Houston Rockets: A short Odyssey to the top of the West

May 9, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) dribbles the ball as San Antonio Spurs shooting guard Danny Green (14) defends during the second half in game five of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
May 9, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) dribbles the ball as San Antonio Spurs shooting guard Danny Green (14) defends during the second half in game five of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

The Houston Rockets have had back-to-back great offseasons, and now find themselves near the top of the Western Conference

The Houston Rockets shifted from being an eight seed last year to a dominant three seed this year. Many questions about the Rockets and their future were answered during their offseason. They found their head coach for the future, Mike D’Antoni, and found their identity through a top MVP candidate: James Harden.

Houston’s 2015-16 campaign was full of turmoil, and it started with their coach, Kevin McHale. McHale was fired after only coaching a total of 11 games in the 2015 season. Even though he led the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals the previous year, Daryl Morey, Houston’s general manager, felt it was time for a change. McHale was let go and J.B. Bickerstaff took the reigns of a shaky Rockets team.

Bickerstaff did the best he could after being shoved into a tough situation. He coached on the fly and did OK.

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Under Bickerstaff, the Rockets had a 41-41  record which was good enough to earn them the eight seed. Unfortunately, their first round matchup was against Golden State. You can imagine how it went over (They lost the series in five games).

Going into the offseason, Houston was in a tough spot. There were so many unanswered questions, but the main question in everyone’s mind was if Bickerstaff would return as the official head coach. If so, could he improve on his run of the mill 41-41 record?

Turns out, Bickerstaff wouldn’t even be associated with the Rockets once the 2016-17 season started. Instead, Bickerstaff would venture over to Memphis to assume the role of the associate head coach for David Fizdale with the Grizzlies.

Bickerstaff was now gone and basketball purgatory was looming for Houston. Morey knew he needed to take a leap of faith. He leaped, and he leaped far. So far in fact, he has made the Rocket’s offense futuristic.

Morey hired Mike D’Antoni in the offseason. D’Antoni’s hiring was a little confusing for Houston considering their main issue was on the defensive end, not the offensive side of the ball.

D’Antoni is known for having potent offenses. Look at his Phoenix team with Steve Nash. In his three-season tenure with the Suns, their offense averaged 110.4, 108.4 and 110.2 points per game, respectively.

The question is, why did Morey hire D’Antoni?

Because, why not?

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  • Morey needed a big splash to prove to all his doubters the Rockets were indeed not in basketball purgatory. D’Antoni was the ripple effect from Morey’s big leap and Houston couldn’t have had better success with D’Antoni this season.

    But, hiring fast paced D’Antoni to run Houston’s offense was only part of the equation. Morey needed shooters to put around Harden for D’Antoni’s operation to be successful.

    Morey’s next steps were to sign Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Both Gordon and Anderson are known for their ability to shoot lights out from three. Anderson shot 36.6 percent and Gordon shot 37.2 percent from beyond the arc in the 2015-16 season with the New Orleans Pelicans. They would fit in perfectly next to Harden because of their ability to spread the floor thus giving Harden the room he needs to operate.

    Finally, Morey knew Dwight Howard had to go. Harden and Howard did not mesh well in Houston which caused problems for the Rocket’s offense. Howard was unhappy with his situation and openly complained about playing next to Harden.

    Letting go of Howard would have been difficult, had it not been for Clint Capela. Capela emerged as a young star off of the bench and his chemistry with Harden was through the roof when compared to Howard. Not to mention, he is younger and already plays better defense.

    Morey had his new roster built and ready for battle. Harden is the ship’s Captain with Patrick Beverley as his right-hand man. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, and Ryan Anderson are the helpful shipmates that would do anything their Captain desired. Capela is the janitor on the ship who cleans up their messes (yes there are janitors’ on ships, work with me).

    D’Antoni and his mateys were ready for battle.

    Morey was on cloud nine. He built the perfect team around his franchise player, James Harden. Morey deserved more than a simple pat on the back for the feat he pulled off in the offseason.

    D’Antoni was the perfect fill for the Rockets head coaching vacancy because of his offense he ran when he was the head coach for the Phoenix Suns. The offense he likes to run consists of pick-and-rolls. Now, there are not a few here and a few there. He picks at every possible moment and wreaks havoc on every defense they play. And, since Harden has the quickness to shake his defenders once he goes off a screen, D’Antoni was about to have a field day with his new crop of talent.

