New Faces: Sam Dekker (R), Montrezl Harrell (R), Ty Lawson
2014-15 Regular Season Record: 56-26
2014-15 Regular Season Achievements: 1st: 3-Point Attempts, 3-Point Percentage (Defense). 2nd: Pace, Free Throw Attempts. 3rd: Steals. 6th: Points. 7th: Offensive Rebounding. 8th: Defensive Rating. 9th: Assists. 10th: Blocks. 12th: Offensive Rating. 14th: 3-Point Percentage, Total Rebounds.
Leading Scorer: James Harden, 27.4
Leading Rebounder: Dwight Howard, 10.5
The Houston Rockets astonished thousands of viewers last spring when they became the ninth team in NBA history to claw their way back from a 3-1 playoff series deficit. This happened on the shoulders of James Harden (who else?) and in spite of multiple key injuries. The Rockets will be back with a vengeance this October as a healthier and deeper team than we saw last year.
The team’s offseason has been defined by their blockbuster acquisition of the dynamic Ty Lawson. Houston acquired the standout point guard without giving up any significant rotational players which automatically strengthens the roster. However, adding Lawson does not come without risk.
In 2015 alone, Lawson has been arrested twice, and he has had off-the-court issues since his college days at UNC. When Denver dealt Lawson for what was essentially a package of prospects and non-guaranteed contracts, it was clear that GM Tim Connelly simply wanted to get rid of the troubled star. Nevertheless, Houston will gladly take the risk of a player who ranked 3rd in the NBA in assists last year, while also putting up a reputable 15.2 points per games.
It may seem like Rockets GM Daryl Morey does not value team chemistry after he brought in Lawson who could be a shaky locker room presence. However, Houston’s other offseason moves prove quite the opposite. Every member of the 2014-15 starting lineup is returning, and Morey made sure that the team resigned an important trio of core players: Corey Brewer, Patrick Beverly, and Jason Terry. If team chemistry was unimportant to the Rockets, then they may not have brought back Terry.
Now 38 and a major liability on defense, “The Jet” will only serve as the third-string point guard, behind Lawson and Beverly; but his contributions will go much further. As an experienced veteran player with a high basketball IQ, Terry will help mold the team’s harmony as well as keep Lawson’s head on his shoulders.
Concerns have been raised about Lawson’s style of play clashing with Harden and Dwight Howard. Although Lawson can be ball-dominant at times, his strongest asset is passing; he loves getting his teammates involved. In fact, his assists per game have increased in all of his six NBA seasons, while his shots per game have decreased in each of the past two. This should translate to a higher quality (and still a high quantity) of shots for Harden and his teammates. Lawson will also take some of the heavy offensive burden off Harden’s back, though it is vital that he recognizes that this will remain Harden’s offense; the man with the beard came in 2nd in MVP voting for a reason. Lawson will be a playmaker for Houston, but his main offensive purposes must be to spell Harden, and to generate clean looks for his teammates.
The Rockets know what they will get from James Harden: an MVP-caliber performance. Last season he ranked 2nd in the NBA in scoring, 8th in assists, and 5th in steals. Harden has improved steadily throughout his career, so expect more of the same.
The future is not as clear, however, for big man Dwight Howard. Although he shined during the 2015 playoffs (16.4 points & 14.0 rebounds per game) he has struggled to stay healthy. He played only 41 games last year, and put up his lowest scoring and rebounding numbers since his rookie year in 2004. A healthy Dwight will give the Rockets a clear advantage over most other teams, but a healthy Dwight is also a rare commodity.
It is evident that Daryl Morey is building for today, not tomorrow. Instead of drafting young 19-year-old prospects, Houston drafted NBA-ready prospects Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. Together, these young men have six years of college basketball under their belts, including three trips to the Final Four. Dekker will add a nice scoring punch off the bench and Harrell will provide a burst of energy and defense at PF.
The Rockets should have no problems generating offense with Harden, Howard, Lawson, and the rest of the crew who averaged 10+ points per game last season. In order for them to sustain a substantial playoff run, they will also need to perform defensively. It was tough for Houston to defend their foes in the playoffs last spring as an aging Jason Terry was forced to check elite guards at times. Patrick Beverly will return healthy this year and will reassume his role as a great perimeter defender. Houston actually ranked 5th in the NBA in defensive efficiency last year and will strive to improve on that excellence with added depth and ample defensive talent.
Although signs point to the Rockets finding abundant success in 2015-16, it will not be easy. Houston’s division (Southwest) consists of the Grizzlies, Spurs, Mavericks, and Pelicans, all of whom made the playoffs last year. This is remarkable, as no other division in the NBA sent more than 3 teams to the playoffs. Houston will have to survive the toughest division in the NBA, as well as an always-competitive Western Conference. The squad’s toughest stretch seems to be in late January, as they will play vs. DAL, @NO, @SA, @OKC, and vs. WSH in a week-long span. But as long as the Rockets play with chemistry and stay healthy, I have a feeling they will be just fine.
Predicted Record: 58-24
photo via commons.wikimedia.org