Last season was a step backward for the Houston Rockets. Led by MVP runner-up James Harden, the Rockets made the Western Conference Finals the year before and looked poised to be among the elite teams in the league. Yet the Rockets struggled out of the gate last season, prompting the firing of coach Kevin McHale.
Getting rid of McHale didn't fix things. The previously working relationship between Harden and Dwight Howard seemed to dissolve into thin air. Harden's defensive deficiencies became much more noticeable and Houston's supporting cast didn't offer much in terms of support. All of this resulted in Houston squeaking into the playoffs and then losing in devastating fashion to the Warriors in the first round.
But that was the past and things should be much different in Houston this season. Mike D'Antoni is the coach and will put the ball in Harden's hands even more than before. Houston also brought in shooters like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to give Harden more options on offense.
All of this has resulted in the expectation that the Rockets will be better this season. Of course, how much better, remains to be seen.
Key Additions: Ryan Anderson (free agent), Eric Gordon (free agent), Nene (free agent), Tyler Ennis (trade)
Key Losses: Dwight Howard (Hawks), Terrence Jones (Pelicans), Jason Terry (Bucks), Michael Beasley (Bucks), Josh Smith (unsigned)
Will James Harden become an MVP candidate again?
Statistically speaking, Harden's numbers last season were quite similar to his MVP runner up 2014-2015 campaign. Making his fourth consecutive All-Star Game, Harden averaged 29 points while shooting 43 percent from the field and 35.9 percent from three. He led the league in minutes and got to the line the same amount, 10.2 attempts a game, where he shot 86 percent. Harden also increased his rebounding (6.1) and assist (7.5) averages.
But Harden failed to make an All-NBA team and became routinely criticized for his effort on the defensive end. More importantly, despite Harden's offensive production, the Rockets weren't winning. Houston finished the season at 41-41, a 15-win drop from the previous season.
The crazy thing is that Harden will likely have to duplicate his numbers this season. However, his assist numbers might increase because D'Antoni has made Harden the team's point guard, in a sense. Harden will have full control of the offense, and with other options in Anderson and Gordon on the team, he could also have less offensive pressure. This could also lead to Harden having a renewed effort on the defensive end. At least that is something Harden and his teammates believe will happen.
The Rockets will go only as far as Harden can take them. And if Harden can thrive in D'Antoni's offense while improving on defense and Houston is winning, then the Rockets could be well back on their way to respectability. It might even result in Harden being among the MVP candidates for the second time in three years.
Will the Rockets end up missing Dwight Howard?
Dwight Howard put up respectable numbers during his tenure with the Rockets, yet injuries and an overall poor fit with Harden made it best for both parties when he decided to opt out of his contract this past summer. Howard's poor body language and general mopey-ness contributed to his struggles in Houston while also negatively affecting team chemistry. Now Howard is on the Hawks, where he is the de facto big-name star, something which not being in Houston might have bothered him.
But while Howard leaving can be seen as addition from subtraction, he did play an essential role, mainly on the defensive end, with the Rockets. And now with Howard gone, the Rockets will turn to the largely unproven Clint Capela to man the center spot.
Capela has shown flashes of some serious potential, though. He is quite raw and young, yet last season Capela averaged 1.2 blocks in 19.1 minutes. He is incredibly long and his length allows him to provide some necessary rim protection for Houston. Capela is also good in pick-and-roll situations and is quick for a big man, able to speedily run the floor. And unlike Howard, Capela won't demand the ball on offense. He knows his role and seems ready to in excel at it.
Capela won't likely evolve into a player anywhere near the level of Howard. But he seems like a better fit for a team that is built around Harden.
Will Houston continue to have a problem on defense?
Even with Howard manning the middle, Houston was not a great team defensively. The Rockets were near the bottom of the league when it came to defense (25th), giving up 106.4 points per game. Houston was just dismal at guarding teams in transition, giving up the ninth most points on fast breaks. The Rockets were also dead last in the league in defensive rebounding percentage.
And now Houston has D'Antonio as its coach, who has never been known for defensive strategy. Big free-agent signings Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon aren't exactly elite defenders, either.
But D'Antoni is fully aware of his defensive shortcomings and hired former Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik to be Houston's defensive coordinator. Bzdelik was an assistant on the Heat when Pat Riley was the coach and also spent time with the Grizzlies. He has the expertise, and D'Antoni is leaning on him heavily to make Houston a better defensive team.
The Rockets do have solid defensive players. Capela is a developing rim protector, Patrick Beverly is a pest on defense and made the All-Defensive second team in 2014, and both Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer are smart defenders. And if given minutes, K.J. McDaniels is an excellent wing-shot blocker and should be able to contribute defensively.
Overall, however, the Rockets need to simply put forth more effort on defense. Last season, perhaps due to low morale, the Rockets looked listless on defense. This led to all those now infamous clips of Harden looking lazy or unaware while playing defense.
But a new coach and Howard's departure has lifted the cloud that hovered over the Rockets last season. Harden also seems renewed and has fully embraced being a leader, organizing off-season workouts and showing commitment, at least verbally, at putting forth a greater effort on defense. If Harden ends up actually walking the walk and the rest of the team fully commits to Bzdelik's system, then the Rockets could end up being just fine on the defensive end of the floor.