• Following their first Western Conference appearance since 1996/97, the 2015/16 Rockets entered the season with high hopes of the franchise’s third NBA title. Instead, despite a healthy 82 games from superstar James Harden, they experienced far too much off-court drama, limped into the playoffs, and were embarrassed by the Warriors in the first round. Hoop Ball’s Post-Mortem series takes a look at what the problem was in Houston.

    OVERVIEW

    The Rockets had improved their win total in each of Kevin McHale’s first four years as Head Coach. They improved from 34 wins and missing the playoffs in 11/12 to 56 wins and a Western Conference Finals appearance in 14/15. They added Ty Lawson to a roster that otherwise remained virtually the same and had aspirations of reaching the NBA’s pinnacle.  But their superstar James Harden showed up to training camp seemingly without any interest of playing, the Rockets struggled out of the gate, and McHale was fired after a 4-7 start.

    Longtime Assistant Coach J.B. Bickerstaff took over as interim coach, but instead of the problems disappearing, the problems mounted. The Rockets showed a lack of leadership, effort and locker room problems persisted throughout the entire season. Dwight Howard was apparently unhappy with this role, but front office did not care and would not change their playing style for him. That resulted in a rift between the team’s two best players – Harden and Howard – and multiple failed attempts at trading Howard. Lawson was absolutely awful and found himself released midway through the season.

    Despite having virtually the same roster from a year prior, the eighth ranked team in defensive rating plummeted all the way down to 21st in defensive rating. The opponents’ eFG% rose from 48.6% to 51.6%. Players known for their defensive ability – Howard, Ariza, Beverley – saw a drop-off in their defense, while their superstar Harden forgot what defense meant. At least they led the league in steals, right?

    The offense improved to seventh in offensive rating and was near the top multiple categories – points, FTM, FTA, 3PM, 3PA, 2PT%, OREB% and eFG%. Unfortunately, the slight improvements in offense failed to mask the defensive nosedive, lack of effort and chemistry issues. The Rockets were considered a surefire playoff team but failed to clinch a playoff spot until the final day of the season. They were run off the court by a Warriors team missing MVP Stephen Curry and embarrassed on national television. What started out as a season full of hope, ended up as a season full of failure as Bickerstaff was let go as well.

    The Rockets still have the franchise superstar that so many teams have found to be so elusive, but they need to blow this team up. Expect this team to look much different come next season.

    COACHING

    As it currently stands, the Rockets still have a vacant head coaching position. They have been searching for over a month and have interviewed 14 different candidates, but have yet to find a coach. Strategy aside, the incoming coach needs to bring strong leadership qualities and hold players accountable for their actions – starting with James Harden. The current group of Rockets have developed far too many bad habits that need to be corrected before they return to the Western Conference elite.

    THE PLAYERS

    James Harden

    ADP: 4 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 4 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 2/3 (8/9 cat), Per Game Value: 3/5 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 82

    In 14/15, Harden had himself a fantastic season in which he was named to the All-NBA First team and finished runner-up in the MVP voting. This past season, he posted better numbers across the board, but wasn’t named to any All-NBA team and finished eighth in MVP voting. How is that possible? Well the league wide perception of Harden has changed dramatically. His often comical defensive display – it is only classified as defense because the opposition had the ball, not because he was actually defending – was all over the highlights and were a clear example of how an apparent leader does not lead by example.

    Harden didn’t show up to training camp in playing shape, struggled out of the gate, showed a lack of effort, and played a vital part in the Rockets’ struggles early on that eventually led to the firing of Head Coach Kevin McHale. Lastly, the unhappiness of teammate Dwight Howard and Harden’s ball dominant playing style have led to the perception that he isn’t good in the locker room and isn’t a player that teammates enjoy playing with.

    The perception of his talent and elite scoring ability has not changed though. He led the NBA in total points scored, both free throws made and attempted, field goal attempts, minutes played, and turnovers. It seems as though he has a supernatural ability to penetrate, score and draw fouls. He posted career-highs in multiple categories – 29 points, 2.9 treys, 6.1 rebounds, 7.5 assists, DRB%, TRB%, AST% and USG%.

