2016-17 record: 55-27. 3rd in the Western Conference. Lost to the San Antonio Spurs in six games in the second round.
Transactions: Darryl Morey shocked the world once again by making a huge move for his team and landing Chris Paul. In a summer of major moves, this one stood out as one of the biggest – if not the biggest – one just because of the calibre of the player involved.
Paul brings an incredible skill-set to an already loaded Rockets offense. He’s one of the best point guards in the history of the game, a future Hall of Famer and the best on court general in the game today. He’s a surgeon; controlling every defender, manipulating every possession and doing everything with almost unparalleled precision.
At age 32, CP3 remains at the top of his game as he’s coming off a season where he averaged 18.1 points on 47.6% shooting, 9.2 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals. He also shot a career best 41.1% from three point range so will fit right in with the Rockets’ three point shooting attack which the best in the NBA last season with 1177 made threes.
Paul will now be paired with of the best players in the NBA and a perennial MVP candidate in James Harden.
In the current context of the NBA where every team is measured against the ridiculously loaded Golden State Warriors, one star isn’t enough. For the Rockets to have any chance of catching the Warriors or even in getting past the San Antonio Spurs, they had to add another transcendent talent to join Harden. He happens to be a Hall of Fame calibre talent and certified point god.
It was obvious by the time that game six of their second round series with the Spurs how gassed Harden was from shouldering the load. He was the focal point of the offense as both it’s primary scorer and distributor as he played the point guard role for Houston as well this year. In that role, he had an MVP calibre season, but the Rockets also couldn’t get over the hump by putting so much pressure on their superstar and ultimately completely fell apart by the sixth and final game of their second round series against a Spurs team that was missing Kawhi Leonard.
That shouldn’t be a problem anymore. Now they have two superstars. It’s the only way to compete in the modern NBA.
There are a lot of questions about how the two will co-exist. A lot of “there’s only one ball” hot takes and statements like that by people who forget that they made the same arguments about how Steph Curry and Kevin Durant would co-exist in Golden State and that seemed to work out pretty well.
The fact of the matter is that Paul and Harden want to play together. They’ve reportedly wanted to be teammates since playing together on Team USA with assistant coach Mike D’Antoni. Now the three of them are united in Houston together.
Making that “one ball” argument honestly insults all three men. It insults two all-time great NBA players with otherworldly abilities in Paul and Harden and it insults one of the greatest offensively minded coaches in D’Antoni. The architect behind the “7 seconds or less” offense that the Phoenix Suns ran through Steve Nash on the way to the Canadian point guard’s back-to-back MVPs. In Harden, D’Antoni has found a player who can execute his vision even better than Nash could. In Paul, he has a player who will be able to that vision to places that we’ve never seen before.
They won’t just make it work. But it will bring out new strengths in both Harden and Paul and allow D’Antoni to throw some new schemes into what promises to be one of the most high powered offenses that we’ve ever seen. Additionally, the reigning NBA Coach of the Year has stated his intent to keep one of Harden or Paul on the floor during the entire game. Meaning he will stagger their minutes and allow each the opportunity to run the offense as well as time to play together.
I will elaborate on this further when we get to the Rockets outlook but Harden and Paul are going to tear up the league together. Also it’s important to point out that Harden has already stated his willingness to play off the ball more. It was the reason that he pushed the Rockets to pursue Ty Lawson in the 2015 off-season.
There is a bit of a risk in terms CP3’s health. He’s finished each of the last five seasons unable to play due to injury or playing through some kind of injury. At 32 that will start to take a huge toll on the body. That risk is really mitigated by the fact that Harden can step in and take over the offense which will allow Paul the opportunities to rest that he didn’t get with the Clippers.
Beyond that, Houston didn’t make this move for the future. They’re not looking to be the next team up after the Warriors. They want to beat them now. Having Chris Paul on the roster puts them in a much better position to do that than the one they were in last season. It’s also the kind of move that will make the Rockets an attractive destination for other big name players and free agents. There are those continued Carmelo Anthony rumours and I’m sure that Morey is working on something else that we can’t even imagine as I write this.
Getting Chris Paul is a massive coup for the Rockets and proves why Darryl Morey is one of the best general managers in the league.
