On March 14, the Houston Rockets clinched a playoff spot.
It is an incredible turnaround compared to just last year, when the Rockets were below .500 for most of the season and only made the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. The Rockets will almost certainly finish with the third seed, with ESPN stating that they have a 98.4% chance at the third spot and a 99.9% chance of keeping home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight has the Rockets finishing out the season with 56 wins, the same amount as they had two years ago when they made the Western Conference Finals.
This will be Houston’s fifth straight trip to the postseason, which they have made every year since trading for James Harden. But Houston’s success is not just due to Harden. There is Pat Beverley, who is as beloved among Rockets fans today as scrappy, tough players like Chuck Hayes and Shane Battier were almost a decade ago. There are the shooters around Harden like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, and there are tough, big centers like Clint Capela and Nene.
The modern NBA is filled with stars teaming up with one another to form super teams. But what the Rockets have done is to remind everyone that basketball is a team game that is not just decided by a few superstars. The Rockets may have only one star in contrast to the other elite teams in the league. But what they lack in quality, they make up for in quantity and depth. Just like a good fantasy football team. If you want to learn more about that, see more here.
If anyone doubts the importance of depth, just look at Cleveland or Golden State. Even though the Cavaliers have three stars, it has become apparent this season that they live and die with LeBron James.
LeBron averages 37.5 minutes per game, the largest minutes total since he rejoined the Cavaliers, and yet Cleveland is in serious danger of losing the first seed. Despite the addition of players like Deron Williams, Larry Sanders, and Kyle Korver, the Cavaliers are 4-6 in their last 10 games. LeBron may claim that the Cavaliers have a lot of depth, but it clearly has not worked out so far.
Meanwhile, the Kevin Durant injury has caused the Warriors to play guys like Patrick McCaw, James McAdoo, and Matt Barnes’s corpse like they did Tuesday night when they barely eked out a win over the tanking 76ers. The Warriors may be a multi-star team, but they lack quality rotation players on their bench and Durant’s injury has blown that weakness wide open.
While other elite teams struggle to find rotation players because they have devoted so much money to their stars, the Rockets boast excellent depth. In contrast to past years when I would watch games in the second and fourth quarters counting the minutes until Harden could come back in, now I know the Rockets can survive with Lou Williams and Eric Gordon providing an offensive spark. Nene is an enforcer almost as tough as Beverley, and every single person in Houston’s rotation can contribute, with or without Harden.
None of this is to suggest that the Rockets do not need Harden. He is the linchpin through which this team runs, and the three-point shooters like Ryan Anderson and Beverley need Harden’s ability to create to get wide open shots.
But while Harden is necessary for the Rockets to potentially win a championship, the Rockets have managed to build a real supporting cast not with stars, but with depth. Once again, this time the Rockets under Daryl Morey have managed to retool themselves to become a new unit surrounding Harden with players that work well alongside him, and will now face what could be their best shot for a ring since 2009.
The 10-Year Saga of Daryl Morey and “Moreyball”
It has been over ten years since Daryl Morey took over as general manager of the Houston Rockets. Back then, the Houston Rockets had two stars in Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, but were capped out and had no young prospects to speak of after a disappointing 2005-06 season.
Today, the Rockets have three stars in James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela, but are once again capped out, have no real young prospects, and face a seemingly grim road towards returning to title contention. The Houston Rockets have the fifth-highest salary in the league, but are barely above .500 and not in the playoffs. Under such circumstances, you would normally see fans and journalists begin calling for the general manager’s head.
I am not arguing that Morey has not been an excellent GM. The Rockets managed to rebuild themselves after the Yao Ming era with arguably the greatest trade rip-off in NBA history in the Harden trade, and I will claim that last year’s Rockets are the greatest NBA team ever which did not win a ring. But a lot of what has defined the early years of the Moreyball era is gone, and the Rockets need that early magic to avoid being capped out and facing no path to a title.
Morey and Draft Picks
Beginning around 2010, Morey began talking about how the biggest value contract in the league was the superstar player. The logic is perfectly sound. As there is a maximum value on what superstars can earn, and since superstars have a disproportionate effect on the basketball court compared to other sports, getting a superstar on a max contract was in fact the true encapsulation of Moreyball.
But that was not what Moreyball was defined from 2007 to 2010, when the Rockets did have two superstars. Then, Moreyball was defined by getting good though not great players at an incredibly cheap price using a Dallas SEO company. Using advanced statistics, Morey uncovered gems such as Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, or Chase Budinger late in the draft. None of these players were stars, but they gave production wildly out of proportion with their miniscule salaries.
In fact, every dynasty needs players like these. The Warriors would not be the Warriors without finding Draymond Green with the 35th pick, and the Spurs famously found Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker late in the draft. And the Rockets did find Capela with the 25th pick in the 2014 draft.
But since then? Nothing. The Rockets just waived Zhou Qi, who now becomes another failure alongside Chinanu Onuaku or Sam Dekker. Gary Clark showed some promise early in the season, but his shooting numbers collapsed and he has played just 18 minutes total in games this December.
The fundamental story of this disappointing Rockets season is that while Harden has continued to be great, Houston’s other core rotation players have struggled and Morey completely failed to fill in the hole created by Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute’s departures. And while some of the blame can be laid on the Carmelo Anthony mess, the Rockets lack depth because Morey has failed to draft the young, decent late round prospects which once defined Moreyball.
