Will Ferrell plays "Gene Frenkle," a cowbell player. Christopher Walken is “the Bruce Dickinson,” a producer who keeps prompting Frenkle for “more cowbell” even though it’s quite clearly awful and out of rhythm. Frenkle obliges in the most obstreperous manner possible.
As Rockets general manager Daryl Morey inked each new free agent this offseason, I flashed to Frenkle’s clanging contributions and pictured Morey declaring, "We need more cowbell!"
Two things killed the Rox’ season last year: bad defense and injuries. But rather than address those issues, Morey mostly added more of what they didn't need.
In assigning grades, I considered the contract length and amount, the current market and the degree to which the player addressed the team’s needs vs. the “cowbell” effect.
Ryan Anderson: C-
The Rockets' first and biggest signing was Ryan Anderson, who signed a four-year, $80 million contract, according to Spotrac.com. Considering the market, the price was about right—perhaps even a little on the cheap side.
Anderson is a great fit offensively: Over the course of his career, he’s averaged 4.1 threes per 100 possessions and 37.7 percent from deep in the process. According to Basketball-Reference.com, there are three players in history with those numbers and 2,000 attempts in their careers. The other two are Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.
As stretch 4s go, they don't get any stretchier.
That makes him a perfect fit alongside James Harden, who is a master of the kick and drive, particularly in an offense designed by new coach Mike D’Antoni, who loves that style of play.
Last season, the Rockets offense was eighth in the league, scoring 105.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. However, they were also 19th in three-point percentage at 34.7 while second in deep attempts with 30.9 per game. They were only 20th in three-point percentage on catch-and-shoots at 36.4.
Anderson shot 37.8 percent on catch-and-shoots alone and 46.0 percent when “wide open”—something that will happen quite a bit with Harden collapsing defenses.
Offensively, there might not be a better fit in the league.
The problem is that Anderson is a one-way player. According to ESPN.com, he posted an offensive real plus-minus of plus-1.59 last season, which was eighth best among power forwards. However, his defensive real plus-minus was minus-1.59, which was eighth worst among that group.
This isn’t a numbers quirk, either. Remember when Ty Lawson almost destroyed Anderson's ankles?
Because of his shooting, Anderson is often guarded by bigger 3s or smaller, more athletic 4s who can get out to the perimeter and challenge his shots. When the roles switch, his slow feet and challenged lateral movement are even more exposed.
Factor in his 93 missed games the last three seasons, and you can see he might not be the solution to injury stability either.
Anderson's offense is nice, but it's also a lot of cowbell.
Eric Gordon : C+
Gordon signed a four-year, $53 million contract, which again, considering the state of the market, wasn’t too bad. Compare it with Evan Turner’s four-year $70 million deal, and Gordon’s seems like a steal.
Like Anderson, Gordon has three-point shooting ability. His career average from behind the arc is 38.3 percent. His career-high came in 2014-15 at 44.8 percent.
Unlike Anderson, Gordon shoots better from three when creating his own shots. He was 48.2 percent on pull-ups compared to 35.2 percent on catch and shoots. Only Omri Casspi of the Sacramento Kings had 50 such attempts and shot better. (Stephen Curry shot 42.8 percent on an otherworldly 509 attempts).
In the spacing type of offense that D’Antoni coaches and Morey envisions, this is yet another move that works. But again, defense is a question.
Gordon's minus-.61 DRPM isn’t as bad as Anderson’s, but it’s not great. He finished 43rd among 80 shooting guards in the league. For comparison’s sake, Harden was 49th at minus-.98.
Gordon and Harden logging a lot of minutes together is tough to visualize. They could play some with Harden running a pseudo-point guard or even small forward. But with only one above-average perimeter defender on the court and Anderson, you can see where problems could pile up.
There is another side, as Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle argues. Simply shooting better and having more options on offense could improve the defense by extension:
Harden set a record for turnovers in a season while far too often trying to squeeze passes into tight spaces where they just could not fit. The spacing that should come with Anderson and Gordon on the floor could immediately help that.
That issue has long been obvious, but the Rockets also can improve their defense just by shooting better. They were 19th in 3-point shooting percentage while taking the second-most 3s in the NBA. They were 14th in overall shooting percentage. All those missed shots dramatically diminished the Rockets' defense.
There’s also a fairly big injury risk here. Gordon has never played more than 65 games during his eight-year career, an average of almost 35 percent of games missed. That’s a lot to risk on a four-year contract for a team as riddled with injuries as Houston has been the last two years.
Gordon will provide a guard who can run the second unit, and that fits a need when he’s playing. He just doesn’t fill the biggest need.
As he’s aged and the game has changed, Nene’s defense has waned, but it's not awful.
Based on Seth Partnow’s rim protection stats at Nylon Calculus, Nene saved 4.61 points per 36 minutes at the rim last year, which is the same as Clint Capella. His DRPM is a solid plus-3.02 (10th of 73 centers), and opponents shot 4.9 percent below their season averages within six feet of the basket when he was on the court.
He also has a bevy of post moves and veteran wisdom he could impart to young Capella. In 2011, Nene led the league with a 61.8 field-goal percentage and averaged 14.5 points. His body can’t deliver on the same level, but his mind can.
He’s still going to be slow, his effort can be inconsistent, and like Gordon and Anderson, he has been clobbered by injuries the last five years, missing 115 games.
But he's a solid role player who can contribute at a low cost.
Pablo Prigioni: A
The Rockets gave Prigioni a two-year deal with the second year non-guaranteed. Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical first reported the deal, but Fegien added the details:
They're paying a 39-year-old veteran player the minimum to be a veteran presence. He filled the role before when the Rockets made it to the Western Conference Finals in 2014-15.
That included some key moments that helped the Rockets close out the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 7 of the semifinals:
Prigioni offers maturity to a locker room that needs it. He gets an A just for signing his name on the contract.
His on-court contributions to the team aren't expected to be great, and they won't be. But that's not what he's getting paid for, so it's not what he's getting graded or evaluated on.