The Houston Rockets, the playoffs and familiar unfamiliarity
By Kelly Iko
The Houston Rockets made an embarrassing exit from the 2017 playoffs, putting them in a new, yet somewhat familiar position for the upcoming offseason.
It wasn’t supposed to end yet for the Houston Rockets, at least not like this.
As James Harden walked off the court for the final time Thursday night, shaking his teammates’ hands and hugging coaches, there was an all too familiar feeling that hung around the Toyota Center. For the few hundred fans that hadn’t already made their way to the exits, many of them dreaded the mere thought of the end of playoff basketball and the long summer that lay ahead.
The 2016-17 season was different for many reasons. And even in that, it was all the same.
Whether you’re an accountant, a senator, a teacher or a even a carpenter, perception is everything. Since James Harden entered the league in 2009, his unique style of play and his beard have added to his aura and the attention he gathers. Of course most of it is beneficial, bringing much success on and off the court. But success is a two-edged sword, and world of basketball can be a very cruel and forgetful place.
If my calculations are correct, and according to my Imaginary Image Chart, James Harden has had to rebuild his public image 4 times now:
after last night’s game 6, he’s going to have to change the narrative again.
The first was after the 2012 Finals. The second was after the infamous “James Harden: NBA defender” YouTube video in 2014. The third time was after game 5 in the 2015 Western Conference Finals against the Warriors in which Harden went 2-11 to go along with 12 turnovers. The fourth time was after a 41-41 season, a first round exit, and a messy divorce with Dwight Howard in which he was portrayed as the bad guy.
And after last night’s game 6, he’s going to have to change the narrative again. After a year in which he averaged 29-11-8, won 55 games, earned the three seed in the Western Conference, and will likely finish top-two in MVP voting. Basketball giveth, and basketball taketh away.
“He looked like he was drugged out there for crying out loud, literally comatose,” Stephen A. Smith said on ESPN right after the game.
NBA TV analyst Rick Kamla said he no longer believes Harden is a superstar. Max Kellerman, ESPN First Take anchor said he should still be a sixth man. Search the Twittersphere and you’ll come across hundreds of memes, jokes, and insults. That’s how quickly people’s opinions can change based off one game.
Don’t get me wrong, game 6 was a 48 minute migraine. The Spurs literally came into Toyota Center without their best player in Kawhi Leonard and put a 40-point ass whooping on the Rockets. Yes, this isn’t the first rodeo (see Dallas/Houston 2005), but last night felt different. At times it looked like the Rockets didn’t want to even be on the court. They were second best to loose balls, offensive rebounds and just played outright sloppy.
Credit to the Spurs–they are a fantastic organization. They proved this series why they deserve the title of dynasty. Losing Tony Parker and Leonard brought the team closer and put guys in positions to succeed. Jonathan Simmons, a former D-Leaguer, has played outstanding for Pop. Manu Ginobili looks about seven years younger, and LaMarcus Aldridge looked like he was in a Blazers uniform.
Everyone counted San Antonio out after game 1, but Pop went back into his locker and pulled something from his secret coaching drawer, guarded by lock and key. Basketball draws frequent comparisons to chess, and Pop used a pawn to take D’Antoni’s knight.
But Houston beat itself. That’s the part they can’t get over. The Rockets were in it for three quarters in Game 3. And Game 5 was literally there for the taking, Houston had the ball with a three point lead with 90 some seconds to go in the game. Blame MDA and his 7-man rotation all you want, but it’s not like the Spurs went 12 deep in the series.
Game 6 hurts, and it’s going to hurt for a long time.
Trevor Ariza on Game 6: “That’s not going to be something you can forget. It’s always going to be there. That was terrible."
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) May 12, 2017
The feeling wasn’t just with the players though. D’Antoni’s most recent loss to Popovich surely will stick with him.
D'Antoni: "This will hurt us for awhile. It has to make us better next year."
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) May 12, 2017
Consider this from TheUndefeated.com:
“I really just didn’t have any rhythm from the beginning of the game,” Harden said postgame. “I felt like I was making some passes and we just didn’t knock down shots.”
“It’s frustrating, especially with how great of a year that we had,” Harden said. “To end like that is frustrating. I beat myself up for it a little bit. I can’t dwell on it too long.”
