The Rockets are Cooking
The Houston Rockets sit at 21-7(curently on a 10-game winning streak), good for third in the West, and their all-world superstar James Harden leads the association in assists while among the leaders in scoring. There are many factors that have led to their success and I have tried to highlight some of the main causes for their record.
This all goes back to Daryl Morey’s offseason. After various internal issues and years of suffering locker room chemistry, the Rockets finally unloaded Dwight Howard, a move that has paid major dividends. Dwight thinks himself something of a post up savant, requiring touches, space, and that his teammates treat him like the superstar he believes he is. The offense was much of a “your turn, my turn” dance between Harden and Howard, frustrating not only for the remaining 10 players on the roster, but for us as fans. In Orlando under Stan Van Gundy, Dwight made a name for himself as a menacing defender with ungodly athleticism and an unstoppable force in pick and rolls. Jameer Nelson produced career years during that era that included a championship run, as Howard severely benefitted from the open space that four surrounding shooters created. The majority of the time, Howard was setting picks and rim running, finishing dump offs around the basket, and collecting a bucket full of offensive boards. As his fame grew, he demanded more post looks, and became more and more of an inefficient headache. His departure from Houston gave way for Clint Capela to emerge, who is an enormous upgrade for the team’s chemistry, primarily just because that replaces one additional ego for James Harden to compete with. That clear truth coupled with the simple fact that Capela is willing to go to the dirty areas that ‘superstar’ Dwight was not; fighting for rebounds, rolling to the rim, finishing in the paint; essentially doing all the dirty work.
If the first thing the Rockets did right this offseason was neglecting to re-sign Howard, the next was the hiring of head coach, Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni has experienced tremendous success, mainly with the Phoenix Suns, and truly changed the course of basketball. He had the perfect personnel for what became the ‘7 Seconds or Less’ offense, with Steve Nash as the orchestrator, a role in which he was named MVP twice, Amar’e Stoudemire became Amar’e, and Shawn Marion became on of the most versatile all-around forwards of the 2000’s. Other role players included the Brazilian Blur, Leandro Barbosa, and Boris Diaw, and incredibly adept facilitator for his position. After Phoenix, his career arc was perplexing. His teams didn’t mirror the 2000’s Suns in personnel and D’Antoni seemed unwilling to adapt. Between New York and Los Angeles, he struggled to manage ego’s, play styles, and seemingly couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt from his offensive philosophy. Bottom line, he struggled post-Phoenix and only coached 2 winning seasons in 6 years. He was an imperfect coach, requiring a perfect roster to fit his high-octane offense to succeed. That team is today’s Houston Rockets, as they sport enough versatility, shooting touch, and the orchestrator to make the symphony of talent harmonious.
In terms of personnel this offseason, I wrote earlier in the year for OTG about how the additions of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon would be boons for Houston. They fit perfectly into Daryl Morey and D’Antoni’s vision. Anderson is the prototypical stretch-four to keep the floor spaced for a successful James Harden and Clint Capela pick and roll. He’s a decent rebounder, a perfect pick-and-pop partner for Harden, and is always readily available to fire away on drive and kicks. Gordon’s greatest setback has been his durability, but has been able to remain healthy thus far and has become a viable 6th Man of the Year candidate. Gordon is 2nd on the team in scoring and provides a secondary creator for a Houston team that’s lacking a player outside of Harden that can do so. But most importantly, these personnel moves, combined with D’Antoni’s hire and Howard’s exit, signaled a 100% dedication to live and die by James Harden, a decision that has paid dividends.
All these decisions are about letting James Harden be James Harden, a direction that is being proved successful on all fronts. In the past, Harden was never granted full autonomy, but clearly due to his career-high usage rating, this season is different. Harden has always had a knack for putting the ball in the basket. He’s slithery, changes speed on a dime, and is masterful at drawing contact. In isolation, he will change gear so quickly, putting defenders on their heels, leaving him free to step back, create space and shoot, blow by you, or use one of his many lures to bait defenders into a foul at the rim.
His court vision and playmaking ability has always been evident, but no coach has utilized him like D’Antoni. He gave The Beard the reigns, and every possession starts in Harden’s hands. A lot of what they do is simply just letting James Harden read and react. Surrounded by shooters and Clint Capela, Houston spaces the floor letting Harden have as many passing options as possible, an action that gives him maximum room to operate. Both Capela and Anderson light Harden’s defender up with screens, and in that small window of time that Harden gets space, he operates on the defense like a surgeon, either drawing help defense for an assist, or creating an open shot for his own. Harden has been an unstoppable menace on the floor this year and doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Thanks to Harden’s ability on the basketball court and Morey’s vision of how to put together a successful organization, we have a perfect storm in Houston.