Both the Houston Rockets' star player and new coach have an opportunity to prove themselves all over again in 2016-17. Here's why it's crucial for the team's future that they do so.
When you get right down to it, there have really been three big themes to the Rockets' offseason. Since losing in the first round to the Warriors to cap off an underwhelming 2015-16 campaign, the Rockets have made several moves and attempted a few others. But it boils down to:
1. Hiring Mike D'Antoni
2. Waving goodbye to Dwight Howard
3. Extending James Harden
Les Alexander and Daryl Morey showed their hand with those three moves. For one, this is Harden's team, and the departure of the elusive second star (Howard) indicates the Rockets' plan to build their future around Harden. The renegotiate-and-extend with Harden buys them some time to reload the roster without the fear of losing their cornerstone in free agency. Harden seems to be as committed to the Rockets as they are to him. This is a good thing. D'Antoni is a big name that will bring a fast-paced system to Houston. The Rockets are already known for their love of 3-pointers and layups/dunks. Now they will be looking to get those shots up faster. The additions of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon should finally give Harden reliable 3-point shooting at his side at all times. But the Rockets are basically doubling down on offensive output with a hope and a prayer that a new coach and new faces will inspire more defensive intensity. The defense will be bad, it's plain to see from the makeup of their roster. But a change in attitude will hopefully improve their effort, which is half the battle.
Going forward, the overwhelming theme to 2016-17 is redemption, reclamation, image rehabilitation. The two faces of Rockets basketball now - Harden and D'Antoni - both have doubters to silence and past glory to rediscover. Harden has been seen at the Drew League in L.A. doing his thing, a positive sign after last summer's well-publicized Kardashian-ing. He showed up out of shape a season ago which led to a slow start and coach Kevin McHale's ouster. When focused on both ends, Harden can be a top-5 player in the NBA. Despite putting up his customary big numbers, he got into trouble last year by snoozing on defense and leading the league in turnovers on offense. Some of this can be chalked up to workload, as nobody plays more minutes or shoulders as much of a scoring/playmaking burden as Harden. That certainly takes a toll on his energy available for defense. He was the runner-up to Steph Curry for MVP in 2014-15 on a team that he led to the Western Conference Finals. One year later, the haters and doubters are out. He has a target on his back, as nothing is reviled by pundits more than an apparent lack of effort. But Harden has a tremendous opportunity to guide this team back to respectability and prove that last year was a blip on his career radar.
My concern, with the caveat that of course Drew League lends itself to one-on-one showcases, is that Harden is often a black hole with the ball in his hands and recent video (starting around 1:50 mark) shows no changes to that trend. The offense is called "7 seconds or less," not "James dribbles for 11 seconds and surveys things before shooting a fade-away."
Harden did compare himself to Steve Nash yesterday, somewhat curiously. But at least he's starting to wrap his head around what he needs to do in a D'Antoni offense to be successful. Namely, cut down on turnovers, keep the ball moving and create easy shots.
D'Antoni enjoyed almost unheard of success for a new coach in his time in Phoenix. The Suns won 60+ games twice under his direction as he ushered in a change to the way NBA offense is played. After many playoff heartbreaks, D'Antoni and the Suns parted ways as he became one of the hottest coaches on the open market. He signed on to coach in the bright lights of New York City, but never recaptured his success in the desert, winning 32, 29, 42 and 18 games in three and a half rough seasons. Then it was on to the other glamor market across the country, Los Angeles. His two-season stint with the Lakers ended with a miserable 27-55 campaign. He resigned after that 2013-14 season and hasn't coached since. At one time a name-brand coach who turned all he touched to gold, D'Antoni keeps getting further and further away from his Suns success. No one calls him a genius anymore, except in retrospect. This Rockets stint is maybe his last chance to prove he hasn't lost it and that the game hasn't passed him by. I can't wait to see what he does with Harden running the show and so much on the line for both men and, in turn, Rockets basketball.
The Rockets aren't going to win a championship this season. But they can be good, maybe really good. The focus for 2016-17 needs to be improving on last season's win total, building momentum around a new coach's philosophy and making Houston an NBA free agent destination again. It's not surprising they couldn't land any big fish this summer after the tire fire last season. But the city of Houston offers a lot to like for star professional basketball players. Once the product on the court improves and guys start having fun playing for the Rockets again, snagging one or two of next year's prized free agents will be more realistic.
Everyone loves a good redemption story. The Rockets have the potential for two gigantic ones this season. I'll bring the popcorn.