It was a Monday morning in late October of 2015, and I, along with fellow Houston Press writer Jeff Balke, was getting a unique opportunity — the chance to sit down with Rockets owner Leslie Alexander in his office and pick his brain for roughly two hours about his tenure as owner of the team and his philosophies on basketball, business and life. The purpose of the interview was to provide content for the Rockets’ 50th-anniversary book, to be released roughly a year later. I had the task of penning the chapter on Alexander himself, while Jeff was one of the main authors of the entire book.
On that morning, the opener to the 2015-2016 regular season was two days away, so just five months removed from a run to the conference finals, anticipation was certainly the backdrop for this interview. Alexander was equal parts playful and serious throughout our chat, as he literally stacked and re-stacked about a dozen poker chips on his desk as he talked, a quirky habit that doubled as a coincidental metaphor for his tenure as the Rockets’ owner, which has surely seen its share of big risks taken.
One thing, though, was very evident during our conversation — Alexander knows basketball, and knows exactly what his vision of “good” looks like. One particular question led Alexander to share what he thought was the ultimate key to the game of basketball. Two simple words — “easy baskets.” Alexander was clear that his version of basketball utopia included a Rockets team that ran, ran and ran some more, all the while burying their opponent under a sea of, yes, easy baskets.
So tuck that anecdote away for the next few minutes, as we will need it again shortly, a few paragraphs from now.
Moving on, little did Alexander know on that October morning that the James Harden/Dwight Howard iteration of Rockets basketball had already seen its best days the previous May and June. Little did any of us know on that morning that the Rockets were two days away from starting the season with three consecutive 20-point losses, and three weeks away from firing head coach Kevin McHale after a wretched 4-7 start.
When you fire a head coach 11 games into a season, a season following a run to the conference finals, you do it to kickstart your team and give your fans hope. Neither happened for the Rockets during the 2015-2016 season, an 82-game slog of fits and starts, conducted with the 800-pound gorilla in the room that Harden and Howard wanted to murder each other. The Rockets finished 41-41, good enough to sign their own death warrant as an eight seed to be fed to the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
It doesn’t take a two-hour conversation with Alexander to ascertain that he fears failure a lot more than he fears change. The Rockets have had numerous offseason (and in-season, for that matter) facelifts during Alexander’s two-plus decades as owner of the team in various efforts to win another championship. However, the reconstruction undergone in the summer of 2016 might be the most remarkable one of the Alexander era.
The easiest decision was saying good-bye to Howard, which is ironic when you consider that General Manager Daryl Morey had spent literally three years making dozens of moves to set the Rockets up just to court Howard with a straight face in the summer of 2013. The decision to build around Harden, an All-Star in his prime, was also easy, despite massive heat from the Rockets’ fan base (and the media, who left Harden off all three All-NBA teams despite his averaging 29 points a game in 2015-2016) over Harden’s lack of conditioning entering and his salty demeanor during the 2015-2016 season.
The perceived riskiest decision was the organization’s choice for its new head coach, 65-year-old Mike D’Antoni, who was last seen getting run out of Los Angeles during the start of the Lakers’ nosedive. With the Rockets as D’Antoni’s fourth head coaching stop in under a decade, fans and media cried “Retread!” but in retrospect, the rationale behind bringing in D’Antoni was obvious to anyone who knew Alexander’s vision of basketball nirvana — easy baskets.
D’Antoni is the patron saint of easy baskets, having actually been the subject of a book on just how proficient his Phoenix Suns teams of the mid-2000s were at running their opponents out of the gym, using movement, spacing and the vision of an otherworldly point guard, two-time MVP Steve Nash, to break the will of the opposition. Over a four-year period, those teams averaged 58 wins and 113.3 points per 100 possessions.
“If D’Antoni could make Nash an MVP, not to mention coax two months of ‘Linsanity’ from Jeremy Lin in New York, what could he do with Harden?” thought Alexander and the rest of the Rockets’ brass. The answer to that question, thus far, has shattered expectations and resurrected D’Antoni’s star on the NBA head coaching walk of fame. In short, at the All Star break, Harden is averaging nearly a triple double and leading the league in assists. More important, at 40-18, the Rockets have matched their season-win total from last season before the All-Star break, and appear to be entrenched as the three-seed in the Western Conference, heady stuff for a team predicted to win 42 games total by Vegas before the season.
So how does a roster that ostensibly just swapped out Howard for shooters Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon go from despised underachiever to one of the five best teams in basketball? It starts with the growth of Harden from great player to great leader, a maturation the Rockets were banking on when they gave him a gigantic contract extension last summer.
“Harden’s transformation has been terrific, but we saw a lot of this from him two years ago (2014-2015), which is what made last year so frustrating,” said Brian Geltzeiler, who covers the NBA for Sirius XM and founded hoops-critic.com. “Giving Harden input into the roster and the coaching hire and signing him to an extension gave him a degree of ownership over the decision making, which has motivated him to not only play at a high level but to provide a brand of unselfish leadership we’ve never seen from him.”
The Rockets have compiled their record thus far against what has likely been the most difficult schedule in the league, with three road trips of five games or more and 13 instances of games on back-to-back nights. Their 12-1 record on the back end of those consecutive-night obstacles certainly speaks to the depth of this team, with Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell and Clint Capela all making huge leaps forward as young players.
However, it also indicates a level of grit with this group that was nonexistent last season. This is a different team. “Everything is different this season,” Harden said following practice last week. “Obviously, you can tell by our play. On the court, off the court. The vibe, the relationships, the communication. Everything is different. As a result, the wins start racking up.”
In a top-heavy league, though, in which a 73-win team lost in the Finals and then added Kevin Durant, your roster has to be nearly perfect to compete for a title. The Rockets are not there yet. “The Rockets need a two-way star player, preferably at power forward or center,” Geltzeiler said. “Anderson and Capela have played well, but the Rockets will be in over their heads if they don’t upgrade one of those spots on the defensive end. Capela could be an elite defender one day, but he’s not there yet.”
While the Rockets are not a bad defensive team, the unwritten rules of NBA kingship are quite rigid, and they state that a team almost has to be among the top ten in the league in defensive rating in order to win a title. The Rockets are hovering around that area, close enough to where the right move by Morey could get them over the top, if not this season then sometime soon.
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“With the right group around him, there’s no doubt Harden can be a lead dog on a title winner, à la Dirk and the 2011 Mavericks,” contends Geltzeiler. “And there’s no doubt that D’Antoni’s style can win a title. We saw the Warriors do it in 2015 with a similar style. However, it takes the right combination of shooters, perimeter defenders and the right rim protector to get there. As good as the Rockets have been, I’m not sure they have those pieces right now.”
For all the shine he gets as an offensive wizard, D’Antoni knows the deal — the Rockets have to defend, too, in order to win. “Our offense is good. Falling out of bed, we will get 100 or 110 points just doing nothing,” D’Antoni said, following practice last week. “But our whole key this year going forward is — when we hold teams under 100 we’re [undefeated] — can we hold teams under 100? If we do, we’re good, and if we don’t, we are fooling ourselves.”
Alexander’s coveted “easy baskets” are a two-way street, and while he’s found the perfect head coach to help his superstar go find plenty of them offensively, preventing the opposition from scoring them is just as important. In just a few months, the Rockets’ owner has built back up his metaphorical stacks of poker chips. He’s sitting at the table much stronger than he was a year ago at this time, shuffling those chips in his hand, maybe a card or two away from being able to go all in.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.