It was pretty amazing watching the whole things go down as Morey made cash considerations the most traded asset of the day as he acquired Darrun Hilliard from the Detroit Pistons and DeAndre Liggins from the Dallas Mavericks to include in the deal and wound up acquiring Ryan Kelly from the Atlanta Hawks, depth guard Tim Quarterman from the Portland Trail Blazers and power forward Shawn Long from the Philadelphia 76ers.
Kelly has already been waived, but Long at just 24 years old could stay on the team to help fill out the front court rotation. In 18 games with the 76ers last year he averaged 8.2 points and 4.7 rebounds in 13 minutes per game and shot 56% from the field including 36.8% from three point range. The 22 year old Quarterman is unlikely to see much playing time but adds some back-court depth.
The final package going to the Los Angeles Clippers ended up being Liggins, Hilliard, Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams, big man Montrezl Harrell, forward Sam Dekker, non-rotation power forward Kyle Wiltjer and guard Patrick Beverley. Remarkably, Houston managed to keep its full mid-level exception and bi-annual exception, which should get Morey some consideration for executive of the year.
The loss of Beverley stands out when you consider the 29 year old’s first-team all defense credentials and his very team friendly contract, but it stings a lot less when you take into account that Chris Paul was also first-team all defense and is one of the best defensive point guards ever and is actually still an even better defender than Beverley with his 7 first team all defense selections and 9 total all-defensive team selections. Paul has put up a better defensive RPM rating than Beverley in each of the past four seasons.
The Rockets did give up a lot of depth in losing an offensive dynamo off the bench in Lou Williams who Houston had acquired at the deadline from the Los Angeles Lakers and gave them two bench players (with Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon) to be nominated for the award. Losing young players who were going to be key pieces of the rotation in Dekker and Harrell also hurts a bit, but that’s the price you pay to land an all-time talent.
Morey went to work on filling those holes on the bench right away by signing PJ Tucker to a 4 year, $32 million deal. Tucker will add a lot grit off the bench. He’s a versatile, physical and punishing defender who is capable of defending opposing forwards and guards. That ability to switch onto guards will be particularly important in the West. The Rockets can use Tucker at the four in small line-ups where his somewhat limited offense of most corner threes will be a perfect fit and where he can work against the pick-and-roll where his defensive ability allows him to guard on switches very well. It’s a perfect fit as they needed a tough defender to replace Beverley on second units and found one in Tucker.
Houston brought former Rocket Tarik Black back into the fold on a one year deal. Black will likely fill the void left by Montrezl Harrell in terms of a third option at centre behind Nene who doesn’t play both games on a back-to-backs and will require rest to gear up for the stretch run and play-offs. Black will be more than able to fill in in those times. He’s a capable rebounder who can defend the rim and will thrive setting screens for Harden or Paul. At only $3.29 million for the season, this was a nice value signing for the Rockets.
Luc Mbah a Moute is coming to Houston on the veteran’s minimum and also brings punishing and physical defense to the Rockets’ bench. Like Tucker, he’s an incredibly versatile defender and at 6’8” he can defend forwards or guards in different situations. Mbah a Moute was ninth in the league among power forwards with a defensive real plus-minus rating of 2.32. Offensively, he’s incredibly limited in terms of his shooting and ball-handling. 70.4% of his two pointers and 97.9% of his three pointers have been assisted on, which shouldn’t be a problem given that if everything goes well one of Harden or Paul will be on the floor with him. He’s also coming off a season where he shot 39.1% from three point range which should go a long way toward helping him find a fit in the Rockets’ offense.
The Rockets also signed Summer League stand-out Troy Williams to a 3 year, $4.7 million deal. In five Summer League contests, Williams averaged 22 points on 45.3% shooting and adding 3.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals. He displayed natural scoring abilities and should fit into an offense where his primary function will be to spot up for open shots. The 22 year old wing has also shown himself to be a solid defender with great energy and athletic ability. He should enjoy some minutes in the rotation this season.
Brazilian big man Nene re-upped with Houston on a 3 year, $11 million deal that will likely see the 35 year old finish his career in Texas. He had an excellent season in a somewhat smaller role for the Rockets which saw him average 18 minutes a game but score 9.1 points and 4.2 boards during the regular season. That, in turn, allowed him to take on a bigger role come play-off time where he averaged 13.6 points and 6.6 boards during the Rockets first round victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. His incredible game four performance which saw him score 28 points and add 10 rebounds was one of the highlights of the play-offs for me.