    Harden once again showed him seemingly supernatural ability to penetrate, score and draw fouls, as well as step back and smoothly knock down long jumpers and three-pointers. But, it’s not all positive with his on-court play as he led the league in turnovers with 4.6 per game. It is also unclear if he has become a better playmaker, or if he just holds on to the ball for so long that teammates have no other option but to shoot when they receive the pass. He is a high volume scorer who increased the frequency of his three-point attempts to 40.6% even though his three-point efficiency dropped to 35.9%. He takes far too many bad shots and fails to get any of his teammates involved in far too many possessions.

    But even then, Harden is very clearly an elite fantasy option and offensive talent. Heading into next season, he needs to become a leader, show up to camp in shape and play with more effort more consistently. He also needs to vastly improve his defensive game – just show effort and get in his defensive stance – and get his teammates more involved. Whatever the perceptions of his game are in real-life do not translate to fantasy. He should be taken with a top five pick and will once again be one of the best players to own.

    Trevor Ariza

    ADP: 46 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 81 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 27/32 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 38/53 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 81

    All season long, Ariza was consistently the second or third best player for the Rockets – both in reality and in fantasy. He consistently out produced his ADP, playing like an early round player all season long. He once again played a major role for the Rockets, averaging 35+ minutes for the third consecutive year. His versatility and two-way play are vital to what the Rockets want to do. Unfortunately he wasn’t immune to the lack of defense the team as a whole played, as his individual defense dropped off significantly.

    Fortunately, his offense did not follow suit. He improved his efficiency from a year prior and posted one of the best seasons of his 12 year career. Overall, he averaged 12.7 points, 2.1 treys, 4.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 0.3 blocks on 41.6% shooting from field, 37.1% shooting from deep, and 78.3% shooting from the charity stripe. The improvement in three-point shooting was vital to his value, as three-pointers accounted for 58.1% of his shots. His 2.1 treys and 2.0 steals made him a very unique player and very valuable fantasy wise.

    Ariza really struggled in the playoffs, as it looked like he was completely drained. He has played heavy minutes in three consecutive season and it’s possible that it is catching up to him. He also looked to be a step slower athletically and wasn’t as active on the boards when compared to previous seasons. Heading into next season, he needs to take some time off to rest his body, but he also needs to improve his individual defense and continue to improve his efficiency. He has the ability to be one of the league’s best 3-and-D players. As he continues to age, it would be unreasonable to expect him to continue producing at an early round value. But draft him in the middle rounds and don’t look back.

    Dwight Howard

    ADP: 64 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 56 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 60/82 (8/9 cat), Per Game Value: 64/82 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 71

    When it comes to evaluating Howard’s season, one has to look both off the court and on the court. It seems as though everywhere he goes, drama and a soap opera follow. Throughout the entire season, there were rumors of Howard’s unhappiness with his role, chemistry issues in the locker room, trade rumors, and a lack of interest and effort on Howard’s part. I always tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the player, but in Howard’s case, we’ve seen these stories far too often to ignore them. He was a major reason why the Rockets season was a failure, as his supposed actions off the court seemingly did nothing but hurt the team on the court.

    On the court, Howard’s struggles this season have been well documented. He put together his worst season statistically since his rookie year back in 04/05, averaging 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steal and 1.6 blocks on 62% shooting from the field and 48.9% shooting from the charity stripe. But the lack of production doesn’t entirely fall on Howard alone, as his ORB%, DRB%, TRB%, AST%, STL% and BLK% were all around his career averages, if not better. In fact, his 62% shooting from the field was the best mark of his career to date. But, you can argue that he wasn’t utilized effectively by the Rockets. His usage rate of 18.4 – his lowest since his rookie season – was well below his career average of 23, as he would go multiple possessions without even touching the ball.

    The lack of touches were also the reason why he said he was disinterested at times throughout the season. There is no excuse for being disinterested and not giving it your all when you are on the court, but one can sympathize with Howard, as he still has the capability to dominate on any given night.

    In fact, in the 27 games in which he took ten or more field goal attempts, he averaged 18.8 points and 13.2 rebounds. He recorded 38 doubles-doubles on the season, with ten coming consecutively. He even posted a vintage 36 point, 26 rebound game against the Clippers this season. When utilized effectively, he was very productive. Unfortunately, he was ignored for the much of the season, and his production and focus suffered as a result.

