Is it possible the Houston Rockets are under the radar?
“We obviously pay attention to everything written about the Rockets,” General Manager Daryl Morey said Saturday. “It seemed like everything is written about us.”
But, really: you didn’t hear a lot about the Rockets after their big acquisition of Chris Paul in late June. There were the breathless reports during the summer about Morey trying to engineer a deal for Carmelo Anthony, but there was never any real traction to any of the talk -- New York didn’t want the rest of Ryan Anderson’s contract, and that was that.
The Rockets became a muted story nationwide -- at least until the sale of the team from Leslie Alexander to businessman and reality TV host Tilman Fertitta for an NBA record $2.2 billion was reported earlier this month.
In the interim, the city has had a much bigger and more important story on its plate the last two weeks, with Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath the only thing that should matter to Houston’s citizens. (Alexander has pledged $10 million toward hurricane relief.) But before the storm formed and hit, the impact of the Rockets’ acquisition of Paul, the nine-time All-Star, seemed to fade, while more dramatic fare played on the big stage: the Minnesota Timberwolves’ acquisition of Jimmy Butler on Draft night; the Oklahoma City Thunder’s stunning acquisition of Paul George from Indiana; the Boston Celtics’ pursuit of free-agent Gordon Hayward; Kevin Durant leaving significant money on the table to help the Golden State Warriors re-sign almost all of their core group -- and, of course, Kyrie Irving’s trade demand from the Cavs and subsequent move to Boston.
But the Rockets’ restructuring of a team that won 55 games behind the historic season of James Harden may have been the most significant of any team’s offseason outside of the Shawmut Peninsula.
Golden State -- “we’ve got Warriors Mountain to climb,” Morey said -- is neither less formidable nor less prohibitive a favorite in 2017 than the Warriors were last year. But you can’t forfeit a season. The Rockets went all in to try and close the gap, and whether or not they ultimately corral Anthony, they’re better than they were last year.
Coach Mike D’Antoni gave Harden the ball at the point and fully embraced Morey’s 3-point dominant philosophy last year, and the Rockets put up numbers that few have in the history of the league. Harden led the league in assists (his 11.2 per game also was a team record), and became the first player in league history to score 2,000 points while dishing out 900 assists and grabbing 600 rebounds in a season. He also became the first player in league history to both score and assist on more than 2,000 points in a season.
I’m really comfortable with both of them. ... My role as coach is getting them in the best situations, with their input. They’ll tell me.
But the Rockets enter this season feeling they can keep the throttle down behind the arc while also taking advantage of Paul’s mid-range skills. No one is better at the elbows, manipulating defenses for pullups or drives, or throwing lobs to teammates.
And now, with two elite guards who can initiate the offense and finish, along with your Andersons and Eric Gordons still available to snipe from afar, D’Antoni anticipates the Rockets being just as lethal this season.
“We’re going to do a lot of what we always do,” D’Antoni said Sunday. “I think he’ll love it. Whatever you run, they’re going to figure out and be comfortable and make it good. I’m not as worried about playing what he did in the past, but this is good, we’ll spread them out. Obviously we’ll run a lot of pick and roll.
“What we have to figure out is the chemistry between him and James, that there’s a synergy there that they’ll be able to figure out. We’re going to do what we have always done, at a level that people haven’t seen before.”
Harden was a good leader last season in Houston, but Paul is one of the best ever -- knowledgeable, demanding, relentless. And, though they’re loath to acknowledge it publicly, the Rockets know that Harden could use someone to kick him in the pants on occasion.
Harden looks ripped after dropping around a dozen pounds this summer. He spent much of the offseason with the Rockets’ strength and conditioning coach, Javair Gillet, taking Gillet to China for 10 days during Harden’s adidas trip and meeting him in Los Angeles on multiple occasions to work out. He’s looking to get back to the pre-Beard look he sported in Oklahoma City. (Don’t misunderstand: the actual beard of “The Beard” isn’t going anywhere.)
