Houston Rockets Season Preview: Mike D’Antoni, Changing James Harden, Saving Daryl Morey

NBA: Houston Rockets at Orlando Magic

Going through something of an overhaul this summer, the Houston Rockets have a new head coach in Mike D’Antoni, bringing in a very different basketball philosophy to what the team’s star, James Harden, has gotten used to. Daryl Morey, from his position, can’t afford another season like last year. At some point, his job will be on the line too.

The Rockets made the playoffs last year, but considering their 2015 conference finals appearance, the expectations were more than barely making the postseason and getting knocked out in five games without putting much of a fight against the Golden State Warriors. The coach had to go, but more than bringing in someone new to the sidelines, a change in approach and thinking was necessary, even if it doesn’t fit the team’s star.

Harden signed an extension with the Rockets, which means he’s on board, at least for now. The Rockets cleaned house with Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Terrence Jones leaving. D’Antoni has himself an interesting team to work with: Solid shooters, individual defense (Beverley, Trevor Ariza) talent he’ll need to turn into a contagious thing, and a young frontcourt although his big men can’t shoot, which means he can’t have five shooters on the floor. The approach remains 1 big men for defense and boards with four good shooters, but the key here is the one who runs the offense: Harden.

The idea for Daryl Morey has always been about putting as many shooters on the team as possible, adding Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon seems to fit the plan, especially when they didn’t lose anyone the team was counting on for the future. Harden finished with 7.5 assists per game last season while scoring 29 points a night. That kind of counters the idea behind his selfishness and hogging the ball, but when you have such a high usage rate, you’re going to get rid of it sometimes.

The challenge for D’Antoni will be turning Harden into someone who thinks a little bit quicker and operates quickly too. No more endless dribbles that ruin entire possessions. It doesn’t have to be the 7-second offense, but the mindset has to be different. The Rockets kept shooting 3’s despite not having open looks last season, and became even more reliant on what Harden produces on his own. Putting the ball in someone else’s hands and making defenses guess is what the Rockets are aiming for.

Acquisitions: Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Nene, Pablo Prigioni, Chinanu Onuaku (draft)

Departures: Andrew Goudelock, Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Terrence Jones, Jason Terry

Best Case Scenario

D’Antoni both plugs his system and succeeds, getting Harden to follow. What does this mean for Harden? Hard to say in terms of numbers, but it would mean players will actually be happy to see him hit winning jump shots, unlike their timid reaction in last year’s postseason as the Rockets beat the Warriors. It means guys like Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell, Nene and Onuaku make the paint a living hell for opposing defenses. It means Eric Gordon stayed healthy, Anderson kept sharpshooting, Sam Dekker became an NBA player and Patrick Beverley fit in nicely. Above all, it would mean the Rockets making the conference semifinals or more, and not needing the last day of the season to know whether or not they’ll make the playoffs.

Worst Case Scenario

Not making the playoffs or knocked out in the first round wouldn’t be nice, but above that will be having the same kind of foul air in the team locker room and on the court, as if it seems that no one wants to play with each other and especially Harden. Maybe the biggest change will be for him to become a leader that players want to follow. A lot of things can go wrong next season, but Harden remaining the same player will be the worst thing that can happen to them, considering he’s on the team for a very long time, and a bad season will cement the notion that winning a championship with him as their alpha will be impossible, no matter who is  the coach.

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