Houston Rockets 2015-16 Season Preview
2014-15 Record: 56-26, No. 1 Southwest Division, No. 2 Western Conference
Roster Additions: Will Cummings, Sam Dekker (rookie, No. 18 overall), Montrezl Harris (rookie, No. 32 overall), Arsalan Kazemi, Ty Lawson, Denzel Livingston, Joshua Smith, Marcus Thornton, Jeremy Tyler, Chris Walker
Roster Subtractions: Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson, Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni, Josh Smith
SBN Affiliate: The Dream Shake
In 2014-15, the Houston Rockets had an interesting season. They suffered through key injuries and were seemingly never at full health, yet they managed to advance to the Western Conference Finals as the second seed.
Superstar center Dwight Howard missed 41 games, exactly half the season. Starting power forward Terrence Jones missed 33 games with a nerve issue in his leg. Starting point guard Patrick Beverly missed most of November with a hamstring injury, and then tore a wrist ligament in March. Finally, Donatas Montiejunas, who was so steady in the frontcourt while Jones and Howard were out, went down late in the season with a back injury.
This describes your typical "coulda, woulda, shoulda" team right? Wrong. Houston never faltered, even as they were bitten by the injury bug seemingly every month. While midseason acquisitions Josh Smith and Corey Brewer played key roles in keeping Houston competitive, this was largely due to the play of one James Harden. Love him or hate him, Harden absolutely dominated last year, averaging 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 10.2 free throw attempts per game.
The Rockets' style of play fits Harden's game perfectly, as it places a premium on pace (second in the league at 96.5, according to basketball-reference.com), the 3-pointer (most attempts in the league at 32.7 per game), and free throws (second highest in the league at 26 attempts per game). Harden attempted 6.8 3-pointers per game and actually shot 170 more free throws than the player with the second highest total, Russell Westbrook.
Almost as importantly, Harden went from being a laughably bad defender (with nearly legendary YouTube lowlights to match) to adequate in just one season, pulling in 4.2 defensive win shares and a 103 DRtg, according to basketball-reference. Partnered with standout defender Beverly and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Howard, Harden and the Rockets had the 8th best defensive rating in the league last season.
Due to the aforementioned combination of offensive firepower and commitment to defense, the Rockets managed to navigate the entire season without a single three-game losing streak. In the first round of the playoffs, Houston handily disposed of their inter-state rivals, the Dallas Mavericks. In the second round, Houston escaped with the series in seven games against the Clippers after an epic come back (or epic Clipper choke job) from being down three games to one in the series.
Houston finally met their end in the Conference Finals against Steph Curry (averaging over 31 points per game in the series) and the eventual world champion Golden State Warriors. After a season with so much success, how would the Rockets be able to build upon their strengths and return even stronger in 2015-16?
In the offseason, Houston picked versatile Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker with the 18th overall pick. Dekker, coming off a spectacular run in the NCAA tournament, can play both forward positions, but is generally projected as a small forward at the NBA level. Dekker does everything well, but is not truly elite at any given skill set, which may pose problems against more athletic NBA talent. He is likely going to act as a spot-up shooter and floor spacer as he adapts to the next level.
On July 20th, Houston addressed their need for a third star to play alongside Harden and Howard when they traded Joey Dorsey, Kostas Papanolaou, Pablo Prigioni, and a first round pick for embattled Denver point guard Ty Lawson. Lawson, who was charged with DUI multiple times while with Denver, is the perfect fit for Houston's offense, should he be able to put his troubled past behind him. Finishing third in the league in assists at 9.6 per game, Lawson is an excellent facilitator who is lightning quick with the ball. He also shoots a career 37 percent from distance.
Having another primary ball handler in the starting lineup takes some pressure off of Harden (who was essentially the team's point guard last season) by allowing him to play off the ball more often. The Rockets could also elect to have Lawson play off the ball for stretches and have him act as a bail out option after Harden uses his considerable gravity to collapse opposing defenses.
By moving defensive specialist Beverly to the bench, Houston now has an option to neutralize any "instant offense" 6th man guards by assigning Beverly to them. This option will force opposing coaches to go back to their starters earlier than thy are comfortable with, likely leading to higher fatigue at the end of games.
Small forward Trevor Ariza is the perfect complementary player to Houston's stars. A prototypical "3 & D" wing, Ariza can expect to feast on corner 3-pointers late in the shot clock. Ariza doesn't need a lot of shots to be engaged in the game and has a knack for clutch moments, but his days as a higher volume option are behind him.
Though Terrence Jones is still the starting power forward, young big Donatas Motiejunas could overtake him in the starting lineup by the end of the year. Motiejunas has improved each of his three seasons in the league and put together a 12/6/2 stat line last year, in 28 minutes per game. A floor-stretching 7-footer, Motiejunas is the perfect power forward to play next to the paint-clogging Dwight Howard. Last season he averaged 37 percent from the 3-point line on nearly two attempts per game.
Can the Rockets stay healthy? Really, health is the only thing that could possibly stand in the way of Houston being in the mix at the end of the season. Dwight Howard missed half of the season with knee problems, and has played fewer than 72 games in three of the last four seasons. If Howard is roaming the paint without being slowed down by injury, the Rockets are in great shape to come out of the Western Conference in 2016.
The Rockets will still be playing the same high-efficiency brand of basketball that they have been for the last two seasons. With Ty Lawson at the helm, Houston now has one of the best facilitators in the league to go along with their MVP candidate shooting guard and defensive monster of a center.
The Western Conference is a gauntlet, however. The Warriors are the champs, the Clippers nearly beat Houston in the playoffs last year, and the Spurs added LaMarcus Aldridge. Just because Houston got better, doesn't necessarily mean they will be able to take the next step and get to the Finals. So much of the NBA is about peaking at the right time, but the Rockets have enough talent to get to the Promised Land if they are able to put it all together.
Corey Brewer will be the unheralded hero of this team. Brewer is all energy; he plays the passing lanes, gets out in transition, and does all of the under-the-radar work that your role players need to do. Though Houston has two all-world players in Harden and Howard, Corey Brewer will be just as integral for the bench unit, stifling opponent perimeter players in tandem with Patrick Beverly.