Houston Rockets season preview

The NBA season will be here before you know it and FanSided is here to get you ready. In the lead up to Opening Night, we’ll be previewing two teams each day, reviewing roster changes, discussing important players and challenges, and hearing the perspective of our FanSided site experts. Let’s get ready for basketball!

Inputs: Chinanu Onuaku (PF, NBA Draft pick No. 37); Zhou Qi (C, NBA Draft pick No. 43); Nene (C, signed for one year, $2.9 million); Eric Gordon (SG, signed for four years, $53 million); Ryan Anderson (PF, signed for four years, $80 million);  Pablo Prigioni (PG, signed for two years, veteran’s minimum), Gary Payton II (PG, undrafted free agent), Tyler Ennis (PG, traded from the Milwaukee Bucks)

Outputs: Dwight Howard (C, signed with the Atlanta Hawks); Terrence Jones (PF, signed with the New Orleans Pelicans); Jason Terry (SG, signed with the Milwaukee Bucks); Josh Smith (PF, unsigned), Michael Beasley (SF, traded to the Milwaukee Bucks)

Retained: James Harden (SG, signed a four-year, $118 million extension)

Pending: Donatas Motiejunas (PF, restricted free agent)

Most Important Addition

For all of Houston’s shortcomings last season, the power forward position had to be their biggest weakness. The Rockets’ power forwards combined to score 14.6 points per 36, and averaged 25.3 percent from the three-point range. The only player who was somewhat productive at the four was Clint Capela, and he’s moving to the five in place of Dwight Howard. With the status of Donatas Motiejunas still unresolved heading into the season, the Rockets had question marks at the position.

The Rockets raided the New Orleans Pelicans by getting Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. While either of them were a good candidate for “most important addition”, Anderson gets the nod here. Gordon offers a lot in terms of shooting, and could be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, but Anderson figures to be a key piece in the starting rotation. However, don’t count out seeing Eric Gordon start over Patrick Beverley. It’s an option that Mike D’Antoni has already floated around, and would be worth it to see plays like this:

https://www.instagram.com/p/BLmzlBKBgN8/?taken-by=houstonrockets

A lot of people like to criticize Anderson for his defensive shortcomings, but he’s an immediate upgrade at the four. Last year, Anderson averaged 20.2 points per 36, and shot 36.6 percent from three. Compared to Houston’s power forwards from last year, he was more productive than all of them put together.

There’s no reason to think his offense will drop off, either. James Harden is infinitely better than whoever the Pelicans rolled out as their point guard. And by playing alongside Capela, Houston’s most productive power forward last year, they will overwhelm opposing frontcourts. His biggest contribution will be in stretching the floor and opening driving lanes for Harden.

After the Rockets’ power forwards underachieved last year, getting Anderson was big for them.

Biggest weakness

The Rockets’ weakness should be readily apparent. When basketball Twitter isn’t reminding everyone that the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, they’re posting gifs and Vines of James Harden’s “defensive highlights”. I’ll even save you a YouTube search:

Last season, the Rockets ranked eighth in offensive efficiency and 20th in defensive efficiency. But rather than fix their glaring hole on defense, they decided to go all-in on offense. As a way of giving the keys to the city over to Harden, they got rid of Dwight, hired a coach who was viewed as an offensive genius with the Phoenix Suns, and acquired three-point specialists in Gordon and Anderson to give him someone to pass to rather than have him run iso plays and draw fouls.

Everyone’s talking about the Minnesota Timberwolves being this year’s League Pass team. But this Rockets team could easily win all of their games 120-115. They project to have a top five offense, and will be led by a player who averaged 29 points and seven assists last year. With his new offensive weapons, Harden could very well creep into the 30 and 10 range.

However, suggesting they’re going to ignore defense altogether is wrong. For all of Harden’s shortcomings, he actually does make a difference. Over the last two seasons, the Rockets have outscored their opponents by 460 points when he’s on the floor. When he sits, they’ve gotten outscored by 162.

An unheralded move the Rockets made this offseason was hiring Jeff Bzdelik as an assistant coach. He specializes in defense, and he’s already spent time one-on-one with Harden. The Rockets have capable defenders as well. Patrick Beverley has spent most of his Rockets career picking up the slack on defense alongside Harden; Trevor Ariza is probably their best defender now with Howard gone, and D’Antoni is working with K.J. McDaniels to make him guard three different positions.

But no matter how much attention they try to pay to defense, they can’t ignore the fact that they have two minus defenders in Harden and Anderson. Even if they improve on their defensive efficiency, they’re still going to win most of their games by stuffing the scoresheet.

What does success look like?

— Tamberlyn Richardson, @spacecity_scoop, Space City Scoop

Anything less than a deep run in the playoffs will be deemed a failure in Houston. That’s the easy answer.

Digging deeper, this year could unequivocally be coined the season of redemption. Specifically, the triumvirate of GM Daryl Morey, head coach Mike D’Antoni, and All-Star James Harden all have something to prove.

The luster of Daryl Morey, Grand Master of Analytics, diminished enough that owner Leslie Alexander insisted on being involved in the head coaching recruitment process. D’Antoni, the creator of the 7-second offense, looks to regain respect after quitting his past two posts with the Knicks and Lakers.

Arguably, Harden has the most to prove following his fall from grace this past season. Despite top 10 production in key categories, critics still left him off All NBA Teams, which didn’t sit well with ‘The Beard’. Worse, his inability to coexist on or off the court with Dwight Howard damaged his reputation. To that end, Harden is determined to demonstrate 2014-15 wasn’t a fluke and he has the ilk to be a quality leader.

Free agency addressed the Rockets’ shooting efficiency, play-making, and bench depth concerns. Many will point to Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon remaining healthy and a top-15 defense as keys for success. However, how quickly Clint Capela adapts to replacing Howard and the emergence of the youth could have a greater impact. To wit, watch for K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Tyler Ennis to be x factors.

Undoubtedly the Rockets offense will rank among the league’s best, and be an entertaining spectacle. But ultimately, success for the Rockets lies in their desire to function as a team on both ends. Can each individual allow team goals to supersede individual desires? If Harden can spearhead that charge, the Rockets’ re-ascension to the upper echelon is inevitable.