Houston Rockets far from championship contenders

Posted by Zach Tennen on September 01, 2014 · 10 mins read

“Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets,” James Harden recently said after big off-season changes.  ”The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team.  We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces.  I think we’ll be fine next season.”

Rockets’ superstar James Harden wasn’t necessarily wrong when making those comments — The Rockets acquired Dwight Howard a year ago in hopes of building around he and Harden. That being said, Harden’s comments fall short of encouraging the rest of his teammates.

Former teammate Chandler Parsons took offense to Harden’s comments, calling them ridiculous. Parsons felt he deserved more than the role player label in Houston — which had to play some role in his decision to sign a $45 million offer sheet with state rival, Dallas — and I cannot blame him for that.

Houston let Parsons walk to Dallas and replaced him with Trevor Ariza for half the price. Ariza is an older wing and does not have the offensive versatility of Parsons, but he is an upgrade on the defensive end.  Ariza sticks to his man more consistently; the final play Parsons had in a Rockets jersey exemplifies his present short comings as an on-ball defender.

That being said, Parsons does cover a lot of ground. He ranked ninth in the NBA in distance traveled during the regular season, and was tops in the NBA in distance traveled per game at 2.7 miles. Aside from Patrick Beverly, Parsons was the best the Rockets had at covering the perimeter, which is indicative of one of Houston’s largest problems a year ago.

Houston desperately needed to improve its perimeter defense, and Ariza for $8 million a season accomplishes that.  But by doing that Houston has lost a dynamic offensive force.  The Rockets excelled with their fast-paced offensive attack the past two seasons with Harden and Parsons; things will be different in Houston next season.

The Rockets also traded away a middling Jeremy Lin, a point guard who was once the hot topic of the NBA, and now is an overpriced backup. When the Rockets dealt he and a first-round pick to the Lakers, they thought it was in an effort to clear cap space to sign Chris Bosh, which badly backfired.

Without much depth at point guard, head coach Kevin McHale is committed to the ultra scrappy defender Patrick Beverley at lead guard — and not much else.

The Rockets also, predictably, traded away 7-footer Omer Asik.  The big man had been grumbling about losing his starting job ever since Howard arrived in Houston.  And he had a point; Asik’s defensive efficiency in the paint and ability to grab ten or more rebounds a game should warrant him a permanent starting job.

Much like the Lin trade, the Rockets are sacrificing depth (and draft picks) for cap space. Even with Kevin Love ending up in Cleveland, there are plenty of big names Houston might be targeting via trade between now and February’s trade deadline. (Remember: Houston was hunting Rajon Rondo last season, and could be planning to revisit those trade talks.)

Now Houston is left with exactly what James Harden wants: he and Howard as the franchise cornerstones, and a handful of role players around them. Again, Harden’s point is that every team has a hierarchy of talent, and elite guard/center combinations have been successful throughout NBA history. From The Big O and Kareem, to Kobe and Shaq, then Wade and Shaq and Kobe and Pau Gasol.

But is Harden and Howard in the same stratosphere as Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar?

As much as I love Harden’s game, he is ultimately a one-way player. Yes, he is one of the league’s most clutch players. Yes, he can be nearly unstoppable driving the ball to the rim. However, his defensive presence makes his true value a highly debatable topic. Harden doesn’t show the urge or effort to become a good defensive player night-in and night-out. Most talented guards in the Western Conference can burn Harden on a consistent basis.

(Sidebar: Brian Windhorst told Bill Simmons on the B.S. Report last week that Harden was playing really hard defense 1 on 1 against Paul George and Kevin Durant after team practices at Team USA. Does Harden not respect the games as much as he does playing his friends?)

Dwight Howard has been one of the most dominant defensive players of the century.  But he’s not as domineering on the offensive end, though he has shown some improvement over the years on the block and has averaged 17 ppg or more each season since 2006.

However, Dwight is just not a natural scorer.  He doesn’t have anything close to Shaq-like abilities on the block. Howard shot a dismal 42 percent on shots between five and nine feet last season.

Before landing Howard, the Rockets were trying to move the ends of the Earth to pair Harden with another superstar. Since adding Howard, the Rockets have aimed all of their resources — including renouncing Parsons’ final year under contract with the team for less than $1 million — at adding a third star player. Houston, thus, became the big loser of the summer after striking out with two high-profile forwards, Carmelo Anthony and Bosh.

Their consolation prize ended up being Ariza, but ironically, at the price of losing Parsons.  Again, Ariza is not a bad player by any means.  He is actually a very useful two-way player.  But with Houston’s lack of depth, Ariza needs to live up to Parsons status, or better, offensively.

Ariza shot a career-high 40.7 percent from deep with Washington last season.  He also ranked ninth in the NBA in catch-and-shoot efficiency, which is important considering how much Harden pounds the ball.  But that was in a contract year.  Therefore, it remains to be seen whether Ariza will fill in the shoes of Parsons, who was a big part of Houston’s offensive scheme.

The Rockets may have struck out in free agency but a consolation is they very well could have picked the steal of the draft in Nick Johnson.  Johnson is certainly a first-round talent.  He is a terrific athlete and a highly motivated defender.  His 6-3 height is all that held him back from being a top 20 pick.

Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas will likely be Houston’s pair of power forwards.  Jones has a lot of potential and showed flashes of greatness last season.  He is already a very efficient rebounder and vicious player in terms of attitude and aggression.

It remains to be seen whether Jones’ offensive game will take that leap in order to make Houston a big threat in the West.  Motiejunas was one of the stars of the Vegas Summer League.  But so far in the big leagues, he has made a very minimal impact.  This season could be make it or break it for Motiejunas.

Last but not least, Troy Daniels emerged straight out of the D-League as a sharpshooting threat last season.  He is no Ray Allen, but as he continues to improve, the damage he does on catch-and-shoot situations could be similar to that of Allen.

Having talented young players, for most franchises, is a blessing. For Houston, all four of these names will be included in trade rumors between now and February. GM Daryl Morey knows what he wants, and that’s stockpiling assets and aiming high.

Outside of Harden, Ariza, and Howard, Houston has very limited proven talent.  You look at a team like the Spurs who have a slew of options on offense.  Even the less experienced Blazers have a starting lineup full of high-caliber players.  It is not just based on talent, but those two teams make everything fit together.

To sum it all up, the Rockets definitely lost more than they gained this off-season.  In an extraordinarily tough Western Conference, not many teams are guaranteed a playoff spot.

Harden may consider the rest of the guys to be role players. However, in order for Houston to have a successful season, those role players will need to find a specific niche and be able to deliver on a nightly basis.