For a while, during the first 24 hours of free agency, it looked like the Houston Rockets might get left at the free agency altar, with Kent Bazemore (their first meeting at 12:01 a.m. EDT Friday morning) opting to stay in Atlanta and their meeting with Al Horford not creating much outward steam. In between, Dwight Howard chose to take his talents to Atlanta, to which I say, "Good luck, Hawks! He likes post touches and wild snakes. Enjoy!"
Finally, the clouds broke Saturday night for the Rockets, with the offense getting a major boost after forward Ryan Anderson (four years, $80 million) and guard Eric Gordon (four years, $53 million) agreed to terms. Ah, progress!
While everything around the league is now being done in a post-Durant Decision world, the show must go on. Holes in the roster must be filled. Before the bell rang to start the free agency land rush late Thursday night, here was my list of Rockets team needs as of last week:
1. Another scorer to go with Harden, preferably someone who can shoot from distance;
1a. Come to think of it, they need lots of guys who can shoot — from distance, from the elbow, from anywhere;
2. A big man who is specifically willing to primarily rebound, defend and pick-and-roll for days (basically, all the things Dwight Howard saw as secondary to post touches);
3. Leadership, defense and dirty work guys.
So with that in mind, let's examine the important questions these signings address and the questions that remain, shall we?
1. How do Anderson and Gordon fit into the plan?
Well, both clearly address Need #1, outlined above. If there was any deficiency that became painfully evident in the Rockets' five-game ouster against Golden State in the first round (and there were SO many to choose from), it was that they clearly needed an influx of both outside shooting (Anderson) and guys who can create their own offense (Gordon, who also happens to be a good spot-up shooter as well). The Anderson signing feels like something that's been about four years in the making, with his name being brought up constantly whenever the subject of Rockets roster retooling has been raised, from about the time that Howard arrived in 2013, to be exact.
Now Howard is gone, but ironically Anderson fits even better now than he would have under the clunky "Dwight needs to get post touches" era. Think of all those distribution "black holes" that Harden was kicking shots to during the playoffs (Ariza, Beverley, Terry and Brewer connected on 19.7 percent of their three-point attempts in the postseason). They weren't much better during the regular season, and none are as pure a shooter as Anderson. Think of all the possessions where Harden was playing in isolation, in large part because there were no other scorers on the court. Now, he has Gordon. Health is an obvious key for both guys, but considering the Rockets' needs and where they could reasonably shop in this free agent market (the tier below Durant and Horford), these are sensible pickups.
Some will point out the defensive shortcomings of both guys, and considering how bad this team was defensively last season, it's a fair point. Neither is a good individual defender. I guess my counterpoint to this would be that there is a symbiotic relationship between offense and defense sometimes, and the areas in which the Rockets were deficient last season offensively — outside shooting and turnovers — lend themselves directly to easy baskets for the opposition and bad defensive numbers. D'Antoni coached some prolific offensive teams in Phoenix that, statistically, per-possession were decent defensive teams because they dictated tempo and were efficient at the offensive end. That is clearly how this team is now being built, with Harden as the centerpiece, surrounding him with shooters, and having bigs who are athletic and embrace a "dirty work" role.
2. What about the "Free agents don't want to play with Harden" narrative?
It's really too bad that NBA free agents don't have to fill out some sort of evaluation card, like you fill out after eating a meal or staying at a hotel, for each of the teams they meet with during free agency so they can explain exactly why they DON'T sign with a team. This way, we'd actually know why they're choosing elsewhere to play. Short of a player actually saying, "I didn't want to play with so-and-so," how the hell do you know that's the reason they play somewhere else? Also, when you consider that NBA players can only play for ONE team, it's easy to randomly assign blame to the star player of a team when multiple free agents choose not to play there. Statistically, free agents say "no" to MOST teams.
I say all that to address the narrative that free agents don't want to play with James Harden. I realize that Anderson and Gordon are not necessarily the level of free agent people are referring to when they say this, but Al Horford, an All-Star, DIDN'T choose a bunch of teams that he met with, and Kevin Durant DIDN'T choose a bunch of teams, including one that had Al Horford and cap space. Factually, we're a year removed from a season in which the PLAYERS selected Harden the MVP of the league. In a league where you simply don't win titles without all-NBA-level players, if a player like Harden is truly a deterrent to attracting talent, then you may as well close up shop. For what it's worth, according to sources close to the team, Harden was excellent in the presentations to free agents over the weekend, and is a major reason Anderson and Gordon chose to play here. Also, while Harden has indeed been very active and plugged-in as part of the collaborative effort in selecting a head coach and wooing free agents, it's been in a far more consultative way than with LeBron James, who is essentially directing people what to do in Cleveland. Harden is making suggestions, not mandates.
The bottom line for Harden is that he needs to come in looking and playing like his 2014-2015 edition, and the team needs to win games. It's too bad that the cap bump to $94 million came after a 41-41 season, and not the season in which the Rockets went to the Western Conference Finals. That said, there will be another cap bump next season and a much better class of free agents. The opportunity is there for further improvement of the roster a year from now if Harden can regain his MVP form and the Rockets can get back to winning 50-55 games.
3. What's reasonably left to do this offseason?
Right now, the rotation looks like this:
Starting lineup: C-Capela, F-Anderson, F-Ariza, G-Harden, G-Beverley
Bench: G-Gorfon, F-Brewer, F-Beasley
(Depending on matchups, I think you could easily flip-flop Gordon and Beverley with Harden the de facto point guard either way.)
The back end of the roster has K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montreal Harrell, who are all intriguing, and who probably need to begin making an impression for more than several-minute spurts. If there's a to-do list remaining, it probably looks like this:
1. Figure out the D-Mo situation.
Donatas Motiejunas was offered a $3.4 million tender before entering restricted free agency. As of Monday night, he had not signed any offer sheets. The Rockets likely would match any reasonable offer sheet the 7-footer would receive, given his skill set and fit in Mike D'Antoni's system. Also, the team is devoid of size right now. Which brings us to...
2. Find some help at the center spot.
Banking on Capela's making the leap to starter's minutes right now is a big leap of faith, although it's encouraging that many of the lineup combos that included Capela outperformed similar combos with Howard. Capela would need to bulk up, for sure, and could benefit from a veteran to provide a steadying influence. There's plenty of cap space to find a reasonable grinder.
3. Keep an eye out for trade opportunities.
All of a sudden, in a salary market where Matthew Dellavedova makes $9.6 million per year, the contracts of Patrick Beverley ($6.0M), Corey Brewer ($7.6M) and Trevor Ariza ($7.8M) look beyond reasonable, thus making them major trade chips in a deal to try to find another All-Star-level player.
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When the Harden/Howard version of the Rockets were chasing Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh a couple of years ago, general manager Daryl Morey was adamant about a team's need for three star players in order to compete at a high level in today's NBA. The Rockets now head into the wilderness with one star, but a much clearer tactical view of what they want to accomplish each trip down the floor, and with pieces that fit that vision.
In a world where the stakes were raised Monday, in which a 73-win team added a FOURTH star player, the Rockets aren't good enough to compete for a title yet, but they're better than they were two weeks ago.
And the work continues.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.