There was a lot of excitement surrounding the Houston Rockets as the regular season began. They have been an offensive minded team for quite some time, but this year, they decided to go all in on that side of the ball. When management narrowed down their head coaching options to Paul Silas and Mike D'Antoni, they opted for the latter as they thought his famous "seven seconds or less" offense was perfect for the roster. They got rid of Dwight Howard, who was not only causing locker room problems with his beef with James Harden but also demanding touches in the low post. This slowed the game down and stunted the offense, so his departure definitely benefited both parties involved.
They also signed both Ryan Anderson, a target for what seemed like forever, and Eric Gordon, a scoring shooting guard that has been hindered by injuries throughout his career to bolster the offense even more. With all of these transactions in the offseason, it became obvious that owner Leslie Alexander and general manager Daryl Morey had a controversial vision for the team: disregard defending the opponents, all you have to do is outscore them. While that has rarely ever resulted in postseason success, there have been plenty of teams who could pull it off and played well; just look at the Phoenix Suns when they had D'Antoni under center. And with one of the best in the league offensively in terms of points and assists in Harden, management thought they had their Steve Nash. It looked like a match made in heaven. Even preseason helped, as the team went 5-2 and looked solid.
So you'd expect the Rockets to just wipe the floor with the young and inexperienced Los Angeles Lakers, right? Wrong, that didn't even come close to happening. The game was relatively close throughout, even with the offense clicking. So when all hell broke loose in the fourth quarter, the Rockets looked all but doomed, and what was supposed to be an easy win turned out to be a disappointing loss.
A Few Positives
Before the rant begins, it wasn't all bad. K.J. McDaniels was great off the bench, going 5-5 and recording 11 points in 12 minutes. If he continues this output, he should become the team's sixth man and main scorer off the bench, effectively taking Michael Beasley's role on last year's roster. Sam Dekker, while not wowing like McDaniels did, played solid in his first NBA game and may develop into a solid player. Probably most impressive was Clint Capela, who seemed to be an even better version of last season's Howard offensively and solid on the other side of the ball. He ended with 16 points, many coming off pick-and-rolls with Harden and nine rebounds. So yeah, there were definitely some positives in the game. Now get ready for all the negativity that you are about to witness.
Expected Defensive Woes
Everybody and their mother knew the Rockets were going to have problems on the defensive end. Not only is Harden notoriously bad on that side of the ball (instead of posting a video, just check this link out, it's got so many videos it might take you days to go through them all), but Anderson is as well. Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza are good, but the former is injured and the latter has been worsening as of late. Gordon might not be too bad but in a system emphasizing offense, his defense will definitely go downhill. Capela has the frame and skillset to be a solid rim protector, but he has not reached that level yet. Think the bench is any better? Nope, McDaniels is solid and has the potential to improve and Corey Brewer used to be alright. Definitely not the roster you'd want to stop opponents from scoring.
That is why a young Lakers team was able to shoot lights out on them. Nobody could stop Jordan Clarkson in the second half. Julius Randle only missed two shots with Anderson defending him. D'Angelo Russell lit it from deep, making 4-10. Even Lou Williams, who only played 14 minutes, had a solid contribution as he seemed to find the line every time he got the ball, making 6-7 free throws. Overall, they made 50.6% from the field and 34.3% from deep; keep in mind that they averaged the least points in the league last year at 97.3, as well as had the worst field goal and three-point percentage at 41.4% and 31.7%, respectively. Just let that sink in. Yes, the Rockets' defense is pretty bad, and Beverley's return can only do so much, especially if D'Antoni decides to continue starting Harden at point and Gordon at the two.
Offense Should've Been Better
But as the title of that section suggests, everybody expected the defensive problems. Sure, maybe allowing 120 points to the Lakers is kind of too much, but they allowed the fourth most points last season at 106.9 per game. The Rockets should tear them apart on offense, right?
They did in the first half, scoring a whopping 71. Harden was absolutely killing it with 14 assists in the first half. Just watch the video below, he made some Nash-like passes. So if you fell asleep on the sofa at halftime (which would be impressive if you were a Rockets fan, there were plenty of nice plays throughout), you'd think they had the win in the bag. It's the second half that spurred this article.
A lot happened in the second half that led to only 43 total points compared to 71. While Harden had a lot of nice passes into the post for easy buckets, some of them were pretty contested Anderson and Gordon threes. What made D'Antoni's offense so nice is that he could get people open through quick picks and great vision at the point. Anderson and Gordon were on fire in the first half, but got cold in the second, leading to 2-7 and 2-8 from deep, respectively.
So what does Harden do when he becomes the only consistent scorer? He did it last year, and it wasn't using his great passing ability to find open players. It's stopping ball movement, dribbling the shot clock down, jacking up a three, and going 1-7 from deep for the game. He's great at driving and even that would be better than settling from deep; he went 15-16 from the line and had several nice layups. But Harden has a tendency to thinking he can sink literally any shot, no matter what happens when he takes them.
This is exactly what Harden promised wouldn't happen with D'Antoni under center. Throughout the offseason, he seemed completely on board with the new system, even if it meant that he would have to change his game. As a result of not having the whole scoring burden on his shoulders, he'd be able to focus more on defense, something that he showed in the 2014-15 season he could do alright. But if he is already reverting back to his old ways, the Rockets could be in for a long season.
The worst part is is that that wasn't the only offensive issue! Everybody is drooling over the 17 assists that Harden got, but did they check how many turnovers he got? Seven. That is horrible for any primary ball handler/point guard. People might point out that Nash led the league in turnovers whenever he played with D'Antoni coaching, but his worst assist to turnover ratio in those fours seasons was 3. Harden's yesterday was 2.43. If he averaged that last year, he would be 29th in the league, tied with Jimmy Butler. Speaking of last season, he was 62nd, getting a 1.64 ratio, and it is a lot more likely that he gets close to seven turnovers per game than 17 assists. A better team would exploit those turnovers even more than the Lakers did yesterday, as they only got 19 points off turnovers. In fact, there are plenty of better defenders than everybody that guarded Harden yesterday that can force even more mistakes.
"Youssef, calm down. It was only the first game, don't start predicting doomsday already."
Yes, that may be a good point. But this is exactly what plenty of experts warned about. And this was also against an at best mid-level team, which is a group that the Rockets are hoping to be better than. They had an entire offseason to get the offense down, and while it may improve as the season goes along, it won't by much. And if it doesn't, a lot worse will happen than what happened in his time with the New York Knicks and Lakers, something discussed here.
The first half was near picture perfect, and if that is the Rockets team that will show up for the most part, they will be relatively fine. The problem is is that it is pretty hard to play that efficiently night in and night out throughout the 82-game season. So the second half is a lot more likely to repeat itself, especially if D'Antoni's offense can't get Anderson and Gordon open to the point that they can make threes consistently. Because Harden's response to their misses would be jacking up his own shots, and yes, reread the article if you don't know what will happen afterward.
So stop with all of the 'James Harden has a great game' articles. Stop with the 'Houston Rockets look good' articles. It has only been one game, but if this is a microcosm of the season then it will not end well at all. Forget a playoff spot, making the top 10 in the Western Conference would be nice. Therefore, that porous defense and only one-half of great offense will not cut it in the NBA.
Enough ranting. On a happier note, if you would like to read a review of the game, check this article out.