Despite his age, Nene remains a key role player for Houston and a capable back-up to Clint Capela. He will require a lot of rest but the leadership and toughness he provides this team are invaluable. Especially come time for the post-season.
Finally, the Rockets ensured that James Harden will be the face of the franchise for years to come by inking him to the richest extension in NBA history: a 4 year, $228 million deal that keeps him in Houston until the 2022-23 season.
I will reiterate the point I made in the Golden State Warriors preview when discussing Steph Curry’s extension: if anything Harden is underpaid. Nobody is spending money to watch new Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta dribble a basketball. His franchise is far more valuable than even the $2.2 billion he paid for it because of the play of James Harden.
Harden is coming off an incredible season that saw him average 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game – an absolutely insane stat-line – on the way to helping the Rockets become the second most efficient offense in the NBA behind the Warriors. Harden finished runner-up in MVP voting for the second time and just like the first there was a genuine controversy over him not winning it and deservedly so. Houston overachieved beyond anyone’s imagination last season and it was largely due to the transcendent play of The Beard.
He is one of the most exciting and must-see talents in the history of the game and is constantly adding new steps to his foot-work, new weapons to his arsenal of shots and new abilities to his game. Last season, he lead the NBA in assists and offensive win shares. This season who knows what he new heights he will hit playing with Chris Paul?
No true fan of the game is going to miss watching that. Harden is worth every penny of that extension and then some.
2017 NBA Draft: With the 43rd pick in the draft, the Rockets took German big man Isaiah Hartenstein. The 19 year old stands at 7’0” and weighs in at 250 pounds with a 9’1” standing reach and a 7’2” wingspan. He is currently playing with Zalgris Kaunus in the Lithuanian Basketball League.
Hartenstein has nice size and mobility which made him an effective target when crashing the rim. He has shown some craftiness inside with a soft touch that allow him to score with floaters and he can get out to the perimeter and hit the occasional jump shot. Hartenstein has great passing ability and court vision which is something he can build on down the road even if his decision making if shaky at times. He’s also quite capable on the glass and can get boards.
This is a young man who still needs a lot of work on his game and will be a stash for sometime. His defense – though bolstered by his size – still needs a ton of work, particularly as an individual defender where he is prone to picking up fouls. On the offensive end, he is pretty ineffective off the dribble at this stage of his development and needs to work on his patience and not forcing his way through traffic.
Daryl Morey needed a “draft and stash” type player to avoid any cap issues and Hartenstein is it. He has all the potential to develop into a decent stretch-5 who can spread the floor and a will have a lot of time to realize it before he comes stateside.
The Rockets traded the 45th pick in the draft to the Memphis Grizzlies for a 2018 second rounder.
Outlook: The moronic “there’s only one ball” arguments are going to be put to rest pretty quickly when it comes to the James Harden and Chris Paul pairing.
I don’t know if the people making them just feel the need to make them every time two superstar players become teammates (they said the same thing about Kevin Durant and Steph Curry joining forces and look how that turned out) or they genuinely believe that Harden and Paul can’t co-exist but it’s not just a disservice to both men and their coach, it also betrays a short-term memory in terms of one half of that duo’s skill-set.
James Harden wasn’t compared to Manu Ginobli early and often because of his passing and skills on the point. He came into this league praised because of his footwork and established himself as one of the best cutters and slashers that the game of basketball has ever seen. I’m not sure how anyone can argue those skills would not fit perfectly playing with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul.
Imagine if you will, James Harden playing off the weak side with Chris Paul drawing in defenders and then swinging a pass to Harden who then goes to work on a compromised and scrambling defense. How does a team deal with that? Probably by getting scored on. Now flip it by putting Paul on the weak side with Harden handling the ball. Same result.
When the two share the floor, two and the top three pick and roll passers in the NBA will be on the court at the same time. You know those side pick-and-rolls that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum run in Portland? Well now you’re going to see them in Houston with James Harden and Chris Paul.
