Things haven’t quite gone that way.
Yes, Chris Paul and Clint Capela were re-signed, as Houston locked up its top two free agents to long-term deals. But Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute — both key cogs to Houston’s success last season — left in free agency, signing with the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively. The players Houston signed to replace them — Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis and, once he clears waivers Wednesday afternoon, Carmelo Anthony — feel like either awkward fits for how the Rockets play, or simply not the same caliber of talent as Ariza and Mbah a Moute.
That Carter-Williams, Ennis and Anthony together have a salary cap hit of about $4.5 million — compared to the $15 million Ariza got from Phoenix and the $4.3 million Mbah a Moute received from Los Angeles — makes it hard to ignore the likelihood they weren’t retained because of luxury tax concerns alone.
But when the question of whether Houston has taken a step back was posed to James Harden, the NBA’s reigning most valuable player, he didn’t hesitate: Absolutely not.
“No. You can go back to articles and conversations and people said, ‘Me and Chris can’t play together.’ [Then] we were the number one [team] in the NBA,” Harden said with a laugh after Team USA practice last week. “Obviously, you can look at a roster and look at different players and say that. But you have to be on that court and you’ve got to be in the trenches and be in the war.
“Eventually we will figure it out. We have enough leadership in that locker room and a great coaching staff to figure that out.”
Whether the Rockets have taken a step back or not, it is obvious that if Houston is going to come anywhere near replicating the success it had last year, it’s going to have to do so in a different way. From the first day of training camp last season, the Rockets built their team around a switching defense that emphasized its ability to have anyone on the court guard anyone else at any time.
It was a defense specifically wired to try to stop the Warriors — and, if Paul hadn’t blown out his hamstring in the final minute of Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, or if the Rockets hadn’t missed 27 straight three-pointers in Game 7, it might have accomplished its goal.
But even if one could argue Ariza, now 33, has lost a step, or that Mbah a Moute could be a risk moving forward after dislocating his shoulder twice last season, replacing them won’t be easy. Ennis is the kind of piece of raw clay that Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni has molded into an impact player in the past, but he’s never come close to providing the kind of impact at either end as Ariza and Mbah a Moute have.
Anthony, on the other hand, is coming off a season with the Oklahoma City Thunder in which he struggled to be a third option behind Russell Westbrook and Paul George — precisely the kind of role he will be playing in Houston. And, for all of his offensive gifts, Anthony has never been known as a defensive stopper.
There is a method to Houston’s madness, though — at least in the eyes of Eric Gordon, the other Rocket who was part of Team USA’s mini camp last week. It all goes back to that Game 7, and specifically Houston’s inability to make anything from deep over the final three quarters of that game.
If Houston had more of an offensive spark, things could have been a lot different.
“I still think we’re going to be a championship-caliber team, for sure,” Gordon said. “We did lose two dynamic guys that are really good defenders for us [Ariza and Mbah a Moute], really versatile guys. [But we] brought in guys that are also versatile, but more on the offensive side.
“We’re still going to be really good. When you look at that Warriors series, we just needed a little bit more scoring a little bit. We just hit a couple more threes, it would’ve been different even with guys injured. So we’re still in good position.”
The counterpoint to that is when Houston did try to deploy an offensive-first player in that Game 7 by playing Ryan Anderson in the third quarter, the Warriors promptly attacked him repeatedly, went on a quick 14-2 run and swung the game decisively in their favor.
Still, the Rockets deserve the benefit of the doubt after the season they had. The same goes for General Manager Daryl Morey, who always seems to have a trick up his sleeve.
One thing Houston won’t be lacking in, however, is motivation. After the way the West finals played out — with the Rockets, even without Paul, leading at halftime of both Games 6 and 7, before dropping both games — Harden said he hasn’t been able to let it go.
“That was a good feeling,” Harden said of winning the league’s MVP award, “but that feeling that I had in that Western Conference finals, with basically one half to go … I need that feeling back. I’ll try to work my butt off, and mentally lock in as much as I can to get back to that feeling.
“Like, you are right there. You’re a half away, and then something, just a roadblock hits you and you have to find a way to get past that roadblock. We couldn’t get past that roadblock. It was just too tough.
“We’ve got to get back there.”
For the next nine months or so, the focus will be on whether the moves the Rockets made this summer will allow them to — or whether Houston let its best chance at a title slip away this past season, done in by Paul’s balky hamstring and all those wayward three-pointers.
Just don’t expect Harden to agree with that assessment.
“What we have right now is for sure good enough,” he said. “We have to realize nothing changes for us. You’ve got to realize: that was me and Chris’s first year together. Guys were asking, ‘Can they play together? How is that going to work?’ We made it work, and it was easy.
“Once training camp hits, we’ll work our butts off, and every single day we’ll just continue to get better and keep chopping away.”