 with the Phoenix Suns.
Ryan Anderson – Conference Finals in ’10 with the Orlando Magic.
Eric Gordon – 2nd Round in ’17 with the Houston Rockets.
Nene – Conference Finals in ’09 with the Denver Nuggets.
Chris Paul – 2nd Round in ’08, ’12, ’14 & ’15 with the New Orleans Hornets & LA Clippers.
PJ Tucker – 2nd Round in ’17 with the Toronto Raptors.
Luc Mbah A Moute – 1st Round in ’16 & ’17 with the LA Clippers.
Morey has turned to someone with his own Playoff demons to help take the extra step in Paul, but it doesn’t stop there. He has surrounded the key existing pieces of Ariza and Harden, with experienced yet hungry role players that all share Morey and Paul’s desire to take the next step. When called upon, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Nene all proved their worth throughout last season and it will be up to PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah A Moute to do the same when their number is called in this campaign.
The NBA is a star-driven league though and success is ultimately going to boil down to how Houston’s old and new All-Star’s gel.
After such a successful 2016/17 season essentially running the point, many have questioned how Harden will go sharing ball-handling duties with Paul. Similarly, there have been plenty of questions of how Paul’s midrange game fits with the Morey-Ball style of just threes and lay-ups. The answer lies with a Head Coach who is also looking to clear the final hurdle himself and finally have a chance at winning the title.
One of the greatest offensive minds in the NBA, D’Antoni is charged with the responsibility of making this work. But it shouldn’t be too hard. While Paul should be able to replicate the efforts of the outgoing Patrick Beverley on the defensive end, the upgrade on the offensive end will come down to the Rockets quickly debunking two key myths.
1. The “Morey-Ball Anti-Midrange” Myth
Daryl Morey has already put this myth to bed in theory but a lot will come down to how it plays out on the court. The quotes from the GM are a good start but it’s also good to know that there is a real fit between new player and new team. As well as a historical archetype from the coach’s past.
Using NBAsavant.com, the heat maps of Houston and Paul match up almost perfectly. Or not at all, whichever way you choose to look at it. Using the half glass full approach, Paul is a career 50+% shooter in the midrange and will unlock a dimension of the Rockets’ offense that they did not have last season. Importantly, Paul shares several key traits to the Rockets’ current playing style. Taking the majority of his shots from deep at the top of the key and in the corners, while also going all the way when the opportunity arises.
However it’s the other aspect of his shooting game, which he happens to share with ex-D’Antoni favourite Steve Nash, that has always unlocked things personally and could pay dividends for his new team. Just like it did for Nash. Again comparing heat maps, Paul last season and Nash’s 2010/11 season are strikingly similar. In Paul, D’Antoni will have a newer version of an old toy and his skills will open up things for the slightly predictable 3&Key Rockets of old.
**NBAsavant.com records go back to the 2010/11 season. D’Antoni was Nash’s coach between 2004-2008.
2. The “Only One Ball” Myth
With Harden taking over the primary ball-handling duties last season, the concern at the addition of Paul is somewhat warranted. However, the Rockets stand to be lethal on the break with either playing Point Guard from their side of the floor and attacking the paint.
When things slow down, Houston could still be extremely dangerous with the ball in either of their hands. While Harden’s 38.7% catch and shoot numbers compared to his overall 44.0FG% are a little concerning, it is skewed by how good he is at getting to the rim. Harden runs at 58.3% within ten feet. He is still a much better shooter, particularly from deep, when spotting up as opposed to pulling up – going from 33% to 39% from behind the arc. Perhaps the addition of CP3 will allow him to lift his 12.9% catch and shoot frequency from last season and work from a position of strength more often.
As for Paul, his off-ball numbers last season were outstanding. Compared to his season averages of 47.6% from the field, 41.1% from deep and an effective field goal percentage of 55.5% things skyrocket in catch and shoot situations for Paul. Posting an equal 47.4% from the field, a much improved 49.3% from deep and an effective field goal percentage of 69.1%. He is hardly inefficient off the dribble (46% overall & 39% from deep) but is clearly a damaging weapon to have off the ball too.
The Rockets stand to be very effective with either Paul or Harden attacking out of the pick and roll in the half court, while the other spots up from deep. Add in the fact Houston has three of the top ten (Ariza, Gordon & Anderson) catch and shoot 3-point makers from last season still in tow, and they will give whoever has the ball all the spacing they need. Harden can continue to attack the rim, while Paul lives in the midrange – while the other can still prove to be very effective, particularly as a threat from deep.