You catch that? “I beat myself up for a little bit”.
James Harden made his campaign slogan this year all about playing as much as possible and not wanting to take a rest, sit a game or two out. Maybe he should have. LeBron James sat out games unapologetically and the Cavs are 8-0 and firing on all cylinders. Perhaps Harden’s fatigue simply caught up to him.
You don’t need advanced stats to see that Harden’s production dipped in the postseason, assists going from 11.2 to 8.5, three-point shooting fell to an abysmal 27.8 percent, and his overall calling card of efficiency dropped.
D’Antoni, together with GM Daryl Morey, essentially gave the team the green light to shoot from deep. Let it fly. When it works, the Rockets are a sight to see and very difficult to beat. But Harden fell too in love with the three pointer himself.
Look at his 3PT Rate (percentage of total shots that are threes) during the regular season compared to the playoffs since the 2014-15 season:
2014-15: .378 regular season, .364 playoffs
2015-16: .406 regular season, .420 playoffs
2016-17: .493 regular season, .528 playoffs (!!!!!)
Now this would be perfectly fine if he were the Ray Allen, the Kyle Korver or the J.J. Redick of the team. But James was shooting all these threes with less than 30 percent accuracy. And a lot of them were contested looks early in the shot clock, where running a play would have done much better.
The loss of Nene hurt Houston as well–his groin injury left a noticeable void at center and he had been key on the defensive end of the floor. His physical play with Pau Gasol and Aldridge was part of the reason why Houston had won two games. Patrick Beverley, for all his intensity and grit, is not 6’10”, 280 pounds.
Once MDA moved Trevor Ariza to the four and Ryan Anderson to backup center, Aldridge had a field day getting literally whatever he wanted offensively. The Rockets could and very well should have won this series, but Spurs gonna Spur.
All things considered however, Houston had a great year and exceeded expectations. Experts and basketball minds alike had them finishing towards the bottom of the West, not contending for a title. Houston can’t just pat themselves on the back now because they proved everyone wrong. The question now becomes, where do they go from here? How can they take that next step?
I think rim protection is a perfect place to start. In the last three games with the Spurs, the Rockets gave up 62, 56 and 62 points in the paint. It was a layup line at times, way too easy for San Antonio to punish them inside. Houston can improve internally, given that it was Clint Capela‘s first full season and he made positive strides towards a fruitful career.
Capela said his primary goal is to keep getting stronger, bigger. "As I work, as I get stronger, will define as the team is going to be."
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) May 12, 2017
With regards to the free agent big man market, the Houston Rockets should give Greg Monroe a serious look. He would provide inside scoring as a low post threat to go along with solid rim protection. Nerlens Noel looks like he’s set to stay a Maverick, but Dewayne Dedmon and JaVale McGee could be seen as options as well. Nene’s best position is the backup 4 where he can utilize his midrange game, playing beside a true center.
Houston projects to have around $12 million in cap space to play with. For all the money they gave to Ryan Anderson, he came up pretty short in the postseason, shooting a woeful 12 percent from downtown at home. If they choose to move on from him and can find a suitable buyer, that adds several million dollars potentially to improve the squad.
Bringing in some defensive specialists like P.J. Tucker or Serge Ibaka would be ideal–perhaps a trade could take place with Toronto. The Rockets could use some grit and grind. April, May and June should be the goal when team building a contender.
Morey spoke about the idea of bringing in ball handling help for whenever Harden is on the bench. Last time they tried that experiment, the Ty Lawson fiasco blew up in their faces, so hopefully they’ve done their homework.
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Houston still has Troy Williams and Sam Dekker to continue to develop. If Dekker can find a consistent jumper, the Rockets have two 6’8″ 3-and-D swingmen ready to come in and contribute.
We live in a Daryl Morey world, so there’s always the chance that he might bring something in from left field a la Paul Millsap, Blake Griffin, Paul George or Gordon Hayward.
Even after such a disappointing (yet not all that unpredictable) exit, there are good feelings about Houston’s future. All and all, the Houston Rockets have a very young and flexible roster with James Harden running the show and a summer full of hope and possibilities. We just don’t know what the offseason will bring us. And that, in a sense, is familiar unfamiliarity.
Next: Top 5 point guards in Houston Rockets history
Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com.