    Overall, Howard did not have a very good season by any of his standards. But both his injury issues and drop off in production are greatly exaggerated. He can still be a dominant player ad produce as one of the top centers in basketball. For Howard, the most important part of the offseason is to have himself mentally prepared and ready to go next season, no what where he ends up playing. He should be drafted in the early-to-mid rounds – as long as you are okay with punting FT%.

    Patrick Beverley

    ADP: 142 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 140 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 80/91 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 81/95 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 71

    On a team full of individuals that lacked both heart and effort, Beverley was the ultimate team guy that brought an excess of heart and effort. He is the type of feisty and hard-working player that every team in the NBA would welcome on their team. But he is no longer just a player who brings defense and intangibles, as he developed himself into a very good three-point shooter – connecting at a 40% clip. He posted a career-high 43.4% shooting from the field, as also developed a very good mid-range jumper as well.

    His season averages – 9.9 points, 1.7 treys, 3.5 boards, 3.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.4 blocks – don’t stand out, but that is because he plays on a team where he is one of the only players willing to sacrifice touches and personal stats for the betterment of the team. He will never post high assist numbers as point guard who shares the backcourt with ball dominant James Harden, but he will contribute across the board and will continue to be an underrated fantasy asset. Unfortunately, not all is good as his defense dropped off this past season. But that can be attributed to horrific team defense that lacks the communication and discipline of an NBA team.

    Beverley will never be asked to do too much on the Rockets, so he just needs to continue to shoot the three-ball at a high clip and bring back his tough individual defense to a level it was two years ago. Beverley was an underrated fantasy asset this year and likely will be again next season due to his low assist numbers. But he is firmly on the standard league radar and makes for a very good mid-to-late round draft pick.

    Michael Beasley

    ADP: N/A, Total Value: 331/336 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 140/146 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 20

    After being named league MVP in China, Beasley signed with the Rockets in March and appeared in 20 games down the stretch. On a per minute basis, he posted the best season of his troubled eight-year career. He averaged 12.8 points, 0.2 treys, 4.9 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.6 steals, and 0.5 blocks on 52.2% shooting from the field, 33.3% shooting from deep, and 77.6% shooting from the free-throw line.

    Beasley provided a much needed boost down the stretch and his scoring off the bench was sorely needed. He was a very efficient scorer around the basket (66.7%) and in the mid-range (44.3%), and also posted a career-high in rebounding percentage (14.9%). But he offset nearly all the good he brought to the team with his terrible defense and ball-stopping on offense.

    At the end of the day, Beasley is what he is. He will bring good in terms of his scoring ability, but will also bring bad with his defense and inability to work cohesively in an offensive unit. But as long as he can score 12.8 points in under 20 minutes off the bench, there will be a place for him in this league – provided his off-court issues are behind him. His efficiency from mid-range will likely drop next season, but he should still score and rebound enough to be an option in standard leagues.

    Clint Capela

    ADP: N/A (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 140 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 152/155 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 183/195 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 77

    The second year player was one of the few bright spots on the Rockets this past season. Capela is still raw, but is an active and athletic big man who brings energy, protects the basket, is active in passing lanes, and is an effective scorer around the basket. He posted career-highs across the board, averaging 7.0 points, 6.4 boards, 0.6 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.2 blocks on 58.2% shooting from the field. But his free-throw shooting is still a major liability, as he shot just 37.9% from the charity stripe.

    Capela most definitely needs to improve on that moving forward, as poor free-throw shooting will limit his minutes, and thus slow his development. He also needs to work on a mid-range jumper and slowly extend his range, as he took zero shots outside of ten feet this past season. Still, he is a very young player and will definitely continue improving with age.

    Although the Rockets will likely make major changes across their roster, Capela will not be one of them and should see consistent playing time next season – putting him squarely on the standard league radar.

