Houston Rockets Season Over, What’s Ahead?

Apr 18, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after the Rockets made a three point basket against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter in game two of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 18, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after the Rockets made a three point basket against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter in game two of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

Mercifully, the Golden State Warriors ended Houston’s 2015-2016 season. A season marked my turnover and turmoil and, no doubt, a precursor to turnover. At 41-41, a 15-win drop off from last season, this team is clearly in need of repair. I’m on record of not contributing to this great outlet as often as I should. I’m also on record for saying this season was a wash not long after we fired Kevin McHale.

The Rockets limped into the playoffs and were surrounded by rumors of internal strife every step of the way. What better way to address both of my deficiencies than by offering a retrospective and my thoughts going forward? The gift no one really wanted.

McHale’s Firing

I’ve opined on this in the past but now we have Morey’s comments on the firing. In his own words, Morey characterizes the termination; “Was the decision fair? No. Was it correct? That is unknown and we don’t know what coach McHale would have done if he stayed.” The firing happened because Morey believed a material change needed to be made. One can’t help but wonder how knee jerk the firing was when McHale describes the beginning of the season as Dwight unable to participate in back-to-back practices and Harden’s sprained ankle and weight issues.

All the same, this was the catalyst for the downward spiral of the Rockets. After a 4-7 start under McHale (36%-win percentage), the Rockets limped to a 37-34 finish (52%-win percentage). J.B. Bickerstaff’s stewardship of the roster in the wake of McHale’s firing is ultimately a Pyrrhic victory as the underwhelming end to the 2016 season after the rousing success of 2015 would diminish any progress Bickerstaff made.

Harden’s Regression and Harsh Reality

A lack of discipline became the hallmark of James Harden on the year. The Rockets franchise player was caught on camera drunk outside clubs plugging his shoe deal and pursuing Khloe Kardashian. This led to entry into training camp on a sprained ankle and overweight. On the floor, Harden’s mental focus seemed to lack for the early part of the season – and on the defensive side of the ball, all season. Rumors began to circulate about hostilities between James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Harden, to his credit, shouldered an offensive load most players shouldn’t have to. His teammates regressed to the point of disposability – resulting in jettisoning Ty Lawson, a useless Corey Brewer, less offensive usage of Howard, and question marks in the backcourt – which only demanded more of Harden’s offensive genius. On the season, Harden put up 29 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.1 rebounds per game. Those are superstar numbers.

The knock on Harden, though, has never been his production. It’s also consistently been his attitude and defensive commitment. What this season truly highlighted, though, is that the Rockets are still seeking a leader.

McHale served as a leader and players’ coach. This took the burden off any particular player to show leadership. In the wake of McHale’s firing, however, no one on the roster had that voice. Patrick Beverley had been marginalized by the Lawson acquisition, Harden had no interest in the role, and Howard most likely had little interest in the same. Jason Terry was vocal and has been a noted leader around the league, but the season leaves question marks as to his efficacy as a leader.

Instead, Harden is more in the mold of Tracy McGrady. A wildly productive player focused on his strengths and able to carry the team but not inspiring enough to have that same team fall behind him faithfully. To their credit, all the role players on the Rockets didn’t perpetuate the strife on the season. Behind the scenes, however, a fan is left to question their actual feelings.

The Next Coach

Bickerstaff is almost certain to receive his courtesy interview as lip service. With a 52%-win percentage to his credit and a front office focused on win-now (only to be bolstered by an exploding salary cap), the Rockets will have their sights set on a coach with a proven track record and commanding presence. The season emphasized the need for discipline, leadership, and the sort of resume players can respect. Unfortunately, that sort of coach doesn’t exist outside of San Antonio. So the Rockets will invariably settle for the best combination of those traits they can get.

The hot name linked to the Rockets if Jeff Van Gundy. It would be Van Gundy’s second tour of duty in Houston. In his tenure with the Rockets, Van Gundy posted a 53%-win percentage, an old school style of basketball predicated on an inside-out game of a star center and guard, and was generally hostile to analytic integration. Van Gundy also had to deal with chronic injuries and a team whose best player, at times, was Juwan Howard. In his career as a broadcaster, Van Gundy brings humor and personality along with a nominally strict delivery.

Fortunately, for the Rockets, this roster is in need of overhaul, so the next coach will be able to have their fingerprints on the team they’re inheriting almost out of the gate. The question for Houston, though, is whether they want to untangle so much of what they’ve practiced since Morey’s first day as general manager.

