After reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2015 the Houston Rockets entered last season with hopes of making a run at the top spot in the West. But things were seemingly doomed from the beginning, with a slow start resulting in the firing of Kevin McHale after just 11 games and the team needing a late surge to grab the last available playoff spot in the West. Now with a new head coach in Mike D’Antoni, who brings with him a philosophy far different than the one employed by J.B. Bickerstaff, the Rockets will look to rebound with one of the NBA’s best players leading the way.
While critiqued frequently for his effort on the defensive end of the floor, guard James Harden is one of the NBA’s most productive players regardless of position. An all-star selection in each of his four seasons in Houston, Harden averaged 29.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists per contest last season. The question now is how D’Antoni will mold his offensive system, one that places a high priority on tempo, to best suit the talents of Harden.
The other major question for Houston will be how they account for the departure of center Dwight Howard, with it becoming quite clear as the 2015-16 season progressed that both parties were in need of a change of scenery. Howard’s production dipped in each of his three seasons with the Rockets, with his scoring average of 13.8 points per game in 2015-16 being the lowest since his rookie year. With a revamped front court led by free agent acquisitions Ryan Anderson and Nene, Houston will look to reach the playoffs with far greater ease in 2016-17.
Here’s a look at the roster:
Rockets Projected Starting Lineup
G: Patrick Beverley (9.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.4 apg) Beverley started 63 of the 71 games in which he played last season, with his defense and being able to play without having the ball in his hands all that often being the reasons why. And unlike in season past, he arrives in camp as the clear starter at the point.
G: James Harden (29.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 7.5 apg) One of the best in the NBA at getting to the foul line, Harden averaged just over ten free throw attempts per contest last season. Ranking second in the NBA in scoring, Harden was also eighth in player efficiency rating (PER), third in offensive win shares and sixth in overall win shares.
F: Trevor Ariza (12.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg) A good defender on the wing, Ariza has started all 163 regular season games (out of a possible 164) that he’s played in for the Rockets over the last two years. He’s dependable, and if the Rockets are to improve defensively the UCLA product will have to be a factor on that end of the court.
F: Ryan Anderson (17.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) One of the better stretch forwards in the NBA, Anderson’s capable of stepping out beyond the three-point line and making shots at a solid clip. Houston was one of the NBA’s most efficient offensive teams last season (ranking seventh), and Anderson can ensure that this remains the case. But, like Gordon, injuries have been an issue throughout Anderson’s career as he’s played more than 66 games in a season just once (2012-13).
F/C: Clint Capela (7.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg) The Rockets’ second-leading rebounder last season, Capela (35 starts) served primarily as Howard’s backup at the center position. Capela, who seemed to have better chemistry with Harden in the pick and roll than Howard, will now go from being a valuable reserve to a starter. How he handles the adjustment will have a significant impact on the Rockets’ rate of success this season.
Rockets Projected Bench
G: Eric Gordon (15.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.7 apg) A free agency signing who played his last five seasons in New Orleans, Gordon is a solid perimeter shooter. However, in averaging 15.2 points per game last season he shot just 41.8 percent from the field and 38.4 percent from three. And it should also be noted that he’s played more than 64 games in a season just once in his NBA career.
G/F: Corey Brewer (7.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg) Brewer primarily served as Ariza’s backup at the three last season, with his willingness to defend and do the “little things” ensuring him of a spot in the rotation. Brewer shot just 38.4 percent from the field and 27.2 percent from three in 2015-16. He’ll have to fend off Sam Dekker and K.J. McDaniels to remain in that role.
F: Sam Dekker (No stats recorded) Dekker, the Rockets’ first round pick in last year’s NBA Draft, played in just three games thanks to a back injury. Now healthy, Dekker has the offensive skill set to fit into what D’Antoni has traditionally done in his NBA coaching career. Dekker, Brewer and McDaniels will be in a fight for that role as Ariza’s backup.
G/F K.J. McDaniels (2.4 ppg, 1.1 rpg) A good athlete who defends his position well, McDaniels will look to not only strengthen his position in the Rockets’ rotation but also challenge Corey Brewer for the backup wing spot. McDaniels played just over six minutes per game in 37 appearances last season.
F: Montrezl Harrell (3.6 ppg, 1.7 rpg) A high-energy player, Harrell should earn more playing time after seeing action in just 39 games a season ago. The Louisville product split time between Houston and Rio Grande Valley (the team’s D-League affiliate) in 2015-16, getting valuable playing time before rejoining the parent club for the playoffs.
F/C: Nene (9.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg) With Howard moving on the Rockets signed Nene to help with filling that void. At 6-foot-11 Nene certainly has the size for the center position, and his individual defensive rating of 103 was slightly better than the number produced by Howard last season (104). He’ll be the first big off the bench, usually to spell Capela at the center spot.
Other Players in Rockets Training Camp
G Bobby Brown: Brown’s had a lengthy professional career, with most of it being spent overseas. He’ll be a reserve in Houston, with his role being more important early on as Patrick Beverley’s injured and expected to miss anywhere from four to six weeks.
G Tyler Ennis: Ennis was traded to Houston from Milwaukee, with the Bucks receiving forward Michael Beasley. The Syracuse product has the potential to add extra depth at the point guard position, provided he win a three-player competition for the third PG spot.
F Chinanu Onuaku: Onuaku performed well in summer league action out in Las Vegas, and he’ll have a good shot at making this roster. He could go back and forth between the parent club and the D-League, as Harrell did last season.
F Kyle Wiltjer: A face-up four man with range out beyond the three-point line, Wiltjer will look to earn a spot on the Rockets’ 15-man roster. Like Taylor, Payton II and Brown, Montiejunas’ contract situation has kept Wiltjer from signing a contract but he will be in camp.
Rockets Coaching Staff
Head coach: Mike D’Antoni (First season; 455-426 career record.)
Assistant coaches: Jeff Bzdelik, Greg Buckner, T.R. Dunn, Chris Finch, Brett Gunning
UPDATE (10/16): The Rockets waived point guard Isaiah Taylor.
UPDATE (10/24): The Rockets waived guards Gary Payton II, Pablo Prigioni and P.J. Hairston.