When we last saw Harden, he was completely gassed at the end of the Rockets’ Western Conference semifinals series with the San Antonio Spurs. In the Game 6 ouster, he had one of the worst win-or-go-home games any superstar has managed in recent years: 2 of 11 shooting from the floor, including 2 of 9 on 3-pointers, with six turnovers negating his seven assists, as the Spurs poleaxed Houston 114-75.
It was an ignominious end to a sensational season. Was it the pressure he had every night not only to score, but also facilitate, wearing him down? Did the year-long pursuit with Russell Westbrook for the Kia MVP honors starch him? (Anyone who says Harden didn’t want the hardware badly is severely misinformed.)
With Paul in tow, that should never happen again while Harden -- now in possession of an extension worth up to $228 million through 2023 -- is in Houston.
“The biggest advantage is for 48 minutes we have a Hall of Fame point guard (either Harden or Paul) on the floor. That’s huge,” D’Antoni said. “And both of them can play off the ball real well, they’re both great shooters, and both can exploit the defense when the ball is kicked … whoever initiates it would normally finish it, but if they have to kick the ball over to the other guy, they’ll finish it.”
The concerns after the trade about whether Harden or Paul gets the ball always seemed overblown. Great players figure that out. On the gold-medal winning 2012 U.S. men’s Olympic team, Paul was second on the team in minutes played (25.8 per game, just behind Kevin Durant), but was eighth in scoring.
Paul is 32. He’s certain to get an extension from the Rockets next summer and finish his career in Houston, but there are only so many real shots a player gets at truly competing for a title. No one has to tell Paul he has yet to make a conference finals series in his career. So it’s hard to see him being stubborn, with all the firepower he’ll have.
“We’ve all been around the league a long time,” D’Antoni said. “Whether it’s USA Basketball or an All-Star Game, they’ve been around each other. I’m really comfortable with both of them. It helps us being old and trying to figure it out together. My role as coach is getting them in the best situations, with their input. They’ll tell me.”
The Clippers utilized Paul in “horns” sets as well as anyone in the league, which they ran any number of ways to get Paul on the move in the paint, where he almost never made a bad decision -- lobs to DeAndre Jordan, open shots for himself, slips to Blake Griffin, and on and on.
The Rockets were good in horns, too, with Harden eviscerating defenses the same way Paul did in L.A. -- rim runs for Clint Capela, open looks for Ryan Anderson and getting free himself off the initial pass via the “elevator” look.
Paul shot a career-best 41.1 percent on 3-pointers last season. He’s second to LeBron James among active players in PER at 25.72. He was third in the league last season in Offensive Rating, per NBA.com/Stats, and fifth among point guards. He’s never been better; the phrase “coach on the field” seems thin to describe what he does with a team. D’Antoni will use camp and the preseason to see what his two stars feel most comfortable running.
“I have no problems starting out at point A and ending up at point C,” D’Antoni said. “I just don’t want to preconceive anything or put any kind of ceiling on their talents, or say they did this in the past. That’s in the past.
But the Rockets are also betting that they’ll be better on defense, and that’s the part of their story that’s gotten almost no attention.
Luc Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker and Tarik Black were far down the list of most people’s most important moves this summer. But getting them, along with re-signing Nene for three years and $11 million, may be the only way anyone can at least try to close the gap with Golden State.
Nobody is going to outscore the Warriors -- not the Celtics, even with Kyrie Irving and Hayward; not LeBron’s Cavs; not even the Rockets, with their nightly avalanche. An arms race with the Warriors is pointless.
The only hope anyone has of staying close with Golden State in a seven-game series is to have enough defense on the court to get the occasional stop, to force the occasional turnover. (It will help if Curry is still dinged up, and Draymond Green gets himself suspended for a key game.)
If Golden State scores 125 points, you’re done. But what if you could hold them to 110? A team like Houston, with Harden and Paul and all the 3-point shooting, can get there. It’s only four or five stops a half.
