James Harden took Dwight Howard's screen and pulled up at the left-side elbow. Howard rolled to the basket and started his leap, expecting Harden's pass for what would have been a perfect alley-oop. It wasn’t to be.
Instead, Harden opted for an ill-advised mid-range jumper, which he missed.
Howard flailed at the rebound, coming nowhere near it, and looked at Harden with dismay. In the micro, it was a meaningless play during the first quarter of a game with a 10-8 score.
In the macro, if you were to find a moment encapsulating why the short-lived Harden-Howard era died, that might have been it. After that play (and more like it), few could have doubted Howard would leave at the season’s end and the Houston Rockets would be putting together a very different look in 2016-17.
In April, Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com reported the consternation went both ways:
While Howard is irked by not getting the ball as often as he would like, it is Harden who is dismayed by the center. He wishes Howard would demand the ball and not goof around so much. Howard's personality -- bubbly, friendly, warm -- often can rub guarded people such as Harden the wrong way. Howard jokes with fans during games and easily becomes frustrated with referees.
So, when the offseason came, the Rockets did the expected mini-rebuild, sans Howard. The new-look team has more offense, less defense and is undeniably Harden’s.
Biggest Offseason Move
Houston made several big moves this year—signing Mike D’Antoni as the next head coach, while adding Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon—which will all have serious impacts.
But the biggest move wasn't a “move” at all. It was extending Harden's contract four more years for $118 million in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City. Houston has security in knowing that its foundation isn’t going anywhere.
Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reported on general manager Daryl Morey’s reason for the move:
Without locking up Harden, the Rockets would have been building on quicksand. Anything that looked good on the surface, would have been on too insecure a foundation to lead to more.
"It's extremely important when you're talking to folks about joining your team," Morey said. "You have the main core in place. Obviously, James is the most important part of that. It was a no-brainer."
To paraphrase: “We are unequivocally and unapologetically building around Harden.”
D’Antoni’s success or failure will depend on how well he utilizes Harden, whom he's already named the point guard. Anderson’s impact will be judged on his ability to stretch the court and open driving lanes for Harden. Gordon’s biggest contribution will be allowing Harden—who has played nearly 200 more minutes than anyone in the NBA the last two year according to Basketball-Reference.com—the ability to rest without watching a lead dissipate.
Everything the Rockets did this summer was to build a team around the Beard.
On paper, the Rockets’ bench is a major upgrade.
Over the past two seasons, the Rockets blundered on offense every time Harden grabbed pine. According to NBA.com, their offensive rating plunged from 107.2 to 99.1 when their star sat in 2015-16 and from 107.07 to 93.7 in 2014-15.
Critics obsessively (almost hyperbolically) focus on Harden’s lack of defense, but the Rockets have outscored their opponents by 460 points over the last two seasons while he's been on the court. They've been outscored by 162 while he hasn't.
Clearly, there was need for someone to lead the offense in the interim. Enter Gordon, who has the potential to be a Sixth Man of the Year for the Rockets. According to Nylon Calculus' starter vs. bench stats, his effective field-goal percentage against starters was only 48.7 percent, but it was 52.4 percent when facing reserves.
Elsewhere, Montrezl Harrell and K.J. McDaniels, both of whom can be defensive monsters, should press Corey Brewer and Donatas Motiejunas (assuming he re-signs) for playing time. Nene can be a defensive mentor to rising star Clint Capela. Freshly acquired Tyler Ennis and Pablo Prigioni will compete for backup point guard minutes. And sophomore Sam Dekker will be getting his first real playing time.
Reasons for Confidence
Ryan Anderson’s shortcomings on defense are noteworthy, but what he does for the offense is equally important, particularly because his position was something of a disaster for the Rockets last season. According to HoopsStats.com, Houston power forwards were the worst in the league last year, with a net efficiency of minus-7.0.
