The Rockets flamed out in spectacular fashion Thursday, with a 39-point loss at home to a Spurs team without Kawhi Leonard or Tony Parker, but it’s hard to call their season anything but a success. Coming off a 41-win season and the departure of Dwight Howard, it seemed like the James Harden era in Houston had peaked, and the rest of the league had caught up to the unorthodox philosophy of longtime GM Daryl Morey. Instead, the Rockets doubled down on Moreyball, bringing in Mike D’Antoni and a legion of 3-point bombers, and turned themselves into one of the most potent offenses in NBA history.
The Rockets should be a contender in the Western Conference for a long time to come: They have a superstar, a defined identity, and a core with only one player (Trevor Ariza) over 30. However, going from good to great is the toughest jump in the NBA to make, and even in a world where the Warriors don’t exist, the way the Rockets lost to the Spurs in the second round raised questions about the way their roster is put together. Harden may have worn down from carrying the offense all season, while their thin bench limited D’Antoni’s options to make adjustments, especially in comparison with Gregg Popovich, who leaned on the Spurs’ depth to survive the loss of two of his best players.
The only key rotation player not under contract for next season is Nene, and depending on what the Rockets do with him, they will be around $10 million under the salary cap. They won’t be able to make the same type of splash they made last offseason, when they signed Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to massive long-term contracts, but the lure of playing with Harden in D’Antoni’s wide-open system should make them an attractive option for free agents looking to play for a contender. It will take a while for Rockets fans to get over what happened in Game 6, but there’s still plenty of reason for optimism in Houston. Here’s a look at the six most pressing questions the franchise needs to answer in the offseason, and where they need to go from here:
1. Is This As Far As a One-Man Show Can Go?
The offseason discussion in Houston will focus on Harden’s oddly passive Game 6 performance, where he passed up open shot after open shot and finished with 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting and only seven assists against six turnovers. It was tied for the fewest points he scored all season, which is not how you want your best player to go out. The Rockets are built around Harden emptying his clip at the opposition, and he seemed content to holster his gun and let his teammates try to win without him Thursday. Harden and D’Antoni claimed he was fine after the game, but it’s hard to believe there wasn’t some health issue going on that we didn’t know about.
Harden averaged 28.5 points on 41.3 percent shooting, 8.5 assists, and 5.5 rebounds a game in the playoffs, a slight dip from his regular-season numbers. The problem was that there was no one who could pick up the slack for him: The Rockets didn’t have anyone else averaging more than 13 points per game in the postseason. It’s nearly impossible to imagine them playing as well without Harden as the Spurs did without Kawhi. Harden missed only one game in the regular season, and he had the ball in his hands for most of the time he was on the floor, while playing at the third-fastest pace in the league. Even if Harden doesn’t win the MVP award, he was as indispensable as any player in the league.
One-man teams don’t win in the postseason. Since Michael Jordan retired in 1998, only five regular-season MVPs have gone on to win an NBA title in the same season. Houston’s second-leading scorer was its sixth man (Eric Gordon), and D’Antoni wound up inserting him into the starting lineup before Game 5 against the Spurs to take some of the pressure off Harden. Dwight Howard wasn’t able to fill the role of sidekick in Houston, but most championship teams have at least two, if not three or four, great players. If LeBron James couldn’t single-handedly carry a team to a title in his first stint in Cleveland, Harden’s not going to be able to in Houston.
2. Do They Have Enough Size on the Perimeter?
The series against the Rockets was a coming-out party for Spurs second-year wing Jonathon Simmons, who averaged 13.2 points on 47 percent shooting, two rebounds, and 1.8 assists a game in the second round. Houston didn’t have anyone who could match up with him. Trevor Ariza was their only perimeter player with the size to bother Simmons, who checks in at 6-foot-6 and 195 pounds, and he had to perform double duty guarding Leonard and serving as their backup power forward. Harden has never been known for his defense, while no one else in their backcourt rotation is taller than 6-foot-4.
Houston loves to go small upfront, but it doesn’t have the length on the perimeter to make up for it. The defensive glass was a problem for the Rockets all series, and the Spurs outrebounded them by 23 in Game 6. The Warriors’ Lineup of Death works because they surround a 6-foot-7 center (Draymond Green) with three wings who are at least 6-foot-6 (Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Klay Thompson). Golden State’s phalanx of wings allows it to gang rebound, clog passing lanes, and cover for Steph Curry on defense, and it’s something Houston needs to replicate to succeed without many traditional big men.
One potential answer on the Rockets bench is free-agent forward Troy Williams, who showed flashes of potential in stops in Memphis and Houston in his rookie season. At 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds, Williams is a freak athlete who can slide among multiple positions on defense, but he will need to improve his 3-point shot to carve out a role for himself in D’Antoni’s system. Barring any major changes to the roster, the Rockets don’t have the cap space to pursue Gordon Hayward, who would be an ideal fit as a second banana, but unrestricted free agents like C.J. Miles or Justin Holiday would make a lot of sense in Houston.
3. How Much Should They Pay Nene?
Of all the signings Morey made last offseason, the best value had to be Nene, whom they picked up off the scrap heap with a one-year, $3 million contract. The veteran big man, in his 15th season in the league, was revitalized in D’Antoni’s system, with per-36 minute averages of 18.3 points on 61.7 percent shooting, 8.4 rebounds, two assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.2 blocks a game. He had the best postseason net rating (plus-11.3) of any player on the Rockets roster, and they missed him after he went down with a season-ending thigh injury in Game 4.
