What are the Rockets thinking?

In an increasingly predictable league, the 2016-2017 Houston Rockets had a genuinely surprising season.  Catapulted by a seamless reinvention of Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven seconds or less” inspired offense with James Harden at the fulcrum, the Rockets morphed into the NBA’s version of the ’07 Patriots.  Harden’s remarkably successful transition from shooting guard to point god was more than worthy of an MVP trophy, while D’Antoni claimed Coach of the Year and the finally comfortable Eric Gordon won best 6th Man.  The Rockets defied expectations to the tune of 55 wins and the 3 seed.  Despite their head scratching conclusion against the vaunted Spurs, the foundation for success moving forward was established.

The Rockets surrounded their future Hall-Of-Famer with quality depth across the board.  The cupboard was full.  Pat Beverley, Eric Gordon, and Lou Williams at the guard spots.  Trevor Ariza and the promising Sam Dekker holding down the wing.  The bigs combination of Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, and Montrezl Harrell a perfect fit for the modern game.  Anderson is the stretchiest stretch four in an era that just saw Lauri Markkanen get drafted 7th, while Capela/Harrell can suck in weak side defenders fearing a lob attempt AND offer honorable rim protection on the other end.  Having eight capable options around a superstar is a rarity.

Houston could have slept through this summer and no one would have told them to wake up.  Conventional wisdom said to bring back the developing core, polish and refine the system over the course of another regular season, hopefully add a valuable piece around the deadline, and take their best swing at Golden State in the Western Conference Finals.

Not so fast!  In comes Chris Paul at the expense of Beverley, Dekker, Lou Williams, and Harrell.  Two quality contributors and a pair of emerging talents in exchange for an aging superstar who loves to have the ball in his hands.  Here is my attempted explanation.


First off, Rockets GM Daryl Morey deserves a standing ovation from all the NBA junkies dreading the seeming inevitability of watching Draymond Green shoot 30% on uncontested 3’s over the next five NBA Finals.  Winning four out of seven against the Warriors is virtually impossible.  They went 31-2 over the last three months this season, and went 15-5 when their best player was sidelined (Durant).  Morey wants to raise a banner in 2018, not 2022, and isn’t afraid to act on it.  He’s aware of his low probabilities, but as long as he has a chance he is looking to maximize them.  You gotta appreciate it.

I see three ingredients necessary to potentially dethrone the Warriors.  The CP3 acquisition makes the recipe that much more obtainable for Houston.

  1. Ability to always put four shooters on the floor.
  2. Two elite perimeter playmakers/scorers.
  3. Defensive system predicated on switching pick-and-rolls, capable of containing Durant and Curry in isolation situations.

Durant and Green are elite help defenders.  When their matchups allow them to roam around the paint, it is brutally difficult to find quality looks.  Lillard and McCollum fought this reality in the first round when Green deserted Maurice Harkless on the perimeter.  The Jazz played Joe Johnson at power forward to avoid this situation.  Having a minimum of four quality shooters is a necessity against Golden State, a characteristic Houston has never struggled to produce.  Any combination of Paul, Harden, Gordon, Ariza, or Anderson does the trick.  Morey isn’t done either.  Expect another outside threat or two to join the fold before the deadline.

There comes a point against the Warriors when you simply have to match their extraordinary offensive capabilities.  The Westbrook/Durant show pushed Golden State the distance two years ago, while the Kyrie/LeBron combination beat them and kept another Finals weirdly competitive.  With Harden and Paul, the Rockets now have the two explosive offensive forces needed to hang around.  While Paul and Harden are both accustomed to handling the ball and initiating the offense, the same was true for Durant and Westbrook and is true for Kyrie and LeBron.  Having two options to fulfill this invaluable task isn’t a hindrance, but a glaring necessity.

Since 2011, premier perimeter combinations have ruled the NBA Finals.

East:

  • 2012 – 2014: LeBron and Wade
  • 2015 – 2017: LeBron and Kyrie

West:

  • 2012: Durant and Westbrook
  • 2013 – 2014: Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard
  • 2015 – 2016: Splash Brothers
  • 2017: Curry and Durant

As much as I love Eric Gordon’s game, his presence on this list alongside Harden would disrupt this trend.  Harden and Paul would fit in seamlessly.

The final ingredient is having multiple defensive bodies to throw at Curry and Durant, especially the latter.  Durant is the hardest cover in the league.  The Cavaliers ultimately lost the Finals because LeBron couldn’t guard Durant for long stretches while preserving enough energy to carry the offensive burden.  Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson never got comfortable.  Kevin Love was downright embarrassing.

Trevor Ariza is a savvy veteran worthy of guarding Durant, but there isn’t much support behind him.  They look to be a wing defender short currently.  Look for their mid-level exception to address this concern.  Tony Allen is a free agent possibility.

Chris Paul’s defense has confused Durant in the past, which could discourage the deadly Durant/Curry screening action to a degree.  Capela’s lateral agility is advanced at his size, allowing him to be passably effective when switched onto smaller guards.  Harden has enough beef to battle any Warrior in the post.  Given the acquisition of one more defensive minded wing, the Rockets defensive toolbox suddenly looks rather interesting.

If beating the 2018 Warriors is the goal, the CP3 trade was a giant step in the right direction.  Harden alongside a pleasant supporting cast wasn’t going anywhere.  I hate to admit it, but Houston made the Western Conference Finals with Dwight Howard not Ryan Anderson.  No longer will we be debating who the Rockets second best player is.  It’s Chris freakin’ Paul, the greatest point guard of my lifetime.

Recent situations have conveniently manifested opportunities for stars to join other stars.  Miami had barely enough cap room to squeak in both LeBron and Bosh back in 2010.  The Cavaliers had enough cap space to bring LeBron back to The Land after drafting Irving and Wiggins (who they flipped for Love).  Steph Curry’s favorable contract left the Warriors enough cap space to sign Durant.  An accumulation of assets and cap room in Boston looks likely to net two additional stars to join Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford.  Premier players entering free agency have been able to join promising situations while getting paid!  The salary cap hasn’t produced competitive balance as expected.

At the end of the day, if Chris Paul is available and wants to play basketball with your best player, you make that happen.  Morey orchestrated the Harden trade.  He knows what he’s doing.  As of now my 2018 Title contenders is at four: Golden State, Cleveland, Boston, and now Houston.

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