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What the Houston Rockets' Dream Offseason Looks Like

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2016

Philadelphia 76ers associate head coach Mike D'Antoni in action during an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

There are two kinds of dreams: the kind you wake up from and want to return to immediately, and the kind that shocks you from your slumber in a cold and clammy sweat.

Fans of the Houston Rockets are probably having both this offseason.

With Mike D'Antoni on board as the head coach, the Rox have either the potentially perfect or fundamentally flawed man to lead them into the future.

D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns offenses of the mid-2000s, led by two-time MVP Steve Nash, were centered on the notion of "seven seconds or less." The strategy was to get a shot off within the first seven seconds of a possession, as the name suggests. Both of these line up with general manager Daryl Morey's modern philosophy of basketball.

According to Calvin Watkins, who covers the Rockets for ESPN, owner Leslie Alexander said the hiring was a joint decision. "Daryl and I made this choice together," Alexander said. "I've always wanted to play this way."

So all is bright and sunny from the view in the front office. But there are also reasons to be pessimistic: If things don't go well, the Rockets could be no better, or even worse, next season than they were this year.

Here's how Houston's (good) dreams can come true.

Help with the Defense

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The Rockets were a pretty abysmal 20th in defensive rating this season, according to NBA.com. And it's hard to see D'Antoni fixing that by himself.

Though to be fair, D'Antoni's teams have also been underrated because the idea of evaluating defense by pace was just beginning to get traction when he was in Phoenix. From 2004-08, the duration of his stint with the Suns, their defensive rating was 13th in the NBA, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

That's more "average" than "awful." That was also on a team with Nash at point guard and Amar'e Stoudemire at center, two stars not exactly known for their defensive acumen.

Even with that measure of salt, without more help, the defense is not going to fix itself. That's why the Rockets brought in Jeff Bzdelik and Roy Rogers to help run that end of the court. Bzdelik helped the Memphis Grizzlies defense the last three years. While their defensive rating suffered this year, they were third in 2014-15 and seventh in 2013-14. He told Watkins what his general goals were:

All five guys have to be committed. It takes all five guys to get a stop. The goal is to have teams take tough, contested [2-pointers] outside the paint and inside the arc. In order to do that, you have to have great defensive transition because we can't be one-way runners.

Take away easy baskets so they can't get a coast-to-coast layup, they can't get a layup off one pass or two passes. They got to have more than two passes and get that ball swung from one side to the other side, and players clearly have to know the scheme and be held accountable, as we are held accountable by all of you.

Bzdelik can make schematic improvements, but it also requires the right players who can get work done on both ends of the court.

The James Harden Conundrum

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

How will D'Antoni fit with James Harden? It's not like the coach hasn't had a superstar to lead his teams before, but it's happened with varied results.

Nash won two MVPs with him and led one of the most entertaining and electric offenses we've seen. As the coach of the New York Knicks, though, D'Antoni was unable to figure out Carmelo Anthony's offensive talents for his system.

As coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, he had Kobe Bryant as his superstar. The team had Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol on it as well, but they barely made it to the playoffs in 2012-13 and then got promptly swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Lost in that disaster was an interesting fact: Kobe Bryant had the best effective field-goal percentage of his career. He also logged a 29.7 assist percentage, the best of any full season he played.

Of the three stars, Bryant probably has the most predictive value in regard to Harden, who is both an elite scorer and willing passer. A better passing and even more efficient Harden is the kind of dreams cats in pajamas have.

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Conversely, the worst possible outcome relates to Harden's dependence on isolation plays. Bleacher Report's Howard Beck, then of the New York Times, wrote at the time of D'Antoni's resignation:

D'Antoni never fully sold Anthony on his offensive system, which is predicated on ball and player movement and the premise that whoever is open takes the shot. Anthony thrives in isolation play — the antithesis of D'Antoni's philosophy — and he is most comfortable as a primary ball-handler. That role is now filled by Jeremy Lin, the point guard.

