2017 NBA Season Preview Series: Houston Rockets

chris-paul-rockets

We had to wait out the Melo drama before officially throwing the Rockets into a poll, but now that he’s been dealt to OKC, the Rockets were far and away the choice for our next preview. As loaded as the West is, the Rockets should be among those in the top tier, but how good can they really be? Can this experiment even work?

2016-17 Season Highlights

When Chris Paul was traded to the Houston Rockets on June 28th, it was just a taste as to how crazy this summer would be in the NBA, but make no mistake, this was one of the biggest moves of the entire offseason. Chris Paul, very much still an elite point guard, was joining a Rockets team that won 55 games the year before, and had the second highest scoring offense in the entire NBA. The work D’Antoni did to bounce back from a disappointing 2015 season was truly remarkable. Did you know the Rockets’ 114.7 offensive rating was the highest it’s ever been in their franchise’s HISTORY? They’ve been around since 1967, and fans of this team have never seen an offense like this. Now add a first ballot Hall Of Fame flood general to the mix and if you’re a Rockets fan you have every right to be extremely excited for the 2017 season. Now as it stands today, here is the Rockets roster

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 9.01.35 AM

On paper, the 5th most expensive roster in the NBA at $122,141,838, has pretty good balance. While we are seeing some pseudo-contenders be built around mostly young players, this Houston roster is truly a win now group. It does have some promising young players like Capela, but when four of your five starters are not younger than 28, this is your window, not 3-5 years from now. The Rockets are putting all their chips on the table and they’re going for it. I can commend that at a time when some say to just wait out GS.

And look, Rockets fans, I know you wanted Carmelo. He absolutely helps your roster, and gives you another dynamic scorer to put next to Harden. But you have nobody to blame but your own team for not getting him. Nobody forced the Rockets to give Ryan Anderson that contract. Is he a solid stretch four that fits today’s NBA and more importantly D’Antoni’s system? Yup. Would you have given him that money if you knew it would keep you from getting Melo? No fucking chance. So the fact that he instead was dealt to a direct competitor, that’s a little tough to stomach. But allow me to soften the blow for a second.

The Rockets play fast. I mean really fast. Their 102.88 pace was 3rd in the league, even higher than GS. Of the teams that play with this same pace (BKN, PHX, GS, PHI), only Houston and GS have positive net ratings. That’s obviously not going to change as we head into 2017, but the Rockets did make the moves that should make this even more devastating, and that’s invest in their defense. Subtracting minus defenders like Louis Williams and Sam Dekker help, and then adding defensive minded players like PJ Tucker (he’s the Lebron stopper didn’t you hear), and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, two guys who have career defensive ratings of 108 and 106, then not to mention CP3s defense, the Rockets should be much better than the 2016 team that gave up the 4th highest points per game in the NBA. So think about that for a minute. At WORST the Rockets offense is going to stay the same (it will be better imo), and they brought in solid defensive players to help address their biggest issue. So yeah, they still have some iffy defenders (Anderson, Harden), but this team didn’t need offense, so if you’re a Rockets fan try to not be too upset on missing out on Melo. You’re going to be fine.

As the PMT boys will remind you, in basketball there is only one ball. In 2016, James Harden was second in the NBA in touches at 99.2 per game, trailing only Westbrook who was at 99.5. Not too far behind was CP3 at 86.2, which was 8th in the league. The Rockets are now the only team in the NBA with two players on their roster that were in the Top 10 in touches. Harden was tied for the lead in time of possession (with Wall and Westbrook) so it doesn’t take a basketball expert to realize things are going to change for both players this season. What can we expect? Well since D’Antoni has only been there for one year, and that year consisted of Harden playing the point it’s not as easy to predict how Harden will perform in this system once he moves back to playing a lot more off the ball. To get some idea, I looked at the difference from 2015 to last year. I get it, different roster, different system, but I do think there are some telling trends.

For example, spot up shooting. In 2015 when Harden didn’t really play PG, he found himself in a spot up situation with 8.2% frequency and scored 1.27 points per possession while shooting 46.5%. This put him in the 96th percentile. Pretty fucking good. Well, last season, as the primary ball handler, as expected that frequency dropped to 5.0% and he shot 41.1% ending up in the 90th percentile. Still good, but worse than the year before. If bringing in CP3 means more spot up opportunities for Harden, I say that’s a good thing for this offense. The same exact trend happens with coming off screens. This too was an area in which Harden was solid in during 2015, that then dipped last year because his role changed.

There’s more. Everybody knows CP3 is a tremendous P&R player. The combination of his scoring ability with his passing vision make him extremely dangerous. How does this impact Harden and really this entire offense? Well the Rockets saw pretty good P&R success with Harden at the point, running it 40% of the time. Well, this is right up CP3’s alley, as he ran it 44% of the time as a Clipper. There will be some differences, obviously CP3 doesn’t get to the line like Harden, or scores as much per P&R possession, but remember, this now allows Harden to find space for more open catch and shoot looks. This is a good thing, because again back in 2015 when he wasn’t the primary PG, Harden had 41/40% splits with this play (38/38% last year).

So when I hear people question if this can work, I don’t see how it won’t. Yes Harden may have the ball less as a primary ball handler, but he is going to be back in positions that he excelled in before having PG responsibilities in this system. He probably won’t have a 34% usage rate like last year, but he for sure should be in the 29-32% range. He should still get his 18-20 FGA a night (CP3 avg just 13.9 for his career) which means he should still be close to 30 a night. If I’m looking at potential problems with HOU, I’m not looking anywhere close to CP3/Harden.

One of the biggest threats to the success of the Rockets in my opinion has nothing to do with their two best players. For me, that threat comes down to their sixth man. Eric Gordon won the 6th Man Of The Year last year, a season in which he played 75 games and made 246 threes. Those 75 games were the MOST he’s played since his rookie year. Before that, he’d never gone past 64. Is it safe to be somewhat concerned that last year was perhaps more the exception than the rule? I think so. For a team that relies heavily on the three point shot as a focal point of their offense (nobody made more than their 1,181 made threes), potentially losing a guy that made over 3 a game is a pretty big blow to this offense. If they were to not have Gordon, I don’t know if there is a guy on this roster currently who could even come close to making up the difference. I guess that’s where losing Lou Williams hurts to some degree.

At the end of the day, the main question for this Rockets team is can two guys who don’t have the greatest playoff success, get over the hump together. While it’s true CP3 has never even made a Conference Finals, I’m not ready to say that’s always been his fault. For his career, he’s a 21/4.7/9.4/2.2 player with 48/38% splits. Even in years like last year when they played just 7 playoff games he was 25/5/9.9 with 49/36% splits. Same story the year before when he played just 4 games. Injuries and bad luck are more his playoff woes story. With Harden, it’s a little different. He’s been known to disappear even going back to his OKC days. That should scare me more as a Rockets fan, but also why having CP3 is so important. Teams can no longer put all their focus on Harden, and in theory this should help prevent those games where he’s nowhere to be found. At least that’s the hope.

This team was 1-3 vs GS last year, and 1-3 against SA, so there is still a ways to go before we truly call them legit contenders, but after the summer they just had and with a whole year of this system under their belt, the Rockets are certainly knocking on the door.

Official Greenie Prediction: 56 wins