One word that may best describe the Houston Rockets during Daryl Morey’s tenure as general manager is, simply, “weird” — a quirky, personality-filled roster that belies the organization’s data-driven, mostly levelheaded approach to team-building at the peak of the analytical era in sports.
A front office whose methodology shouldn’t be all that controversial (design a game plan with the idea of finding the most efficient ways to score and find players who can best execute it) has arguably constructed a roster with the most divisive individuals in the NBA over the last few years. From James Harden and his love affair with Houston’s nightlife, to the candy-loving, gas-passing Dwight Howard, to Patrick Beverley and his perceived head-hunting, and even to volatile talents like Josh Smith, the Rockets have relied on some interesting players to carry out their nerdy numbers plan. (Can you imagine explaining RPM to a shirtless, leopard-print-cowboy-hat-wearing Harden?)
Still, that weird roster was in the Western Conference Finals about 15 months ago, giving the soon-to-be-champion Golden State Warriors a challenge in at least a couple of the games. And prior to that, they erased a 3-1 series deficit against the Clippers, which included a comeback for the ages in Game 6 in Los Angeles that effectively crushed the spirits of Doc Rivers and friends. You watched the Rockets that season because anything could happen, because it felt like no lead was safe for either team. They would storm back on you, or let you right back in it — the swings of emotion were palpable and entertaining if nothing else.
But the 2015-16 season was a different animal altogether. By April, NOBODY wanted to watch Houston play — not even its fans. There was no rhythm, no chemistry and no enjoyment. The only reason it was able to piddle its way into the postseason was because of help from other teams (*cough* Utah). Once they got there, the greatest accomplishment the Rockets achieved likely came in the form of Donatas Motiejunas’ floor-sweat causing Steph Curry to do the splits and injure his MCL. All in all, it was a rough season.
And looking ahead, the thought was it could get worse. Howard was almost certainly gone — and eventually, literally gone — after relationships with the team and the locker room went sour. They would lose him for nothing, and with a Harden contract situation looming on the horizon, Morey’s vision for the future of his team could be taking significant hits.
But it’s funny how quickly things can change in the NBA.
One of the major questions that swirled around the Rockets was whether former coach Kevin McHale was the right guy for the job — an old-school dude trying to execute newfangled ideas. He was fired very early last season when the writing showed more clearly on the wall that things weren’t going to work out, and the Rockets never rebounded under interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Hell, even Bickerstaff bolted as soon as the season concluded. Houston needed changes to save it from itself, and quickly.
Enter Mike D’Antoni, one of the most innovative offensive minds of the modern era. At one time, at least.
It’s been a while since MDA’s heyday. The Seven Seconds or Less Suns — a team falling farther and farther away in the rearview mirror with the Amar’e Stoudemire retirement — will go down as one of the most exciting groups we’ve ever seen, but his most recent stints in New York and Los Angeles will be easily forgotten by most. And yet, it’s not like he had much to work with in either of the previous two locations.
We don’t know how things will pan out during the upcoming season, but in the present, he’s already accomplished something as the lead domino to the Rockets’ offseason. Since the D’Antoni hire, the Rockets have replaced the mercurial Howard, Smith and Terrence Jones with Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Nene, players who should thrive in their new coach’s run-and-shoot style. Most importantly, they were able to lock Harden up with a four-year, $118-million extension, securing their franchise player for the foreseeable future; and there is absolutely nothing surprising about the bearded one signing up to play for D’Antoni.
But let’s not act as if losing Howard is no big deal. He’s certainly not the player he once was, but relying on a young Clint Capela — despite the promise he’s showed — and the oft-injured Nene and Motiejunas to fill the void is no sure thing. Then again, we’ve seen the D’Antoni-Howard experiment before, and it’s safe to say it wasn’t awesome. The two may have been an abject disaster together in Houston just as they were in L.A., and when the team elected to sign the coach before June had even arrived, it made its statement on the future of Howard.
There are still a lot of other questions going forward, as well. Each of the prominent free agents the team signed has significant injury history and comes with sub-par defensive reputations (though defense has never been MDA’s top priority anyway). Their styles may effectively jell in Houston’s new system, but availability will always be a concern. If they are able to stay on the court and help the Rockets not only reach the playoffs but contribute once they get there, then their skill-sets will be more than worth the roster spots.
And let’s not forget, there are obvious questions about the team’s new coach. Critics of D’Antoni have always been quick to point out his lack of postseason success and inability to adjust schematically to a slower pace. As previously mentioned, it’s been a while since he’s had any modicum of success in the NBA as a head coach, and he’s entering what previously appeared to be a poisonous environment with a polarizing superstar. D’Antoni hasn’t always meshed with big egos, so all eyes will be on that relationship as well as the coach’s ability to make the most out of this roster in a difficult Western Conference.
But in the end, the Rockets will be faced with the same reality as arguably every other team in the NBA, with the exception of maybe one or two: This might be the Warriors’ world, as everyone else just lives in it. Still, this once entertaining, energetic and unpredictable Houston team did quite a bit to pull itself out of last season’s hell — enough that a return to 2014-15 form is perhaps more likely than not. At the very least, things can’t get much worse than its most recent campaign.
The Rockets might remain weird, but weird can be good. After the summer they’ve had, maybe they’ll be fun again, too.