Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni
When Daryl Morey brought in Mike D’Antoni to coach the Houston Rockets it was viewed as a match made in heaven. The analytically adherent Morey had finally partnered with the father of modern offensive basketball.
Their tenure together was a rousing success if you ignore the lack of a championship. The saddest part about this partnership was that it had to contend with the greatest NBA dynasty since the Michael Jordan Bulls.
The Golden State Warriors, due to exceptional drafting and development, assembled a championship-core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. The trio were all under contract for incredibly low sums which allowed them to add Kevin Durant due to a well-timed salary-cap spike.
The environment that fostered the Warriors’ rise was unprecedented and allowed for one of the league’s greatest teams to be assembled right as the Rockets reached their peak. The trauma of coming up short likely led both Morey and D’Antoni to head elsewhere to collect that elusive championship, but the imprint they left on the franchise was an incredibly positive one.
Russell Westbrook was awesome last season but it remains a question if he made the Rockets much better. That’s understandable because he was swapped for Chris Paul who like Westbrook is a future Hall of Famer.
The statistical output from Westbrook last season simply won’t be replaced. Westbrook’s season averages of 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7 assists per game are numbers that only a few players in history can dream of.
However, Westbrook’s absence will open up more opportunities for other players to shine and will provide the Rockets with something they lacked last season, offensive balance. James Harden and Russell Westbrook finished 3rd and 5th in usage rate last season and posted the two highest rates of isolation possessions.
When either one of them is on there is precious little defenses can do but the Rockets’ offense became incredibly predictable. It was Harden or Westbrook rampaging through a defense and trying to create shots.
When the Rockets were without Westbrook in the playoffs due to injury their ball movement increased and they were able to create high-quality shots through simple passages of play. Losing Westbrook will hurt but it will allow the Rockets to have a more balanced approach on offense and ultimately it could see them improve.
Clint Capela may have departed last season but his name bears mention. The Swiss center was the Rockets’ go-to screen setter in the pick and roll before Mike D’Antoni decided that James Harden isolations would be the staple of the offense.
Capela was a good defender but not elite enough to offset his limited offensive scope. With a new coach and system, Capela would have likely refound his purpose in this iteration of the Rockets.
His departure was felt last season in the playoffs against the Lakers but for the most part, the Rockets were fine without him. Players with Capela’s skill set can be found readily in free agency nowadays and for way less than the $16 million he’s going to cost the Hawks this year.
Players like Austin Rivers don’t win teams championships, but in another sense they do. Rivers was on a minuscule contract and soaked up minutes in the Rockets backcourt to keep Harden and Westbrook at their best.
Rivers can be easily replaced but it’ll be hard for them to find someone at such a small cost, his salary was only $2.1 million last season. Hopefully, Chris Clemons can rise to the occasion, but if it feels like the Rockets bench unit is a discombobulated mess at times it’s because they lack a player like Rivers.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the micro ball experiment was the Jeff Green small-ball center extraordinaire. It’s not often that a player in their mid-30’s can learn a new position on the fly and thrive but that’s exactly what Green was able to do.
In reality, the loss of Green shouldn’t hurt the Rockets much. The team appears to be moving away from strict micro ball lineups, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Green was waived by the Utah Jazz last season while playing power forward.
The 18 games he played for the Rockets saw him post some of the best shooting efficiency numbers of his career but over a full season, it’s unlikely he would have kept them up. As awesome as micro ball Jeff Green it was likely a one-hit-wonder but I don’t want to steal his sunshine.
Of all of the Rockets’ notable departures, the loss of Robert Covington will loom largest. The defensive versatility that he possesses allows him to make just about any lineup work.
Need someone to shut down a wing? Covington has got you covered. Need a small-ball center? Covington again. Want to play a defensively limited center, wing, or guard? Covington can patch all of that up.
While his defensive abilities are fantastic, Covington was not very effective for the Rockets on offense. In his brief spell in Houston, he only hit 31.5-percent of his 3-pointers and that was a continuation of a troubling trend for him.
Over Covington’s last two seasons he was moved at midseason and saw his 3-point percentage decline. With Philadelphia in 2018-19, he hit 39-percent of his 3-pointers, which dropped to 37.2-percent after a mid-season trade to Minnesota. He then hit 34.6-percent of his 3-pointers for the Timberwolves to start the 2019-20 season, before that number dropped further to 31.5-percent for the Rockets.
One of Covington’s calling cards was his reliable 3-point stroke but with his diminishing effectiveness, he has gone from a 3-and-D maestro to just a defensive asset. The Rockets may rue their decision to give up on him if his shot returns but his departure made space for their most exciting addition.
Next: What have the Rockets added?