Chasing the Big Name
And we cannot pretend that Morey holds no responsibility for the Carmelo Anthony mess. It is possible that Morey felt he had to sign Carmelo to make Harden and Paul happy, but we have no way of knowing if that is true. And the Carmelo Anthony saga is just another example of Morey trying to bring in the next star only for that go nowhere – remember Ty Lawson, guys?
Moreyball and Morey’s emphasis on advanced statistics was once supposed to be a revolutionary strategy which would help him recruit underrated gems. But as other teams have also jumped on the advanced stats revolution, the Rockets have failed to stay ahead and we have seen a greater reliance on this team getting conventional names like Lawson or Anthony. Both times, these players were supposed to find a new home in Houston and revitalize the team. Instead, both times they played key factors in creating disappointing seasons.
The last ten years under Morey have been filled with both great and frustrating moments for Rockets, from the thrill of chasing the Warriors last year to the struggles to get a star between Yao and Harden. But as the Rockets look at a disappointing, expensive season under a new owner, fans should realize that this is exactly the sort of environment which cause said new owners to decide on radical changes under new management.
The Houston Rocket’s Biggest Goats This Season
The 2018-19 season has started miserably for the Houston Rockets. Any hopes that this team was turning things around have been hit hard by Thursday’s defeat against an Oklahoma City team without Russell Westbrook. And while it is hard to believe that Houston will finish in the lottery, it seems all but certain that Houston will not push Golden State to the limit like they did last year.
Everyone on the Rockets bears some responsibility for this mess, from the highest star to the lowest benchwarmer to the front office. But certain problems and players in particular are holding this team back and could prevent any hopes of a sudden turnaround.
Melo to some degree has been unfairly targeted as the single scapegoat for all of Houston’s troubles, but he has hardly proven those who were skeptical of his signing wrong. On offense, he is averaging 13.4 points on 12.1 shots, only slightly more efficient than his time in Oklahoma City despite his reduced role. While he has been taking far fewer long mid-range jumper and more 3-pointers like he promised to do at the beginning of the season, shooting 32.8% from long range will not cut it.
And that does not even begin to touch on Carmelo, or the Rockets as a whole on defense. Houston’s switching defense requires cerebral players who know where they are supposed to go at all times, and the Rockets have watched players blow past Melo time and again.
If Carmelo was the only Rockets struggling off the bench, perhaps the Rockets could live with it. But Carmelo’s struggles become so much more apparent precisely because the Rockets bench as a whole has been disastrous.
Maybe Eric Gordon’s struggles can be excused due to injuries. But Gerald Green has failed to step up, shooting 36% from the field and 26% from 3. Michael Carter-Williams has been such a disaster after a promising preseason that he has been pulled out of the rotation altogether. The Rockets were supposed to compensate for Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute’s departure by adding other players, but those players have not delivered.
The other concerns about Houston’s bench depth is the total lack of a back up center to Clint Capela. This complete lack of insurance should be worrying. Isaiah Hartenstein has performed better than Rockets fans could have hoped, but the Rockets need Nene to come back from whatever is ailing him. Capela has always struggled with bulkier centers in the post like Marc Gasol or Brook Lopez, and Houston has been mauled badly on the boards in each one of their losses.
This is the big one. The Rockets can bench or even waive Carmelo. They can revitalize the bench by getting players off the scrap heap or getting healthy. But if Chris Paul plays like this, there is nothing Morey or anyone else with the Rockets can do to make a comeback.
Paul has never been a true volume scorer, but so far this season he is shooting less than 40% from the field and 27% from long range. His turnovers are higher than they have ever been, and he just appears slow and off in all of his games. Houston’s offense and inability to score has been the biggest cause for their malaise, and that exists because Paul has been unable to be the offensive monster he normally is.
Tim McMahon with ESPN reports that Paul has a right elbow injury, and Rockets fans can hope that Paul will improve. But we also knew that Paul would have injury concerns throughout the years. Paul’s decline is also much scarier than Melo’s or Gordon’s struggles given the massive 4-year contract Houston gave him this summer. Everyone knew that the latter years of said contract, where Paul will be making $44 million at the age of 36, will likely be painful. But if it becomes a bad contract starting now, Houston could be in serious trouble for the next several seasons.
Rockets Land Jersey Sponsor Deal with ROKiT Phones
Befitting of their names, regardless of how they are spelled, the Houston Rockets have reached a jersey sponsor deal with RoKit Phones, according to a team announcement.
“We were patient in deciding on our inaugural jersey partner and are thrilled to select ROKiT, a company which shares our commitment to excellence both on and off the court,” Rockets Chief Executive Officer Tad Brown said.
“We have high expectations heading into this season and look forward to introducing our fans to the quality products and high level of service that ROKiT offers.”
The team added the following:
“The partnership also includes select ROK Drinks brands, with three lounges at the team’s Toyota Center arena to be rebranded as Bogart’s Lounge, ABK Beer Garden and Bandero Tequila Terrace.”
Proud to announce a multi-year partnership with ROKiT Phones that includes designating ROKiT as our inaugural jersey partner! The ROKiT logo will be featured on all Rockets jerseys beginning with the current season. Welcome to the squad, @ROKiTOfficial! 📝 https://t.co/Rz2RTpk5iX pic.twitter.com/zOACj2SOwK
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) October 16, 2018
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