    Terrence Jones

    ADP: 94 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 104 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 263/270 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 232/234 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 50

    Once tabbed the power forward of the future, injuries have completely derailed Jones’ career. Following his breakout season in 13/14, it seems as though every time he gets his feet under him and starts gaining momentum on the floor, he suffers a freak injury and is forced to miss time. This past season, he suffered a leg injury in training camp, a lacerated eyelid, an upper respiratory illness, and missed four games following a car accident.

    His development has suffered as a result, as he found himself out of the rotation in the final 15 games of the season. His numbers continue to drop, as he posted averages of 8.7 points, 0.5 treys, 4.2 boards, 0.8 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.8 blocks on 45.2% shooting from the field, 31.6% shooting from deep and 66.4% shooting from the charity stripe. He is still just 24 year old and is a very skilled and versatile power forward who can score down low, put the ball on the floor, and also hit from deep.

    Jones’ mid-range game has taken the biggest hit over the past couple of years, so he needs to work hard this offseason to bring it back to a respectable level. But most importantly for Jones, he needs to remain healthy and continue his development heading into next season. As long as he’s healthy, he’s talented enough to contribute across the board, making him a worthwhile gamble with high upside in the late rounds next fantasy season.

    Corey Brewer

    ADP: 140 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 140 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 196/207 (8/9 cat), Per Game Value: 251/262 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 82

    A common theme among Rockets players, Brewer struggled through what ended up being his worst season in seven years production wise. His numbers dropped across the board, his shot selection worsened and his defense dropped off. Despite being an abysmal three-point shooter, his 27.2% efficiency didn’t stop him from raising his three-point shot frequency to a career-high 40.6% of all his attempts.

    He stopped taking the ball to basket – which in turn reduced his free throw attempts – and started settling for long jumpers and seldom converted three-pointers. As a result, his 38.4% shooting from the field was the worst since his rookie season back in 07/08. The rest of his numbers weren’t much better as he averaged 7.2 points, 0.7 treys, 2.4 boards, 1.3 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.2 blocks. He still brought his usual energy and hustle, but saw every other facet of his game drop off this season.

    It’s clear that he will never be a good three-point shooter, so he needs to drastically reduce his three-point attempt rate and focus on getting to the basket and scoring in transition. He also needs to improve defensively as he just had arguably the worst defensive season of his career. Heading into next season, he will not be on the standard league radar but depending on his situation, he may find himself back on the radar later in the season.

    Jason Terry

    ADP: N/A, Total Value: 231/242 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 289/295 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 72

    Not expected to be in the rotation this season, the failed Ty Lawson experiment led to Terry playing 72 games as the back-up point guard. Terry being a part of the rotation was just one of the many reasons why the Rockets endured such a down year, as he wasn’t productive at all – although he did shoot 35.6% from deep. His best days are clearly behind him – ending half a decade ago – and retirement is quickly approaching. He will never be fantasy relevant again.

    Josh Smith

    ADP: 134 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 118 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 272/298 (8/9 cat), Per Game Value: 265/304 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 55

    Still just 30 years old, Smith’s play this season has put his NBA future in jeopardy. He was awful as a Clipper, and even worse as a Rocket after they acquired him in late January. Overall, he posted career-worsts across the board – 6.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.9 blocks on 36.4% shooting. Despite shooting just 28.7% from deep, three-pointers still accounted for 41% of all his FGA.

    Calling him a shell of his former self in Atlanta is an understatement. He has always been a player with a low basketball IQ, but his athleticism and defensive ability still made him a productive player. But as his athleticism and defense continues to diminish, he is becoming borderline unplayable.

    In fact, he fell out of the Rockets’ rotation altogether down the stretch. Better shot selection and an understanding of his strengths and weaknesses have always been what Smith needed to improve on throughout his career – but at this point, he is what he is. If he’s lucky to find himself with a job at the end of a bench next season, he most definitely will not be fantasy relevant.

    DOCTOR’S ORDERS

    The Rockets need to blow up the roster and bring in far better two-way players, as well as veteran players to change the culture of the current group. The bench was extremely weak and needs to be fortified. Lastly, they need to bring in a coach with strong personality and leadership qualities.

    (Editor’s Note: Since this was written they brought in Mike D’Antoni, making Gio’s last sentence really funny – Bru)

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