    Daryl Morey built this team with the expectation they would follow, what he thinks, is the future of the league—shoot as many three’s as possible. I mean, why else would he sign Ryan Anderson to a contract that pays $20 million per year (for perspective, Kawhi Leonard, a top MVP candidate, is making about $20 million per year). Granted, Kawhi is underpaid, but that is a topic of discussion for another day.

    The idea of both D’Antoni and Morey’s offensive scheme of outshooting the opposing team is the right idea. Hell, look at the Warriors and what they’re doing. The Rockets were essentially trying to mirror what the Warriors have. Alas, there is only one Golden State, so the Rockets went for the budget cut version of the Warriors.

    Patrick Beverley is their Klay Thompson. The discrepancy between the two is Thompson is a better shooter and takes about twice as many three’s as Beverley does per game (Thompson takes 8.3 and Beverley takes 4.3). Trevor Ariza is a poor man’s Kevin Durant. Ryan Anderson is, something. Well, I guess he’s Draymond Green if Draymond was incapable of playing defense. Eric Gordon and Lou Williams are the sharp shooter comparisons to both Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala. And Clint Capela stands on his own because the Warriors’ centers are pretty awful.

    The main difference between the Warriors and the Rockets is the Warriors play tough and stout defense and the Rockets, well, don’t. Golden State has a defensive rating of 104 (1st in the league), while the Rockets is 109 (18th in the league).

    Oh, and there’s one more difference. The Rockets don’t shoot midrange shots.

    Houston has stressed three-point shots in such copious amounts they no longer take midrange shots anymore. James Harden would take midrange’s in the 2015-16 season without hesitation. Now he and his teammates are restricted to layups and three’s.

    DeMar DeRozen is probably having nightmares about Houston’s offense right now.

    To illustrate my point, here is James Harden’s shot chart from the 2015-16 season versus the 2016-17 shot chart.

    As you can tell by the charts, Harden has significantly lowered his midrange attempts. He is now only taking shots within the paint and outside of the three-point line.

    To say this is efficient would be stretching it. Yes, a three is worth more than a two, but if you’re going out of your way to avoid a wide open midrange jump shot, there’s a major issue.

    Here are some clips from Houston’s game seven exit versus the San Antonio Spurs in this year’s playoffs.

    Trevor Ariza sets a screen for Harden as he makes his way to the right. Then Harden easily makes his way into a midrange “sweet spot” he was used to last season. But, he decided to step back and attempt a three. To his dismay, the Spurs were highly anticipating this as Danny Green and LaMarcus Aldridge both closed in on Harden quickly and prevented him from shooting a wide open three. Harden then made an ill-advised pass and the ball flew out of bounds.

    In fact, the Spurs were so locked in on their defensive game plan that they started to double team Harden and force him to take a midrange shot.

    It got ugly.

    Gregg Popovich’s game plan is so simple that it is complex. He told his players to play tight defense and force Houston to take the dreaded midrange shots. If they got beat, so be it. Pop wanted to force D’Antoni to change his playing style, and when he didn’t, the Spurs exploited it every chance they got.

    Another conclusion that is simple to draw from game six was Popovich was forcing Harden to pass the ball. Popovich was willingly leaving guys like Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson open from deep and tempting them to take the shot. After they did, and missed, the Spurs would take it back the other way and convert on their side of the court.

    The problems that are prevalent with the Rockets now will follow them until D’Antoni is ultimately replaced. He has found so much success with his current system, why change it? The Game 6 exit against Golden State was considered a fluke for both Morey and D’Antoni as they aim towards the Finals next year. But are the Finals even a reality for the current Rockets?

    There’s no way they have the ability to get past the Warriors, especially when Kevin Durant is taking pay cuts to keep the core intact.

    However, Houston didn’t stand pat this summer. Instead, they made a big move and traded for Chris Paul. They also managed to re-sign Nene. And they might not be done, as the Carmelo Anthony whispers grow louder by the day.

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    Will it be enough to challenge the Dubs?

    The Odyssey of the Houston Rockets is short. Ironic, right? The only thing I can say is to stay tuned.

    The whole league is now on notice: The Houston Rockets are on their way. And James Harden is leading the charge.