Rockets Free Agents: Nene Hilario, Bobby Brown, Troy Williams
2016-17 Rockets Weaknesses: 30th: Two Point Attempts. 26th: Opponent Points. 24th: Point Guard Scoring. 23rd: Field Goal Percentage (Defense) 22nd: Small Forward Scoring. 20th: Free Throw Percentage, Blocks.
2016-17 Rockets Strengths: 1st: Three Point Attempts, Free Throw Attempts, Shooting Guard Scoring. 2nd: 2-Point Percentage, Points, Offensive Rating. 3rd: Assists, Pace. 4th: 3-Point (Defense) 5th: Bench Points, Backcourt Points, Fast Break Points. 6th: Starters Points. 7th: Points Outside the Paint. 8th: Total Rebounding, Center Scoring, Steals 9th: Offensive Rebounding.
HIghest (3) 2017-18 Contracts: James Harden $28,299,939. Ryan Anderson $19,578,455. Eric Gordon $12,943,020.
Player Options: None
If you liked offense only, if you liked 120 point games, if you liked how James Harden averaged a double-double for the first time in his career, 29 points, 11 assists, if you liked three point shooting and iso basketball while Mike D’Antoni grudgingly scowled at the occasional post up, then you are a Houston Rockets convert. They blitzed defenses with their shot making and four seconds later gave up wide open lanes for layups, allowing point guards to weave in and out the paint before dishing. The Rockets are deniers. Basketball is offense and defense but not in their world. The Rockets were one of the the most entertaining teams in the league, scoring at will.
And then in an elimination Game 6 they scored 75 points and their season was over.
James Harden is getting all the blame but for once can we talk about this three point or bust system. Yes, three of the teams in the Conference Finals, Spurs, Cavs, Warriors, are also top-5 in three point shot attempts. But they also are top-10 defenses. They have versatile offenses with players in the paint. They don’t run away from two point shots.
The system failed the Rockets. James Harden shot 30% from three. Lou Williams shot 23% from three. Ryan Anderson couldn’t shoot at home. Trevor Ariza’s 44% mark was the only consistency.
It was a nightmarish end for James Harden who recovered his reputation this season. Last year, he had a a massive stab to the chest when NBA writers didn’t vote him on first, second or third team All-NBA. They were sending Harden a message. Guard your man. Don’t play lazy. Be active on rotations. Be a leader on the floor. Call out defensive schemes. Know backwards and forwards your opponents plays so you can…um….try to stop them. It was a petty piece of revenge by NBA writers who thought Harden was out for Harden.
So, yes. This was a bounce back season for Harden, one in which he was a MVP candidate. Just because he backslid in Game 6- he was lazy, he didn’t take a shot until mid-second quarter- doesn’t take away his brilliance this season. But the Game 6 critique isn’t about the shots. It is about his body language. It was about his leadership.
Last summer, Daryl Morey hired offensive genius, three point whisperer Mike D’Antoni. Every year Mike D’Antoni has been in the NBA his teams have been last in defense or second to last. You can blame the players but you know what they say about the fish rotting from the head down. Leadership determines the agenda. Mike D’Antoni is who his resume says he is. He romanticizes scoring. The Rockets scored a lot. Until they didn’t.
Judge Daryl Morey this way. The Lou Williams move didn’t really work. He wasn’t a difference maker, couldn’t score against the Spurs defense and they gave up a draft pick to the Lakers to get him. Ryan Anderson was catastrophic at home but good on the road and had the worst defensive rating on the team against the Spurs, tied with Lou Williams. Anderson will bank nearly $20 million in 2017-18.
This is the first year with this team so you have to give them a little bit of room to grow together. But with virtually no open slots on the roster except Nene, how are they going to improve defensively. D’Antoni shortened his bench which not only fatigued his players, it exposed how one dimensional they really are.
Harden had the most to gain and the most to lose with Mike D’Antoni. Harden is a top-5 talent who has become a top 5 player. He gets to the line more than anybody. His hesitation dribble still tricks defenders. His three point shooting in the regular season is sublime. The Harden talked about thing is the defense. In his career it has ranged from above average to pathetic, to last year and I don’t give a s____. This year he rebounded. But his last game of the year was puzzling. The effort was just not there.
After the game, D’Antoni talked about how his team was disappointed. He said they deserved to win the series. Really? Then you effort an elimination game even when what you do best is not working. You Plan B it.
Can James Harden adjust to this new level of criticism. It’s always something with Harden. He had converted the doubters with his passing but still he takes twice as many shots as the next highest Rocket. This year was about Harden and about D’Antoni. D’Antoni was brought in to save Harden from himself. In game 6 Harden was asked to save everyone else. He couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.
A lot of players on the roster that can’t defend (Anderson, Williams, Gordon) will continue the toll of dragging the Rockets into the dog pile. You can’t just score and that is the only thing you do. You have to rotate and stick to defensive principles. The Rockets did a good job on three point defense. They have to transfer that to every play. And it goes without saying they have to have will and grit and guts. They can’t sleepwalk.
On the plus side, the Rockets have an identity. Daryl Morey saw to that. But do they have a system that can do more than entertain? Can it win? Or are they the hamster on the wheel, just spinning in circles? And making James Harden dizzy and the one who will always get the blame when the entire team plays with zero heart.
photo via llananba