**NBA.com shooting stats for the 2016/17 season.
In Morey, the Rockets have themselves an astute and analytical executive who is not afraid to shake things up. Even in the face of a dominant Warriors unit, Morey has shown he is not just the stereotypical numbers guy and is willing to take calculated risks. Using a little from his experience in the past and sprinkling it with some present desires, Morey will first be hoping his team can stay on the court.
If that part can come to fruition, the season will then likely come down to how quickly the coach and two All-Star guards can mesh. With plenty of rivals improving their teams, it won’t be easy reaching the Conference Finals. Houston will certainly be in the running however and from there, anything can happen in the NBA. The Rockets will have experience, continuity and desire on their side to all take the next step together.
Projected Starting Five:
Projected Depth Chart:
Overall Offseason Grade: A
2017/18 Prediction: 58 – 24
There might be some initial growing pains for the Rockets, but they managed to add several key pieces while bringing Nene back to Houston. The addition of Paul is huge for the Rockets and they also have continuity and depth over a few of their Western rivals. Sixty wins certainly isn’t out of the question for this team and they will undoubtedly be in the hunt as the second best team in the conference. Another huge offseason for Morey, who must now rely on his coach, players and a little bit of luck to go at least one step further in Season 17/18.
Player To Watch: Eric Gordon
Gordon proved many of the doubters wrong last season, ending the campaign with Sixth Man Of The Year honours. There were more questions marks over his durability than his talent after signing with Houston and Gordon managed the second most games and minutes of his career, with only his rookie season amassing more. As impressive as last season was, Gordon still has plenty of room to move when it comes to his overall shooting percentages. With a chance to share the court with one of Harden or Paul at all times, Gordon should be able to match his career 43.1% from the field (40.2% last season) and perhaps better his career 38.0% from deep (37.2% last season), with the extra space. Top five in the NBA for catch and shoot points last season, Gordon could be the biggest beneficiary of the addition of Paul.
Four Key Questions:
1. Will the Rockets regret not landing Melo or can they find another target?
It’s hard to lose out on a trade target, particularly when the winning package consists of Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second-round pick. Trades in the NBA are a funny game and it appears the contract of Ryan Anderson was deemed immovable. At least in this situation. However, the Rockets won’t dwell on the loss and instead, Morey may look elsewhere mid-season for a new target. Potential targets are so hard to predict when it comes to Morey and the Rockets, but keep an eye on a move being made before their unofficial trade deadline which would be December 8 this season.
2. Who wins out in the non-guaranteed contracts war?
With $1.3 million of his $1.4 million salary guaranteed for next season, Troy Williams is about as close as it gets to being assured of a spot on the final roster. With the Rockets leaner at wing/guard, the same upper hand might be afforded to Isaiah Taylor and Tim Quarterman. Outside of Williams and assuming no trades are made, there are currently six non-guaranteed guys fighting for two final roster spots on opening night. The Rockets must give one spot to a backup PG and Taylor should beat out Bobby Brown, although you cannot entirely rule out a veteran with ties to their franchise player. The need for guards should also see Quarterman or Chris Johnson beat out Shawn Long and Cameron Oliver. Oliver does have the smaller contract (and $300k guaranteed) though, plus the Rockets still have a Two-Way slot open next to Demetrius Jackson. Watch this space.
3. What is the Rockets best crunch time five?
Landing Paul is undoubtedly the biggest coup of the Rockets offseason. Second to that though, the Rockets managed to increase their depth and provide D’Antoni with multiple lineup variations to work with. Depending on the situation at the end of games, Houston may have Plans 1a and 1b. Maybe it’s actually 1o and 1d. On offense, the Rockets can roll out a dangerous shooting lineup consisting of Paul, Gordon, Harden, Tucker and Anderson when they need a bucket. When stopping buckets late in games, the defensive versatility of a Paul, Ariza, Tucker, Mbah A Moute and Capela lineup is very intriguing. Not to mention, there a ton of other variations in between that can provide a little of both. Watching the Rockets late in games is going to be fun this season.
4. Can Clint Capela elevate his game to MIP status?
Clint Capela is expecting big things of himself this season and the feeling might just be mutual, after Paul spoke directly of Capela in his introductory press conference. According to TFPP research, the MIP Award is reserved for those who score at least 16PPG and improve by at least 5PPG on last season. Coincidentally, Capela has improved his output by close to five points every season so far and finished with an average of 12.7PPG last season. Yet another five point jump next season, would see him right in the sweet spot for the two main criteria for winning the award in the last ten seasons. Awards aside the Rockets will rely on Capela heavily this upcoming season, hoping he can anchor the defense, clean the glass, finish around the rim and keep Nene fresh.