The Houston Rockets were the laughingstock of the NBA during the 2015-16 season. After winning 56 games and reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2015, they stumbled to only 41 wins the following season.
Along the way, the lingering feud between James Harden and Dwight Howard reportedly finally boiled over, Kevin McHale lost his head coaching job when it became clear the players had disregarded him, and opposing fans and media spent most of the season mocking the team’s total lack of effort:
It looked like the Rockets would need a complete rebuild to recover from their abysmal 2015-16 season.
Instead, they traded Dwight Howard, added several role players, and hired Mike D’Antoni. Throw in a career year from superstar James Harden, and the Rockets surprisingly cruised to 55 wins and a No. 3 seed in the west. It was a shocking turnaround for a team that seem destined for mediocrity.
The 2017-18 Portland Trail Blazers are at a similar, albeit less dramatic, crossroads. After a promising 44 wins and first round playoff victory in 2015-16, the Blazers regressed to 41 wins and a No. 8 seed last season. They played dismally for most of the season, at one point losing 10 of 11 games and holding a 24-35 record through February. The defense often looked beyond repair, with ESPN’s Zach Lowe going so far as to call it “cartoonishly bad.”
Some of these woes turned around with the arrival of Jusuf Nurkic, but the overall result of the 2016-17 season is a cause for concern for Blazers’ fan. So, it’s worth asking, can the Blazers emulate the Rockets’ 2017 turnaround? Let’s examine what factors lead to the Houston revival and consider if Portland is similarly equipped:
James Harden Makes “The Leap”
Harden transitioned to point guard under Mike D’Antoni’s tutelage last season, and the results were striking: career highs in points and rebounds, league leader in assists, and No. 2 in MVP voting.
He also turned his attitude around. Here’s a description of his effort in 2016:
Coming off an MVP-caliber season, in which he actually put forth a full effort on defense, fans expected that he would continue to "make the leap" forward as a true top-5 NBA player. Instead, Harden has regressed on defense, often willing to literally stand and watch as his man scores. Multiple analysts have called Harden out as the team's primary problem, and even his own teammates and coach have complained.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, Lillard may not have that “extra gear” to reach an MVP level of play. He already proved himself an elite scorer last season, and is an excellent distributor. But, as Matt Moore of CBS pointed out yesterday, the Blazers don’t have the personnel to fully exploit his passing ability. Given the lack of new players on the Blazers, it seems unreasonable to expect Lillard to make another leap next season.
The Rockets, however, had only one elite player on their team. The Blazers have two more potential stars in CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. Even if Lillard will struggle to make a leap similar to Harden’s, it’s possible that McCollum or Nurkic could show significant improvement.
McCollum, for example, is a flashy passer but struggles to set his teammates up for scoring opportunities. Nurkic is inefficient and lacks a mid-range jumper that would mesh with Lillard’s ballhanding and passing skills. If either of those players adds those skills, or other major abilities, it will go a long way toward pushing the Blazers up in the standings.
Morey Ball Exploits League Wide Trends
In addition to Harden having a career year, the Rockets benefited from solid play from newcomers Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Nene, and saw significant improvement from Clint Capela.
Houston’s lineup is perfectly constructed to exploit this efficiency-focused era of NBA basketball. Harden can drive and kick to 3-point shooters like Anderson, Gordon, and Patrick Beverley, or he can get into the lane and draw free throws. When Harden sits, Gordon is proficient enough offensively to fill in. Add in solid role playing big men in Nene and Capela, and it’s not hard to see why the Rockets’ formula worked, despite a lack of a bona fide second star.
In contrast, the Blazers will struggle to replicate the Rockets’ efficiency. Their best 3-point shooter, Allen Crabbe, has departed and there’s no clear replacement on the roster. Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic can all score in isolation, much like Harden, but there’s no “release valve” on the perimeter to help them out against smart defenses.
With so few players complementing Lillard’s skills, the Blazers will have to rely heavily on Terry Stotts’ ingenuity to compensate for the mismatched roster they have constructed.
Chemistry Problems Solved
The Rockets had major chemistry problems in 2016. It’s no secret that Harden and Howard often butted heads, and Harden admitted as much after Howard left the team. Jettisoning Howard appears to have been a classic case of addition by subtraction, as last year’s Rockets did not have the same effort and intensity issues that the 2016 team did.
The Blazers, similarly, struggled through apparent locker room turmoil last season after a very strong 2015-16 campaign. They spent much of the season putting forth a lackadaisical effort (at best) on the court, Meyers Leonard practically pleaded the team captains to do something in a postgame interview, Lillard repeatedly demurred when asked what was plaguing the team, and Maurice Harkless infamously offered to reveal the team’s problems off-camera before quickly backtracking.
Fans never learned the source of the team’s issues, so it’s impossible to know if they have been resolved. Allen Crabbe did mention being displeased with coming off the bench, and Festus Ezeli and McCollum had a spat, but beyond that it’s unclear what the primary problem was.
On the bright side, the team improved significantly with Nurkic’s arrival, and looked consistently locked in for the first time all season over the last 20 games. They will need to harness that energy if they hope for the 2017-18 season to be successful.
On the one hand, Houston’s 2016-17 season offers promise for the 2017-18 Blazers. It is possible to turn a team around after a lackluster year, and there is hope that the Blazers can find the same locker room synergy that helped the Rockets, while either McCollum or Nurkic make a leap in ability. But the Blazers’ roster is more mismatched than the Rockets, which may limit how far the team can rebound.