There’s another thing people haven’t counted. Free of ball-handling responsibilities when Paul is on the floor, Harden will have more focus and energy for defense. He’s become such a punch-line for casual fans in terms of that aspect of his game that a lot of people forget what a capable defender he was with the Thunder and likely could be again when he takes on a similar role when teamed with CP3.
I don’t know where the idea that too much talent is a problem came from, but it’s pretty ridiculous. These are two of the most gifted players in the entire NBA. They are teaming up to win basketball games. Not to pad individual stats or win individual awards. They’re chasing a championship. That old trope of the selfish basketball star is well past it’s expiry date. Harden and Paul are going to find ways to work together and roll out offensive wizardry that is going to exceed our wildest expectations.
The tired “one ball” arguments that pop up every time two superstar players join forces likely won’t stop any time soon, but they rely on stereotypes that have been proven false time and time again. Not only that, but they contradict another common complaint by the people who make them. If there’s only “one ball” why do “superteams” with multiple stars dominate the NBA? You can’t have it both ways.
Mike D’Antoni’s plan of staggering their minutes also ensures that the pressure is never off when Harden is resting. Last season, when Harden was on the floor the Rockets scored an 113.6 points per 100 possessions. When he was on the bench that number fell to 106.5. Now consider that when he’s resting, Chris Paul will on the floor. Paul had an even bigger impact on the Clippers last season taking them from 104.7 points per 100 possessions when he wasn’t on the floor to 116.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
The pressure will never be off opposing defenses.
What makes this even more terrifying is that Paul has never had spacing like this in his career to deal with. He’ll have an elite roller like DeAndre Jordan in Clint Capela, but now he’ll also have players like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson opening things up by spotting up from way beyond the arc and instead of Blake Griffin hanging around the elbows, he’ll have weak side action from James Harden.
It’s going to be incredible.
For those of you who play fantasy basketball, you should probably draft Clint Capela. He’s going to have an amazing year being able to work with the pick-and-roll with Harden or Paul whenever he’s on the floor. The 23 year old made a huge jump in production last season by averaging 12.1 points and 8.1 boards. Expect those numbers to increase by a large margin once again with all the lobs he will be catching on offense. It’s going be a feeding frenzy for him.
Eric Gordon will have a good shot of defending his Sixth Man of the Year award. His incredible performance last season which saw him hit 246 threes which was fourth in the entire NBA behind the Splash brothers and his teammate Harden could be even bested this season when you consider that when isn’t playing with the Beard, he will be sharing the court with Chris Paul who will be feeding him from beyond the arc. The featured role that Mike D’Antoni created for him off the bench will continue but now he will be beside an elite distributor in virtually every situation.
Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson should enjoy similar offensive explosions with Harden or Paul on the floor at all times.
The Golden State Warriors took the NBA arms race to new and ludicrous levels and the Houston Rockets have mounted a pretty good response. Not only did they land the point god Chris Paul, but they’ve added defensive grit, toughness and fire power to the second unit.
Mike D’Antoni is going to have a field day with all the different line-up combinations that he can throw at opposing teams and the Rockets’ high powered offensive attack should be even better this season. A terrifying thought for the rest of the NBA. You’ve got one of the greatest offensive coaches in the game with the talent to come up with a seemingly unlimited variety of ways to carve up opposing defenses.
Houston should have a very successful run this year even in a stacked Western Conference. But there is a big challenge that awaits them come play-off time that they will have to overcome in order for this season to be deemed a true success.
I’m not talking about the Golden State Warriors – not yet anyway. But the San Antonio Spurs. If there’s one coach that can devise a defensive scheme to shut down even the seemingly unstoppable combination of Chris Paul and James Harden, it’s Gregg Popovich. And just like D’Antoni has the player who is capable of carrying out all of those offensive schemes he can cook up in Harden, Popovich has one who can carry out his dream of a complete game with a stifling defense in Kawhi Leonard.
It seems inevitable that these teams will meet again and the Rockets have to come out on top. At this point, I’m not counting out the possibility that Pop and the Spurs have something up their sleeve, but then again Daryl Morey probably isn’t done dealing.
Prediction: 60-22. 2nd in the Western Conference. A second round meeting with the San Antonio Spurs. Mike D’Antoni to continue to see Gregg Popovich in his nightmares if the Rockets don’t win.