More than anything, they had confidence that it was all going to work.
And it did. The Rockets won 65 games and pushed the Golden State Warriors to the absolute brink before losing in seven games in the Western Conference finals.
This year? Well, this year — at least through Houston’s opening five games — hasn’t gone quite like that.
Instead, Houston is 1-4 and preparing to host the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night. They’ll need to every second of that time to sort out their issues.
Some of the problems are obvious. Losing Paul for two games for his role in the fracas with Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram at Staples Center isn’t helpful. (Ironically, though, that was Houston’s lone win this season.) Neither is losing Harden to a hamstring strain, or seeing their former lead defensive assistant, Jeff Bzdelik, choose to retire on the eve of training camp.
Those facts alone, though, don’t explain away all of Houston’s woes. The Rockets are 26th in the NBA in defense, after ranking sixth a year ago. They are 26th in the NBA in net rating, getting outscored by over nine points per 100 possessions, after leading the league in that category a year ago.
Some of those issues can be explained away by both bad luck and small sample size. The Rockets rank 28th in field goal percentage on wide open shots (35.6 percent), per NBA.com, and 27th on three-pointers in the same scenario (32.6 percent). Both those numbers should go up given how explosive Houston’s offense is when it’s clicking.
But some of them could go back to how the Rockets handled their summer, which was in stark contrast to what they did last year, when they made moves to give themselves the kind of defensive spine necessary for elite teams.
This summer was, to put it mildly, a little different. They retained Paul, and re-signed Capela to a below-market deal.
But the Rockets also made several moves designed to do nothing but lessen the load on new owner Tilman Fertitta’s wallet. It was understandable not to match the deal Ariza got with the Phoenix Suns, a one-year, $15 million pact, which would’ve pushed Houston’s total payroll and luxury tax commitments well past $200 million. The same goes for not matching Mbah a Moute’s one-year, $4.3 million deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. If Houston was concerned about his multiple shoulder dislocations last year, that left him as a risk the team couldn’t afford.
But why did Houston not use its mid-level exception on anyone? And why did the Rockets send both Ryan Anderson, who is at least a useful regular-season player, and young, athletic rookie De’Anthony Melton to the Phoenix Suns for a pair of non-entities in Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss? It’s hard to ascribe the motive for either of those moves to anything other than saving Fertitta money.
“I am here to win championships,” Fertitta told reporters in Houston last month. “I’m not going to let five or 10 or 15 or 20 million dollars make the difference.”
Those comments came on the heels of Fertitta telling ESPN.com earlier this summer that he’d never once discussed the luxury tax with his front office.
Given how the Rockets acted this summer, it’s hard to take either comment seriously. And the skepticism voiced by many coaches and executives around the league about the way the Rockets handled their summer has rang true thus far.
Instead of having Ariza and/or Mbah a Moute, the Rockets have three players playing on veteran’s minimum contracts in their roles — James Ennis, Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams. Ennis, 28, was a sound flier, and could eventually become something like what Mbah a Moute was last year. For now, he is sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Anthony and Carter-Williams have struggled early on. While Anthony is predictably useful offensively, making a respectable 37 percent of his six three-point attempts per game, he’s been torched defensively. When he’s on the court, Houston is allowing teams to score 116.5 points per 100 possessions.
Carter-Williams has been at best a borderline NBA player for years now, and has shown himself to be no different for the Rockets. In 76 minutes over the first five games, the Rockets have been outscored by 34 points with him on the court and are allowing opponents to score 121.6 points per 100 possessions.
A career 25 percent three-point shooter, Carter-Williams is shooting exactly that from deep thus far. There’s little reason to expect that to change.
The Rockets have had a tough schedule. Their first five games, against the Lakers, Clippers (twice), New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz, have all come against teams in the mix for a playoff spot. The injuries haven’t helped, nor has the bad luck on open looks — all of which should improve with time.
But the Rockets kept insisting all summer they’d be just fine and that the changes they made would work out. And, in the end, they may prove to be right.
The early returns tell a different story.
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