At 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, Nene’s bulk was the perfect complement to the slender frame of starting center Clint Capela, who struggled against Oklahoma City’s massive front line in the first round. There just aren’t many big men in the league with Nene’s skill set, as he can roll to the rim, step out and knock down midrange jumpers, and make plays out of the high post. He can keep up with Houston’s uptempo pace, while also giving the team someone who can bang in the post and fight on the boards when the game slows down.
Given the glut of centers on the market this offseason, it’s unclear how much money Nene will command. A 34-year-old (he turns 35 before the start of next season) with his injury history probably won’t be able to secure a long-term deal. The Rockets aren’t going to want to break the bank to keep him, especially with Capela up for an extension next offseason, but he was too valuable to let walk for nothing. While they have a couple of options to replace Nene internally in second-year big man Montrezl Harrell and 2016 second-round pick Zhou Qi, who played in China this season, both would probably be significant downgrades.
4. How Big a Concern Was Ryan Anderson’s Playoff Performance?
The biggest disappointment for the Rockets over the last month had to be the play of Ryan Anderson, who averaged 9.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game on 39.1 percent shooting in the playoffs. Anderson picked the worst possible time to go through a prolonged shooting slump, and his confidence seemed to be shaken at times. While he lived up to the four-year, $80 million contract he signed with the Rockets in the regular season, his play when the lights were the brightest has to be a concern going forward for the Houston brain trust.
This season was the first extended playoff run of Anderson’s career, and some of the holes in his game were exposed against elite competition. It’s hard for Anderson to make a positive impact when his shot isn’t falling, while his inability to slide his feet on the perimeter made him a liability in pick-and-roll defense. The Rockets wound up moving him to the bench against the Spurs, partly due to Nene’s injury but also because it was easier to hide him defensively on the second unit.
If Houston can add a second star, Anderson is the guy D’Antoni would probably replace in the starting lineup. Capela’s ability to catch lobs thrown anywhere in the vicinity of the basket is vital to making the offense click, while Ariza and Beverley provide badly needed perimeter defense and 3-point shooting next to Harden. They need floor spacing from Anderson’s hypothetical replacement, but they could also use more of a playmaker, a guy who can take advantage of a four-on-three situation if the opposing defense decides to trap Harden in the pick-and-roll and take the ball out of his hands. Just imagine how dangerous the Rockets would be if they had someone like Draymond Green at power forward.
5. How Much Upside Does Sam Dekker Have?
There aren’t many candidates for internal improvement on the Rockets roster. With the exception of Capela, every other player in their playoff rotation is already in (or exiting) their prime. They gave up their first-round pick in this year’s draft to acquire Lou Williams, and Dekker is the only first-rounder among the young players at the end of their bench. After not playing much as a rookie, he established himself as a legitimate NBA player this season before breaking his hand in April, and the Rockets need him to continue improving.
At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds with a near-7-foot wingspan, Dekker has an intriguing offensive skill set and the size and athleticism to play multiple positions in the frontcourt. He played primarily as a small forward in his three seasons at Wisconsin, which can be seen in the way he handles the ball, attacks the rim, and makes plays on the move like a much smaller player. The Rockets are reportedly high on Dekker’s potential: On a podcast with Zach Lowe of ESPN in March, Morey said he thought Dekker was better than Harrison Barnes, whom the Mavs signed to a max contract last offseason.
The biggest thing Dekker needs to work on is his jumper, as he shot 32.1 percent from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game this season and only 55.9 percent from the free throw line. If he is going to be a long-term replacement for Anderson, he has to force defenses to respect him from beyond the 3-point arc. A consistent perimeter shot would also open up the rest of Dekker’s offensive game, as it would be difficult for traditional big men to guard him 25-plus feet from the basket and stay in front of him off the dribble. Dekker is still only 23, so there’s plenty of time for him to improve, and he could play a big role in Houston’s future.
6. What, If Anything, Does This Loss Say About D’Antoni’s Philosophy?
It doesn’t matter whether D’Antoni is coaching in Phoenix, Los Angeles, or Houston; he just can’t seem to get past Popovich, whose teams have now beaten his in five different postseasons. It’s no shame to lose to the Spurs in the playoffs, but Popovich isn’t going anywhere, and the odds are likely that these two will meet again in May at some point in the next few years. D’Antoni’s system clearly works, with Popovich borrowing elements of it to keep his team relevant over the past decade, but that doesn’t mean D’Antoni can’t make a few tweaks.
The big adjustment the Spurs made in this series after being blown off the floor in Game 1 was playing their big man farther back in the pick-and-roll to protect the rim and having Harden’s defender, whether it was Kawhi, Simmons, or Danny Green, chase him over the screen in order to deter the 3-point shot. In essence, San Antonio sold out to stop the 3-pointer and the layup. They left the midrange open, knowing Houston didn’t want to take those shots. Long 2s are the most inefficient shots in basketball, but there is a time and a place for them. While watching this series, this quote from Dirk Nowitzki in December about Harrison Barnes kept playing in my head:
"That high-post [isolation], he’s mastered it. As a go-to guy, you got to have a great midrange game because you’re not going to get an open 3 to win, and you’re not going to get all the way to the basket to win. So you got to be able to create midrange stuff and he’s a master at it."
D’Antoni’s substitution patterns also stood out. He rarely plays more than seven or eight players in a game, in stark contrast with Popovich, who has no problem emptying his bench if he doesn’t like the effort his starters are giving. He will give every player on his roster a chance to show what he can do over the course of the season. The Spurs’ injuries in the playoffs forced younger guys like Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson into bigger roles, and they shined in Game 6, combining for 18 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists, and three steals. It’s possible Pop’s deep reserves were just better than their counterparts in Houston, but we don’t know because D’Antoni never showed much trust in his.