Last season, Harden led the NBA in isolation plays with 566, according to NBA.com. Anthony was second at 393. To appreciate just what a massive number that is, consider this: Anthony and Harden's combined 959 iso plays were more than any team in the NBA. (The Lakers led the league with 943.)

That's not a judgment, but an observation. Harden ran a lot of iso because there weren't alternatives and the offense didn't do much to create cuts or off-ball movement to help. A lot of that was default iso, and D'Antoni can cure that.

However, Harden has to cooperate. And more importantly, he needs to be able to cooperate by Morey getting the right free agents. They not only need to defend, but they also must have certain offensive skills.

Shooters and Secondary Shot Creators > Howard

Harden needs two things: teammates who can hit shots consistently, and at least one who can create shots for himself without dominating the ball.

Here's an interesting chart that shows how impressive Harden's offense is. There were only eight players in the NBA last year who created 15 points per game, both passing and scoring:

Now, consider each of the other seven. Russell Westbrook had Kevin Durant for a teammate. Stephen Curry had Klay Thompson. John Wall had Bradley Beal. Chris Paul had J.J. Redick and Blake Griffin. LeBron James had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Damian Lillard had C.J. McCollum. Kyle Lowry had DeMar DeRozan.

Harden is the only one who did that without a teammate who averaged 15 points per game.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Watkins reported, "D'Antoni said he's spoken to the majority of the players returning to the team, including leading scorer James Harden. He has not spoken with Dwight Howard, who is about to become a free agent."

The biggest nightmare for the Rockets would be Howard's agent getting the sense that Howard isn't going to get more than the $23.2 million he's slated to make next season and thus decides not to opt out of his contract for 2016-17.

If Howard stays, it will cripple the Rockets' chances of doing much to get better. While they'd still have $17 million, they also have Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones hitting free agency. Both are restricted, but it's going to be a crazy summer with so many teams having cap space, and it might not be worth matching offers on them.

However, if Howard does go, Houston would have about $40 million, according to Watkins. With that, they could add one max player, maybe two, if Morey works a little magic, which he has a history of doing. The ultimate dream is Kevin Durant comes calling, but what can Houston offer him that other teams can't beat? 

Al Horford seems like a more realistic dream, but he's not. Sean Deveney from Sporting News reported the Rockets are making him a top priority, but let's not confuse Houston being interested in Horford as Horford being interested in Houston. 

The Rockets won't be the only team dreaming of him. The Boston Celtics are too, according to Darren Hartwell of NESN. And the Celtics are a whole lot prettier than the Rockets right now, with a better core, more cap space and flush with assets. 

Option A: Sign Nicolas Batum

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Nicolas Batum had a career year for the Charlotte Hornets in 2015-16, demonstrating his worth on both ends of the court.

Batum is a career 36.0 percent shooter from three, averaged 14.9 points and 5.8 assists last season, and had a 51.1 effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoots. He also played three positions last year (shooting guard, small forward and power forward), according to Seth Partnow's positional estimates. And he's an effective, hardworking defensive player.

The Hornets will throw everything they have at him, but everyone else will be able to offer him pretty close to the same thing, as revealed by their Twitter account: 

Charlotte Hornets @hornets

“Nic is a huge piece. He’s number 1 in our offseason priority… overall he did a great job on both ends of the floor and in the locker room."

Here's how Morey can sell him on coming to Houston: He gives Batum a two-year deal with a first-year option at the maximum salary. Then, if Batum proves himself to be worth more, he can opt out and do the same thing in the summer of 2017. After doing two such deals, he'd be eligible for Bird rights.

Then, depending on how much he's proven, they can give him a four-year deal in the neighborhood of $25 million per year. And with D'Antoni as the coach, the Rockets can sell Batum on the idea that he can prove he has that kind of value. 

He'll be 28 next season, so the deal would cover most of the peak years of his career, up through when Batum is 33. 

Again from Watkins' piece: "Mike always says players love to play for him," Alexander said. "Not only because they get better, but they get paid. He'll be a lucrative source for us in free agency."