The Washington Wizards were 29th at minus-6.1. Only the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers were even half as bad as Houston. This is what the Rockets got from their starting 4 last year, based on numbers from NBA.com:
The only marginally productive player was Capela, who will be the starting center in place of Howard. As a group, they netted just 20 three-point makes on 79 attempts (25.3 percent) and, minus Capela, averaged 14.6 points per 36 minutes with a 47.1 true shooting percentage. Their three-point rate (the percentage of their shots from behind the arc) was 27.9 percent.
So what happens if we take those same possessions and give them to Ryan Anderson, who averaged 20.2 points per 36 minutes?
A lot more of those shots are going to be deep balls, as Anderson’s three-point rate is 38.5 percent. And a lot more of those threes are going to go in since he shot 36.6 percent on his treys last year. Thirdly, since Anderson is a better free-throw shooter, he’s going to make a lot more of his freebies, even though he gets to the stripe with about the same frequency as last year’s starters did.
So, in theory, this is what happens if Anderson uses the same possessions that starting power forwards not named Capela did last year in their 41 starts, based on maintaining the same rates and percentages.
In sum, Anderson would have scored 377 points—51 more—just using the same possessions. The difference in offensive rating would massively leap from 94.5 to 109.3.
While it’s not apples-to-apples because Anderson isn’t going to maintain the exact percentages and rates, the flip-side of that argument is that when you factor in the changes, they tend to suggest Anderson’s difference will be greater than those numbers predict.
Playing off of Harden, instead of whoever was filling in at point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans last year, bodes well. And it’s more than likely that Anderson will use more possessions than whatever scrub was failing as a Rockets starter last year.
Then factor in the difference of the up-tempo, three-point stylings of coach D’Antoni. Then the significance of how opening up those driving lanes will make Harden even more productive than he has been the last two years.
If you like points, watch Houston.
Reasons for Concern
Anderson, for all he brings on offense, is a liability on defense. Playing with Harden, that gives the Rockets two minus-defenders, and they were only 19th on that end last year already.
According to ESPN.com, Anderson’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus was minus-1.59 last season, which was 83rd out of 92 power forwards. However, there is a caveat to that concern.
It’s not like the Rox were dominating defensively at power forward last year, either. Terrence Jones is one of the few players who were worse than Anderson; his DRPM was minus-3.64. Adjusting the four starters' proportionally based minutes, they had a collective DRPM of minus-.93 as a group.
So yes, they’re giving up .66 more points per 100 possessions with Anderson on the court, but that’s nothing compared to the plus-3.77 points difference he makes up for in Offensive Real Plus-Minus.
While the defense is a concern, it can be overstated, particularly when you factor in that there is so much potential to boost it on the bench.
Player to Watch
The Rockets acquired K.J. McDaniels at the 2015 trade deadline. Then they used their mid-level exception to retain him last season. However, he hasn’t received much playing time in spite of so much investment.
Kevin O’Connor wrote for The Ringer:
McDaniels makes flashy plays on defense, but he also plays hard and fights through screens. With his long arms and lateral quickness, he’s a versatile man-to-man defender capable of locking down three positions. He does suffer mental lapses resulting in missed rotations, but that could be symptomatic of the teams he’s played on. If he played consistent minutes on a squad with a defensive identity, then his performance could elevate.
While O’Connor cautions the Rockets’ depth could push McDaniels down to the D-League, the swingman could also establish himself as a rotation player during the preseason because of his defensive playmaking potential.
The Rockets will be fun to watch with a lot of pace and scoring on both ends, making them one of the NBA's most entertaining teams.
The combination of Anderson opening up lanes for Harden, the up-tempo philosophy and the offensive brilliance of the Beard will mean he could very well average 30 points per game this year, and that would secure a scoring title.
And while the Rockets won’t be a contender for the title, they’ll be good enough to make the playoffs, though getting one of the top four seeds will be a challenge.
Final Record: 45-37
Division Standing: Third in Southwest Division
Playoff Berth: Yes
B/R League-wide Power Rankings Prediction: 14th