30 Teams in 30 Days: Rockets make key add in pursuit of championship

NBA.com Global on Oct 01, 2018 07:05 AM
30 Teams in 30 Days: Rockets make key add in hunt for title
Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) yells for the camera during media day Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

What offseason?

That's a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8 (June 9, PHL time), NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.

With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com's Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today -- from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record -- as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.

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Today's team: Houston Rockets

2017-18 Record: 65-17, lost in Western Conference finals to Golden State Warriors

Who's new: Carmelo Anthony (free agency), Michael Carter-Williams (free agency), Marquese Chriss (trade), Brandon Knight (trade)

Who's gone: Trevor Ariza (free agency), Luc Mbah a Moute (free agency)

The lowdown: Flush with a desire to finish with the best record in the West and gain home-court advantage in the playoffs, the Rockets went one better, getting the best record in the NBA and franchise history. New arrival Chris Paul was a static-free compliment to James Harden, who averaged 30.4 points and 8.8 assists per game (first and third overall in the league) and won Kia MVP honors. Just as anticipated, Paul provided the intangibles that were missing from Rockets’ teams in the past, like leadership and late-game smarts.

The Rockets didn’t have players that fit the definition of a "Big Three", but center Clint Capela created a debate about that by averaging nearly 14 points and 11 rebounds per game and providing solid rim protection. Finally, Eric Gordon was a contender for the Kia Sixth Man Award once again. The fairy tale had a horrific ending, though, when Paul suffered a hamstring injury in Game 5 of the West finals against the Warriors as Houston squandered a 3-2 series lead.

The best trait of Rockets GM Daryl Money is his risk-taking and desire to keep the Rockets rolling in the Harden era. When his addition of Dwight Howard years ago didn’t work out, he brought in Paul. And now he’s gambling on Carmelo's twilight years and if the former All-Star forward has much ammunition left.

It’s not much of a gamble, though, if you have nothing to lose. Adding Anthony didn’t cost the Rockets anything significant after the Atlanta Hawks bought out the final year of his contract days after he was traded there by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Rockets can only hope 'Melo works out better with them than he did in Oklahoma City. There, he brooded about his role and the sacrifices he was asked to make. During his prime with the Nuggets and Knicks, 'Melo was a certified scorer who was especially dangerous in isolation situations. In both Denver and New York, the offense centered almost exclusively around him, or at least made him the centerpiece.

In OKC, Anthony went from taking 326 shots in isolation situations in 2016-17 to 213 such shots last season. He was often a spot-up shooter and, in some cases, was a decoy in late-game situations. Either 'Melo was being slighted, as he felt, or after 15 years in the NBA and a pair of knee ‘scopes, 'Melo was simply feeling his age.

The truth will surface in Houston, because the Rockets bring two players (Harden and Paul) who can share the ball as well as score. Plus, coach Mike D’Antoni's system is designed to take full advantage of each player’s offensive skillset. Basically, this is Anthony’s best chance to grab that elusive championship. Does he kill the perception of him being a selfish scorer (fair or not), or feed it?

Anthony's reunion with D’Antoni is a curious one as the two men butted heads in New York, a confrontation that ultimately led to D'Antoni resigning as Knicks coach. D’Antoni wants 'Melo to adjust to the times, reality and his surroundings and fit in rather than pout. It’s possible Anthony might be asked to come off the bench, a notion he laughed off time and again in OKC.

The Rockets have something else working in their favor: Paul is good friends with Anthony and should help the transition go a lot smoother than it did for the Thunder.

If he accepts a role that suits the Rockets, Anthony can find his shots and his rhythm. He can still score (as his 16.2 ppg in OKC proves) and, if nothing else, Anthony will create space for Harden, Paul and Capela.

'Melo became necessary after the Rockets lost Ariza in free agency. It was the most perplexing decision of the summer. Why did Ariza leave a team that was a healthy Paul hamstring from possibly going to The Finals (and maybe winning a title) for the Phoenix Suns, a rebuilding team that will be fortunate to win 35 games this season?

New Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said the team had no problem with going into the luxury tax, yet not only did the Rockets lose Ariza, but also Mbah a Moute, another swingman who could hit 3-pointers and defend. Losing both could have consequences for the Rockets defensively, because Anthony isn’t cut from that cloth.

To prove as much, the Rockets did give Paul four years and $160 million, a rather generous payday for someone who, while a future Hall of Famer, can’t seem to stay healthy and will turn 34 next spring. Plus, they forked over another fat contract to keep Capela, a restricted free agent now making $90 million over the next five years. Houston's other summer deals and contract signings were minimal.

While the Paul signing was done quickly, talks with Capela lasted weeks because the summer market was a soft one for big men. Still, the Rockets were the best choice for Capela and vice versa -- but much of his impact is due to catching lobs from Paul and Harden?

More impressively, Morey finally unloaded Anderson’s clunker contract on the Suns and even managed to grab two players who could help: Chriss and Knight. Chriss never developed in Phoenix, yet he’s only 21 and is athletic. Knight is returning from knee surgery and could provide ball handling relief for Harden and Paul.

The challenge of keeping a contender sharp and championship-driven isn’t an easy one, and it’s made more difficult in an era where the Warriors are now throwing five All-Stars on the floor with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins. Morey and the Rockets certainly had a chore this summer.

Yet give them this: Houston should serve once again as the sternest test for the Warriors, at least in the West, this season. With good health -- looking at you, Paul -- and a rejuvenated Anthony, the Rockets get have exactly what they’re asking for: A chance.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 

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