30 Teams in 30 Days: Rockets make contending top focus

Houston goes all-in on offense with Harden, new coach D'Antoni

Since the Cavaliers won their first NBA title back on June 19, NBA teams have undergone a number of changes over the long summer offseason. NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2015-16 to the team with the best regular-season record — during the month of September as we look at 30 Teams in 30 Days. | Complete schedule

Today’s team: Houston Rockets

2015-16 record: 41-41

Who’s gone: Coach J.B. Bickerstaff, C Dwight Howard, F Terrence Jones, GJason Terry

Who’s new: Coach Mike D’Antoni, C Chinanu Onuaku, C Zhou Qi (via Draft), FRyan Anderson, G Eric Gordon, F/C Nene, G Pablo Prigioni (via free agency)

The lowdown: After averaging 52 wins the previous two seasons and reachingthe Western Conference finals in 2015, the Rockets broke even last season.

Four years ago this fall, the Rockets pulled off one of the bigger heists in recent NBA history when they got lethal scorer James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder for basically a plate of nachos. They immediately went about building a crew around the 2014-15 Kia MVP runner-up Harden, most notably with Howard, and that earned them a trip to the West finals. But the grand experiment had a short shelf life, for a variety of reasons, and now the Rockets begin Phase II of their plan to become title contenders while Harden is in his prime.

Just in case folks got the wrong idea, trading Harden this summer was never on the table. On the contrary. Rockets owner Leslie Alexander is Harden’s biggest fan, and proved it after ripping up Harden’s old deal and replacing it with a new, more lucrative one. It allows Harden to enjoy the benefits of today’s inflated salary market (his salary almost doubles to $26 million this season), while locks in Harden for a few years longer. It’s a win-win for the team and player, but will a monumental “win” happen on the court in that span?

If you ask NBA personnel people, you’ll get a variety of thoughts on Harden. Nobody ignores his obvious skill of being able to score anywhere on the floor. Harden can take his man off the dribble, hit the mid-range shot, shoot from deep and get to the free throw line. You can argue that nobody in basketball can go four-for-four like that, not even LeBron James. He isn’t afraid to take the big shot, either, and that’s a rare trait. Plenty of players give lip service to wanting the ball in those situations. In the moment of truth, plenty will shrink.

Last season Harden averaged 29 points with 7.5 assists and 6.1 rebounds, all career highs, and for someone who shoots fairly often, he’s rather efficient. He’s heavy on turnovers (4.6 per last season), but again, that’s mostly due to his domination of the ball.

And that’s the issue. Forget, for a moment, about his defense, which at this point is a punch line. Harden logs heavy minutes (38.1 a game last season) and almost always has the ball. That makes it impossible for a traditional point guard to be Harden’s teammate (poor Ty Lawson … he never had a chance last season). And it frustrated Howard to no end. You wonder if the Rockets will ever be able to attract an A-list talent in free agency, given Harden’s overbearing offensive role.

They did do well on the B-list, though. Anderson and Gordon will let Harden be Harden while giving the Rockets some shooting range, allowing them to spread the floor and let Harden continue to go one-on-one.

Overseeing this will be D’Antoni, generally recognized as one of the better offensive coaches in the last decade. His hiring sent a very clear message: Houston will attempt to put the most dangerous scoring machine on the floor and dare teams to keep up. The Rockets lack a solid rim protector and a bulldog perimeter defender (besides Patrick Beverley), but if they hit their shots, good luck trying to outscore them.

This go-for-broke strategy could backfire spectacularly, of course. There’s a heavy emphasis on offense, which is always tricky, but what choices did the Rockets have? This is Harden’s team and the system is geared toward him. A major philosophy shift will only happen if the Rockets start missing the playoffs, and only if Harden is swapped in a shakeup.

D’Antoni seems clever enough to create an offense that satisfies Harden while taking advantage of the role players that surround him. That’s likely enough to get the Rockets back into the playoff picture, especially if Gordon can stay healthy and Anderson can connect on the many open looks he’ll get while Harden draws the double-team.

It’s a new season for the Rockets but in the most critical areas, nothing will change.

Coming Next: Washington Wizards

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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