Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller are previewing all 30 teams via conversation. Next up: the Houston Rockets. Find all of the Flanns and Zillz previews here.
FLANNERY: What a strange couple of years the Rockets have had. From rising force to dysfunctional disaster to whatever they are right now. Good lord, what are they right now?
Rather than getting lost in the weeds, let's start with the single most important thing about their season. Mike D'Antoni wasted no time declaring that James Harden is the point guard, for lack of a better term. Positions don't matter all that much in MDA's system, but still this is an interesting development in their partnership.
Do you think this pairing will work?
ZILLER: Positions don't matter to D'Antoni, but point guards do. Unfortunately, the Rockets don't have anything like a D'Antoni point guard.
Harden is the best thing going on Houston, and is probably the third-best offensive player in the league behind Curry and Durant. Putting the ball in his hands as much as possible makes complete sense, as it has for two years. Getting Houston into early offense with its athletes and an aggressive Harden also makes complete sense. This is a good plan. I don't worry at all about ball movement, especially given how Kobe performed under D'Antoni while Steve Nash was struggling with injury.
Defense is where all of this team's problems will come. Giving Harden total control of the offense for 38-40 minutes a night isn't going to help him be a better defender. Dwight Howard, still a capable rim defender, is gone, with the aging Nene and promising but unproven Clint Capela taking over. Ryan Anderson is a defensive problem and Eric Gordon hasn't shown much excellence on that end in recent years. Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and Corey Brewer are going to get worn out! This is a bottom-10 defense in all likelihood.
Do you see a way around that?
ZILLER: I'm glad we agree.
The Dream Shake season preview
The Dream Shake season preview
FLANNERY: Moving on, there's clearly enough talent on this roster to return to the playoffs. And to be fair, there are a handful of quality defenders. I like Capela and am excited to watch him develop this season. But this is really all about two people: Harden and D'Antoni.
Both are in need of an image refresher. Oddly, both also have vocal defenders (no pun intended) who will loudly shout that they need no such thing and we are all morons for missing their essential genius. I disagree with the latter premise, obviously, but I do think both Harden and MDA are talented people who can do good things together.
Bottom line: I think they can slot in there with Portland and OKC in the jumbled West race for a top-four seed, but that's as far as I'm willing to go. You?
ZILLER: I think that's fair. A top-five offense with a lousy defense can get you 50 wins, and there's a non-zero chance this team could exceed that. While I would have rather have seen Houston tap a defense-first coach, I'm real excited to see what D'Antoni does with this level of offensive firepower.
Houston could be the No. 2 seed or the No. 8 seed, really. That depends on just how bad the defense will be and what everyone other than Harden does in D'Antoni's system.
Daryl Morey has two more years on his contract. If Houston doesn’t advance deep into the postseason, should he be worried?
FLANNERY: Nah, I don’t think so. Morey has built competitive teams over the years. He’s taken risks that have worked (Harden and Howard did make the conference finals, after all) and been smart about free agency, trades, and the draft. You can only do so much as a general manager. Just ask Morey’s former boss, Danny Ainge.
Now, one can quibble about the overall approach to team building. There were legitimate questions about the Rockets’ chemistry last season, and given Morey’s analytical bend, it’s fair to ask how much human emotions figure into his decision-making. It’s just sitting right there, whether you think those things are important or not.
All that said, Morey has bet big on Harden as a top-line player. My personal belief is that defense matters a lot and Harden’s indifference on that end leaves him out of the discussion. (We’re talking top-five here.) He’s also betting on D’Antoni, who is also a polarizing figure. If it works, great. Morey’s genius is vindicated. If it doesn’t ...