Playing in a style that suits his game and promises to feature him as the No. 2 option should be a big sell for Batum. He doesn't quite have the stuff to carry a team, but he's the next best thing. Playing off Harden for D'Antoni could make him a 20-point scorer.

The one-and-ones provide a safety net if things don't quite work out. Signing Batum would also allow Trevor Ariza to slide over to the 4, where he started to find success as the season wore on.

The Rockets would then be flush with players who can defend multiple positions. Even Harden, when so motivated, can do so. His size and length make him surprisingly effective in defending power forwards. With the Rockets wanting to push the ball, versatility in defense will be essential to getting stops in transition. 

Option B: Sign Mike Conley

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Mike Conley's been with the Grizzlies his whole career but now is an unrestricted free agent. He'll likely get a max deal.

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated discussed the possibility of Conley leaving:

Conley has nothing but praise for Memphis, for the organization, and the thinking that he is likely to return is probably right. But the Grizzlies are a team in flux. A three-game winning streak has eased some early season concerns, at least for now, but Memphis is still a team that can't find consistent perimeter shooting and scouts say Zach Randolph looks half a step slow, an unsurprising erosion for a 34-year old power forward. An overhaul could be coming, a shift away from the ground-and-pound offense that has defined the Grizzlies for the last seven years. 

He's a 37.3 percent career three-point shooter, averaged 15.3 points and 6.1 assists last year, and he's also a good defender. Plus, the Rockets could have some leverage in former Grizz assistant Bzdelik. However, he's going to be more sought-after and sold on what he can do for whatever team he's going to. 

It's going to be hard for the Rockets to make that pitch because Harden is still going to be the primary ball-handler. Point guards need the ball to be effective—even well-balanced team players like Conley. And frankly, Harden should be the primary ball-handler because he's one of the very best in the world at creating.

Sign Luol Deng

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

In addition to Batum, the Rockets can sign another player who isn't a max contract. Luol Deng would be an outstanding fit at the right price (around $15 million), as a stretch 4 with versatility. Referencing Partnow's position numbers, Deng had a tremendous 62.7 true shooting percentage playing power forward last season, plus 6'9" size.

He's also a terrific defender. He kept DeRozan in check for most of the Miami Heat's series with the Toronto Raptors. Then, when called upon, he even played center for parts of the last two games of the series.

Most importantly, he's one of the most respected leaders in the league. In Chicago, he played behind MVP Derrick Rose, and in Miami, he played behind their greatest player ever, Dwyane Wade. But in both places, his coaches raved about his leadership.

Most recently, Erik Spoelstra called him a "catalyst and a leader."

It's the kind of guidance Houston can use in its locker room after last season. A type of captain who does it as much through action as word and who can do so without being, or clashing with, the team's best player. Deng's worth the money on that point alone.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

His role would be as a kind of hybrid Andre Iguodala-Draymond Green, coming off the bench as the sixth man to beef up the defense and play the center in a small-ball lineup. Imagine a Patrick Beverley-Harden-Trevor Ariza-Batum-Deng "death" lineup to close games.

All of them can shoot and defend multiple positions. It would certainly be a challenge to stop them with the game on the line. A prominent bench role would reduce Deng's minutes and the pounding he'd take, giving him the chance to prolong his career.

Miscellaneous

There will be other moves and decisions to make, but they'll be contingent on what happens with the big names.

The Rockets have youngsters Clint Capela (who is slated to start at center if Howard leaves), Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, who will get more time. And maybe K.J. McDaniels can start to get on the court as well. The nice thing for the Rockets is that their kids can grow and develop without pressure.

These aren't offseason moves, but the result of not throwing more money at Jones and Motiejunas will be younger players getting to stretch their legs at a far better price. Aside from that, the Rockets can just top off the team with minimum-level free agents based on who's available, preferably finding a shooter.

But getting a core of veteran, two-way players who can run the floor, hit threes and defend multiple positions, with D'Antoni as head coach, would be living the dream.

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