It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That quote may be nearly as overused as "Houston, we have a problem," but it's apt when it comes to the Rockets. They led the league in wins and their best player will be named MVP of the league. They even managed to take the reigning champs to seven games despite losing their second best player to injury in game five.
Still, the season ended a game shy of the NBA Finals and left the Rockets with plenty of questions going into the offseason. Time to hand out some grades.
Chris Paul: A-
Setting aside injuries, Paul was everything the Rockets could have hoped for when they made the deal to acquire him last summer. Despite many predictions, he and James Harden fit together perfectly, like they had been a team for years. He provided a steadying hand and a much needed mid-range game the Rockets were lacking. The strategy of playing he and Harden apart except to start and end games was savvy and kept both of their minutes down. If not for an injury, something Paul has unfortunately been known for the last few seasons, the Rockets would still be playing right now. He will be back in a Rockets uniform, but how many years they give him on his max deal must be tempered by the lingering concerns for the soft tissue injuries that have plagued him. Still, there are few guys you would want out there on the floor with Harden more than Chris Paul.
James Harden: A
Make no mistake, Harden IS the MVP and he IS deserving. He led the league in scoring and had one of the most masterful offensive seasons in NBA history. He also became a better defender, giving more effort at both ends of the floor than he has in previous seasons. Paul seemed to keep his focus on the game and he clearly got himself physically prepared. He would be a straight up A-plus had he not struggled somewhat in the playoffs. He wasn't "Elimination James" as some have criticized, but the fatigue of a long season and a short rotation in the playoffs was clearly wearing on him. Nevertheless, he will be hard pressed to reproduce a season like this one where he was fairly clearly the best player in the game.
Trevor Ariza: C
My colleague Sean Pendergast is quick to point out that whatever Ariza gives you defensively—and it's a lot—he costs you offensively. This is perhaps the first season where that seemed more true than in previous years. His averages say he was about where he has been the past few years, but the eye test (and his failings in the playoffs, punctuated by an awful game seven in the Western Conference Finals) tell another story. Ariza, a free agent this summer, may or may not be back. If he is, it will have to be as a role player rather than a starter, where he should have some valuable seasons left in his career.
P.J. Tucker: B
Tucker turned out to be one of the best acquisitions of the offseason, going from bench to starter to maybe the most important defensive player on the floor for the Rockets. His versatility on defense and his remarkably improved shot on offense made him virtually indispensable in the playoffs. In many ways, he became the Rockets version of Draymond Green, a tough, solid shooting guy who could switch onto any player on the floor and make spot up three pointers.
Clint Capela: B+
No doubt the most improved player on the team is Capela. Once relegated to awkward big guy who can block shots status, his game and his personality came of age this season. He led the NBA (season and postseason) in shooting percentage thanks to the almost impossible to stop lob-dunks he received from Harden and others. He also finished the year second in blocks and eighth in rebounding. He is a restricted free agent meaning the Rockets can match any offer and he is likely to get some big ones. But, he also seemed out of place in the fast paced Western Conference Finals and it raised the concern of just how integral a traditional center can be in a guard-happy league. The Rockets will do everything they can to keep him, but there is no guarantee he returns.
The Bench: C+
On one hand, there was Gerald Green, plucked off his couch and into a critical bench role in his native Houston. On the other is Ryan Anderson, a guy who is being paid way too much money to not be an integral part of the rotation and would up buried on the bench as the playoffs went by. There was Eric Gordon, last year's sixth man, who was brilliant at times and struggled at others; and Luc Mbah a Moute, a critical component defensively who missed most of the playoffs and a chunk of the season with a shoulder dislocation. The Rockets, at one point during the season, had a bench that was to be envied. By the time the Western Conference Finals rolled around, it became apparent there will need to be some upgrades.
Both coach Mike D'Antoni and Jeff Bzdelik deserve praise. Obviously, the head coach will get the lion's share of it as he should, but the radical improvement in the Rockets defense is owed in great measure to Bzdelik, who turned this team from a mid-pack defense into top five. In fact, it was their defense, not their historically great offense, that carried them through the playoffs. Still, D'Antoni got what he had always wanted, a team that would fire up shots with reckless abandon on way to one of the gaudiest offensive seasons in NBA history. But, the micro rotation used throughout the playoffs definitely wore down some of their main guys and left them just a bit short of a crown.
Personnel Staff: A
Let's set aside for the moment the most important acquisition of the offseason in Chris Paul and even the gets of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. To pick up Joe Johnson off waivers and, more remarkably, Gerald Green off his couch, represented some of the most unreal wheeling and dealing of GM Daryl Morey's career in Houston. They are still lacking in youth, which they will need to begin to remedy as his veterans age. But, the seemingly endless string of players he brought in who left their mark on a 65-win team is pretty amazing.
The Crowds: C
This is a new addition to the grades for the season and with good reason as the lack of boisterous crowds inside Toyota Center became a talking point as the season wore along. Toyota Center, for its part, is not laid out in such a way as to get the rowdiest (no pun intended) fans closest to the game. The actual Red Rowdies are in the "end zone" areas and the loudest fans are typically upstairs. The club seats, which fall along the baselines, are typically purchased by corporations and, as such, there isn't the rabid fandom sweeping through those seats as there are in other parts of the building and those ticket holders often arrive late to games. Still, the last game of the playoffs was as loud as any pro basketball game in Houston history. If only it could be that way every game.
Regular Season Overall: A+
It is difficult to find fault with a 65-win season that landed the team the number one seed in the Western Conference. They were historically good offensively and ranked in the top 10 in defense for the first time probably since Jeff Van Gundy was the coach. They even managed to not overwork their best players and avoid serious injuries. It was, for certain, the best regular season in Rockets history.
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Playoffs Overall: B
Unfortunately, they cannot be the best overall team in Rockets history because they fell short of a title. This despite losing only two games prior to entering the Western Conference Finals. They were on healthy Chris Paul hamstring away from the NBA Finals, but it can often be a cruel game. Hopefully, this will give them something to learn from and build off of for next season.
Final Team Overall: B+
As good as they were all season, for a team like this one, anything short of reaching the NBA Finals (probably winning it as well) is going to be disappointing. There is absolutely no reason for them to hang their heads in shame. This was a tremendous season from this squad and they have a chance to be just as good next year, maybe even advance if they can put the right pieces together. It just didn't end well or this would have been the greatest season in Houston basketball history.