This past Saturday, James Harden, superstar and franchise face of the Houston Rockets, signed a hefty contract extension worth $118 million over four years. After signing the contract, Harden sent out a letter directed to the Houston fan base, In it, he announced his optimistic and confident plans for the Rockets’ future, stating, “I can assure you our team will work hard together, grow together, build together, compete together, and pursue our ultimate goal – another Championship for H-Town – together!” This attitude coupled with a refreshed Rockets roster led by the acquisitions of the offensive guru head coach Mike D’Antoni and big free agent signings Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon give the Rockets the expectation to excel and return to the success sustained two years ago when they reached the Western Conference Finals.
However, when further inspecting these additions, along with the impactful losses suffered by the team, it appears that the Rockets are headed towards the opposite side of the spectrum. Because of an unaddressed atrocious defensive unit and a lack of fluidity with Houston’s players and D’Antoni’s offensive approach, the Rockets are looking to be an underperforming team from H-town this upcoming season.
The most evident reason for the Rockets’ regression this past season from the year before was a regression in defense. In the 2014-2015 season, when they advanced to the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets possessed a stout defense, ranking 8th in Defensive Rating, 5th in Defensive Turnover Percentage, and 7th in Opp Effective FG%.
This past season though, their defensive numbers plummeted, as the Rockets ranked 21st in Defensive Rating, 23rd in Opp Effective FG% and 25th in Opp PPG. They were 25th in Opp Fastbreak Pts, 26th in Opp Points in the Paint, and 30th in Defensive Rebounding Percentage. These were all bottom of the league ranks.
Not only was the team holistically awful at defense, certain players were put on blast for their defensive tribulations.
Harden, the leader of the franchise, was grilled throughout the season for his porous and sometimes laughable defensive efforts – Shaquille O’Neal even called him out in the playoffs by criticizing him.
“The problem with James Harden is he has no leadership skills. I know for a fact as the main player when you come to play others will follow. If you’re the leader of a team, you gotta do what you’re supposed to do. If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, then others will not do anything… You’ve got to man up and play some defense…they teach you that in AAU and High School and Preschool.”
Because of their defensive woes last year, changes were needed this offseason in order to improve them. Did the Rockets get the more defense memo?
With their major transactions this summer, their defense wasn’t just unaddressed, one could even say it was ignored and suppressed. The hiring of Mike D’Antoni as head coach, someone with knowledgeable defensive troubles, was a questionable move by the Rockets. D’Antoni is an up-tempo offensive-minded coach that follows the “shoot in 7 seconds or less” method, who most recently guided the 2013-2014 Lakers to a record of 25-57 while ranking 29th in Opp PPG and 28th in Defensive Rating. Not quite the defensive mind needed to Frankenstein this roster of defensive liabilities.
The Rockets’ two big free agent splashes this summer, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, whom they both signed to four year deals worth $80 million and $53 million respectively, won’t be much help on that side of the court either. Anderson is the ultimate stretch power forward, someone who takes a lot of jumpers but doesn’t block many. The last four years, he’s averaged 0.65 Defensive Win Shares and a Defensive Box +/- of -3.35, both extremely bad compared to league average. Gordon is a streaky shooting guard that might be even worse than Anderson defensively, a thought previously thought impossible. Over the last four years, he’s averaged 0.475 Defensive Win Shares and a Defensive Box +/- of -2.5. The one word I can think of to describe this situation is “yikes”. It gets worse though – not only did the Rockets not add any major defensive pieces, they let go of their most beneficial defensive piece as well.
Dwight Howard, by no means, is the Superman that he once was; this last year, he was an obvious player in decline and P&R nightmare. Yet he was still far and away the best defensive player on the Rockets. Howard was easily the best rim protector and rebounding stalwart on the team, owning the highest Defensive Win Shares, Defensive Rebounding %, and Defensive Box +/- on the roster. He was the only player on the roster with an established defensive prowess, having won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards in his career.
In addition to losing Howard, the Rockets also did not retain two other big men, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones. These are impactful losses too, as Jones and Motiejunas ranked 4th and 6th in Defensive Rebounding % respectively. These losses only make Houston’s defense more of an encumbrance, a definite cause to the Rockets’ regression.
While the defense of the Rockets projects to be absolutely miserable this upcoming year, one might think that the offensive transcendence expected by D’Antoni’s hire can make up for it and propel the team to success. However, the offensive style of D’Antoni doesn’t mesh with the players on the Rockets roster, and as a result, offensive regression is probable.
D’Antoni’s approach was at its peak when he was coaching the Phoenix Suns, with Steve Nash facilitating the ball all the way up the court and dishing it out to reliable shooters like Joe Johnson and Shawn Marion. He had the right personnel then – he does not now. Patrick Beverley, the projected starting point guard, will never be mistaken for Nash, and even when Harden handles the ball, he won’t be able to run the D’Antoni offense without surrounding talent. Simply put, the Rockets’ players are not sharpshooters. Gordon shot 41.8% from the field, Anderson 42.7%, Beverley 43.4%, Trevor Ariza 41.6%, Corey Brewer 38.4%, and K.J. McDaniels 40.3%. No player shot above 40.0% from beyond the arc.
The Rockets do not have a good enough facilitator, and certainly do not have elite shooters to thrive in D’Antoni’s offense. Harden can do everything in his capacity to lead this offense, but he isn’t surrounded with enough established talent, and eventually carrying the team on his back for too long will take a toll.
Harden led the league last year in minutes played by over 200, and that number could increase in Harden’s trials for victory. Harden won’t be able to overcome the offensive pressure put on him, and the Rockets will suffer.
This is all without mentioning other teams’ progressions. While the Rockets have regressed this offseason in more ways than one, including not having a first round draft choice, the other Western Conference teams have remained steadfast or improved. The Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, and Thunder (with Westbrook) are playoff mainstays, the Trail Blazers, Mavericks, and Grizzlies all improved, and the Jazz, T-Wolves, and Pelicans continued their ascension to playoff contenders. This is a stacked Western Conference, where the Rockets finished only 8th last year.
They look like the odd team out this upcoming season. They look like a lottery team. H-town fans might not want to hear it, but the Rockets will be an underachieving team that can’t live up to expectations. It’s safe to say, “Houston, we have a problem.”
photo via llananba