The Dwight Saga

Dwight Howard is most likely gone. That much is plainly evident. This season was so marred and he was so marginalized so as not to really justify his coming back. Howard markedly regressed posting 14 points, 12 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game on the year, so the desire to separate is most likely mutual. Moving Howard was rumored to be Houston’s priority at the trade deadline and, although that ultimately failed to materialize, the desperation to part ways with the center prior to exercising his option shows the organization ready to find a replacement.

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Dwight will have a difficult time making a case for his next contract to be nearly as lavish as Houston gave him. His productivity is down, his player efficiency rating is down, and his true shooting percentage is barely up. Injuries are nagging the big man and there is debate as to whether he could be a centerpiece of a team or merely a complementary center forced to focus on defense and rebounding.

The ultimate question for Dwight’s next contract and deal will be whether he can accept a more offensively talented Ben Wallace role rather than whether he can recover his classic Dwight shape.

The Future of Analytics

I was hammered on Twitter for posing an innocuous thought; with the failure of the Rockets, NBA teams may need to reevaluate the future of analytics. Simple enough but good enough to draw out the knives of NBA wonks. Lost amid the tumult of blaspheming the name of analytics, it seems, was a lack of a definition as to what it is. The Warriors and Spurs integrate analytics, so it must be great, right? The Rockets failure is their own.

Well, not exactly. Analytics in basketball is something more than acknowledging stats and using them. Analytics refines basketball down to a numbers game. To date, it’s widely mocked that analytics is “threes and layups.” It’s the formula Houston is based on, after all. Shot charts show player preferences and efficiencies to help piece sensible parts together. Analytics, however, has reached the point where players wear trackers to calculate total distance ran over a season. Clearly we’ve reached points of diminishing returns.

Analytics only takes you so far once you’ve distilled core concepts. While experimentation can lead to breakthroughs, it’s also necessary to acknowledge when we’ve moved past science and breached into alchemy. The Rockets had the analytical pieces. Those pieces failed them. The blueprint to an efficient team can be achieved through a combination of the NBA’s stats sites, Basketball Reference, and stat Austin Clemens.

What can’t be captured, though, are the things the Rockets lacked. Leadership, poise, and game management. The Spurs combine the old school with the modern and play to the strengths of their integral players. The Warriors barrage you with threes and almost improvise it from there. The Rockets focused on the threes and layup methodology and, to a large extent, perfected the methodology. Now, though, comes the intangibles of basketball. The team has been constructed and the theory practiced, now it’s time to refine it. Sometimes, refinement requires older methods. After all, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Daryl Morey’s Tenure and Legacy

This upcoming offseason will define Daryl Morey’s time as GM with the Rockets. Fair or not, Morey will be evaluated based on how he recovers from what may be the most disappointing season for Houston in the last decade. Last year the Rockets were one round away from the NBA Finals. This year, they had to scrap for the honor of being wrecked by the defending champions. That level of drop off should raise eyebrows with Rockets leadership. How he rebounds should determine their reaction.

Morey inherited a Rockets team with two broken stars and the financial flexibility of a graduate student with his loan forbearance gone. From that, Morey acquired James Harden, Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza (twice), Kevin Martin, and financial flexibility. Within that same range is a checkered draft history, the Royce White debacle, Terrence Williams’ failure, perplexing trade deadline tinkering, and more misses than hits in free agency.

Overall, Morey has been one of the better general managers in the league but, at the very least, it’s understandable why he’s not considered part of the elite. His teams have arguably had one successful season. Perhaps his greatest legacy is that he built a contender without ever bottoming out.

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These factors are all why Morey’s next season is the pivotal one. If Morey can convert this broken season into a successful offseason and strong 2016, the negatives dissipate. The coming offseason will require that Morey put together another star with Harden, solve the role player issue, and hire a coach capable of instilling championship discipline for 82 games and the postseason. Failure to do so will highlight that Morey’s drafts haven’t had much of a long term benefit to the team and reinforce Morey’s reputation as an asset gatherer and tinkerer rather than a man with a championship formula.

It’s unfair, to an extent, that a man who has not been given the opportunity to tank and get a top three pick is viewed in this light. It’s also worth noting that Morey acquired a former top 3 pick in Harden and a former number 1 overall pick in Howard. In the long arc of Morey’s tenure, he’s passed over Kawhi Leonard for the lesser half of the Morris twins.

The important takeaway is that Morey doesn’t need to deliver a coup this offseason to cement his legacy as one of the best GMs in Houston’s history – that much is firmly established. He merely has to deliver a team capable of competing with a coaching hire and the right offseason pieces in an offseason that is going to be rife with moving pieces.

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Next: Morey Explains The McHale Firing