Houston had to give up uber-pest Patrick Beverley in the package to the Clippers for Paul. But Paul finished well ahead of Beverley last year in Defensive Rating. Among players with 50 or more games played, Paul tied with Kevin Durant for 20th overall at 101.3 points per 100 possessions; Beverley was at 106/100.
“The four people we added are all just as much defensive minded,” Morey said. “I think we were the eighth-best offense ever, which was pretty good. But we were an average defense last year. To win the title you have to be top 10 for sure, and better in the five spot.”
At the All-Star break last season, Houston was 40-18. The Rockets were in the top half of the league in Defensive Rating, at 105.5 points per 100 possessions, and third in the league in net rating (6.0). They were excellent defending against ball screens. But that didn’t last. The Rockets were 19th in Defensive Rating after the break (108.5), and they fell apart defending ball screens, something that had been a turnover-producing strength earlier in the season when Houston had success trapping.
Mbah a Moute is still an elite wing defender, who guarded Hayward well during the Clippers’ first-round loss to Utah. He was ninth in the league among power forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (2.76) And at $2.1 million for this season, he’s a bargain. His issue has always been on offense, but his Effective Field Goal percentage of .562 and True Shooting percentage of .581 last season were, by far, career highs.
Houston took a big swing at Andre Iguodala, but he wound up going back to the Warriors. The Rockets then got a slightly less springy version of Iggy in Tucker, using their mid-level (four years, $32 million) for the 32-year-old. He competes like crazy (“he’s been like that since we were kids,” James said after the Cavs swept Toronto in the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring), makes the occasional three and still rebounds extremely efficiently (5.4 boards per game in a little more than 25 minutes per game for the Raptors after he was traded there at the deadline in February).
Mbah a Moute and Tucker will give D’Antoni a slew of perimeter options, while also protecting Paul and Harden. D’Antoni thinks his likely bench -- Gordon, Nene, Mbah a Moute, Tucker and Isaiah Taylor -- could be a playoff team itself.
It was no secret that in recent years, the Clippers played Austin Rivers with Paul as much as possible so that Rivers could take the opposition’s point guards on defense -- and so that Paul wouldn’t wear down over the course of the season. And it was no secret that Rockets opponents tried to force them into their second defensive action -- which, many times, involved Harden.
Now, it won’t just be veteran Trevor Ariza who has to take on the Rockets’ primary perimeter defense burden. There will be a time, though, where Harden and Paul will have to get in their stances and try and stay in front of the likes of Klay Thompson and Curry. There’s around 65 ball screens in your typical NBA game. The Rockets want to avoid their two stars getting hit on those as much as they can. But it will happen.
“At some point, you’ve got to do it, and you can if you want to,” Rockets associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik said.
And there’s no concern to be found in the organization about offensive stagnation in potential small ball lineups with Mbah a Moute and Tucker on the floor with Harden and Paul. Those two could well finish games for the Rockets with Capela up front, or Mbah a Moute could even be at center in some positionless lineups.
“Just watching them, they both shoot between 35 and 40 percent on threes,” D’Antoni said. “You have a lot of players who you’d say are good players who shoot 37 percent. (Mbah a Moute) shot 40 last year from the corner. Sometimes those labels that the league puts on players aren’t right. They’ve changed. And you can’t get them off of you, believe me. If you game plan against us, I guess you’d play off of Luc. They can try.”
Fortunately, they will be able to get started on time. There was no damage to Toyota Center, which served as an overflow shelter during the hurricane, and no one on the team with homes in Houston suffered any major damage to property.
Like every other team in the West, Houston will begin the season separated by the immense gulf between itself and the Warriors, a leviathan spoken of in whispers around the league. No one is under any illusions: it will take something no one can currently see to beat the Warriors.
But you have to try. Houston is trying.
“So far the chemistry has been off the charts,” D’Antoni said. “That’s led by Chris and James. The other guys have good roles. They’re happy. We could be pretty good if we don’t screw it up.”
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