Predicting Houston Rockets' Final 15-Man 2016-17 Roster
If one were to picture this process in their mind, perhaps it would be Harden trying to help teammates learn to draw more fouls. You can almost see him showing them how to snap their head back, demonstrating the whipping motion he is famous for making.
"Now watch me whip!" he demands.
"Now watch me, Nene!"
OK. So maybe that isn't really happening, but Harden has taken a more pronounced leadership role this year, and it's evident through the first two preseason games. With Dwight Harden gone, the Rockets are indisputably Harden's team now, and the fit with new coach Mike D’Antoni has been perfect.
All "preseason disclaimers" notwithstanding, the offense has looked impressive, scoring 261 points in just two contests and with an offensive rating of 123.9, according to NBA.com. While no one expects that to continue, we have a first impression of how the Rockets will look this year and what the depth chart might be.
In the Mix
Pablo Prigioni, Tyler Ennis
When the Rockets signed D’Antoni, the big questions surrounded Harden and what type of player he would be in the famous "seven seconds or less" offense. Would he be more of a Steve Nash, pushing the ball, making quick decisions and leading an electric attack? Or would he be like Carmelo Anthony, holding the rock and clogging the gears of the machine?
Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com asked D’Antoni what position Harden would play, and the coach jested: "He's becoming a full-time point guard. With James, you make a joke he's a 'points guard' because he's going to score some points."
Through the first two games, Harden has averages of 22.0 points and 10.5 assists in just 29.2 minutes. How he’s compiling those figures is perhaps more telling: He’s running a fluid offense rather than standing on top of the three-point line with the ball in his hands depending on isolation plays.
The Rockets are running an impressive 107.03 pace, and 65.6 percent of their field goals have come off assists compared to 100.08 and 58.9 percent last season. The ball is popping, and Harden is Orville Redenbacher.
Technically, the "backup" here is still Patrick Beverley, but we’ll have more on that in the next slide. For now, suffice to say when Harden rests, Beverley will primarily be the one who assumes the mantle of running the team. Aging veteran Pablo Prigioni and third-year acquisition Tyler Ennis will share spot duty and garbage time, but neither will see the court much unless there are injuries.
In the Mix
Part of the whole confusion of calling Harden a "points guard" is, what do you call Beverley now?
But does it matter? He’s played off Harden for the last several years and will do so again this year. D’Antoni is really just acknowledging the reality that Harden has always been the 1 and Beverley has always been the 2, even as they switch on the other end.
Beverley—with his attack-dog defense, decent handles and three-point shooting—is actually an excellent complement to Harden. The Rockets learned in last year's Ty Lawson fiasco that they don't need a ball-dominant, traditional point.
Eric Gordon was the starting shooting guard during the second preseason game because Beverley missed it with a sore knee, which offered a fortuitous extended preview of how Gordon could work with Harden. They looked good enough, with Harden setting up Gordon for a few open threes (though Gordon missed them). Based on game flow, though, it’s easy to see them working well together over the course of a season.
Gordon will also be the primary scorer in the second unit and should be considered a contender for Sixth Man of the Year heading into the season.
KJ McDaniels has been very impressive with a number of highlight "oops" off Harden "alleys." He logged more minutes than any reserve over the first two games, an indication he could finally crack the rotation in Space City.
While he’s not a shooter, neither was Shawn Marion when D’Antoni was coaching the Phoenix Suns. Like Marion, McDaniels has that same kind of rim-runner, super-athletic, defensive playmaker thing going for him. It’s easy to see him as a Matrix-Lite whether it's at the 2 or 3.
There will likely even be lineups with Gordon, McDaniels and Corey Brewer getting some run.
In the Mix
Trevor Ariza will resume his duties at small forward, but his shots might be more favorable this year. Last season, he attempted 211 corner threes at a 42.1 percent rate and also shot 286 threes above the break, making just 33.5 percent of them. With Ryan Anderson, a better deep shooter, on the team, that should allow Ariza to take more shots from the corner, lifting his overall percentages.
More importantly, Ariza also becomes the best and most important defender on the team with Howard gone.
Brewer will try to rebound from a poor 2015-16 outing, where his 9.9 player efficiency rating was the lowest since his rookie season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. The D’Antoni style should work for him, as he’s at his best in transition and has looked better this preseason. Between McDaniels' defensive playmaking starting the fast break and Brewer's finishing, the two could pose a formidable threat together off the bench.
Sam Dekker, the Rockets' 2015 first-round pick who spent most of last year injured, will be acclimating himself to the NBA and getting spot minutes at both the 3 and the 4. He may also spend some time with the Rockets’ D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
In the Mix
The starting power forward is free-agent prize Ryan Anderson, and now we see why.
He has attempted 18 threes, making 44.4 percent of them; they’ve all been above the break. Several of them have been a step or two behind the arc. That makes a massive difference in stretching the court for purely geometrical reasons.
Think of an imaginary triangle, extending from baseline to baseline to the top of the three. That triangle has an area of 522.5 square feet. Stepping one foot behind the line extends that area to 544.5 square feet. Another grows it to 566.5 square feet. Every foot behind the arc is another 22 square feet the defense has to account for.
When you have three guys who can hit the catch-and-shoot (Beverley, Ariza and Anderson), that means each has a certain amount of "gravity" (i.e., the distance a defender can safely roam away and still get back to contest a shot). That means the other two defenders have to cover the other two offensive players, and that's a whole lot of area to account for: 200-plus square feet per defender.
And when one of those is a ball-handler with Harden’s crossover, drive, pull-up and passing skills—not to mention his ability to draw fouls—it becomes a near-impossible task. We focus a lot on threes when we talk about stretching the court, but it’s the deep three that splits it in two. Anderson has that kind of range, and it’s working splendidly alongside Harden.
While Donatas Motiejunas has not signed yet, he should before the season starts. That’s in part because the Rockets only have second-year player Montrezl Harrell to back up Anderson. While Harrell flashed moments of promise in his rookie year, he’s not ready for a major role yet. Also expect Ariza, Dekker and perhaps even McDaniels to get minutes as a small-ball 4.
In the Mix
Clint Capela assumes the starting role at center after Dwight Howard's departure...maybe.
Watkins elaborated in this report:
While Capela is projected as the starter, 14-year veteran Nene Hilario was signed in the offseason as a mentor and backup center, who could also threaten for the starting job. During the early stages of training camp for the Rockets, the discussion about how Nene performed almost overshadowed the expectations on Capela.
'He is looking good, and he’s playing well,' coach Mike D’Antoni said of Nene, whom the Rockets acquired in free agency to add depth at center. 'He physically feels good, his body feels good. He’s in shape, he’s at a good weight. Nene is one of the better players in the league—one of the best centers in the league when he’s healthy, and he’s healthy.'
The stats certainly tell the same story. Nene has averaged 11 points on 72.7 percent shooting, along with 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists through the first two games. Those are pretty hefty numbers for about 15 minutes of work per night, even in the preseason. Training camp will determine who wins the starting job, and Capela still has the edge. But the position seems more open than the rest.
If and when he signs, Motiejunas may play some spot minutes at the 5 along with rookie Chinanu Onuaku, who is more likely to spend a good chunk of time with the Vipers.
Unless otherwise noted, all advanced stats courtesy of NBA.com.