July 30, 2018, 6:47 pm
Trevor Ariza’s second stint with the Houston Rockets will be remembered far more for how it finished on the court than the shocking way he decided to end it altogether. Barely a month after missing all 12 of his shots during that deflating Game 7 loss to the Golden State Warriors, Ariza agreed to a one-year, $15 million deal with the Phoenix Suns in the opening hours of free agency. The most indelible images of his four-year run with the Rockets, at least to many league followers, will always be open jumper after open jumper he clanked against the Warriors with the defending champions’ back against the wall at Toyota Center. Ariza misfired on all nine of this 3-point attempts in Game 7, six of them coming during Houston’s record stretch of 27 consecutive misses from deep – the type of sustained futility Daryl Morey’s numbers game is designed to avoid.
“Just, we go 7-for-44 [on threes],” Mike D’Antoni said, “it’s just going to be a tough night.”
Lost amid the Rockets’ depressing shooting performance and the ease with which Golden State went on to sweep the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals is that the champs trailed 54-43 at halftime of Game 7. It’s also hard to believe a healthy Chris Paul doesn’t find a way to blot Houston’s bleeding, just like he did a few days earlier while willing his team to a series-changing Game 5 victory. But a hamstring injury forced him to watch to the final two games of the Western Conference Finals from the bench, robbing the 14-year veteran of his best chance yet to compete for a Larry O’Brien trophy.
The Rockets expressed nearly as much hope for the future as disappointment for the present after their season ended in late May, and why not? Missing 37 threes, many of the makable variety, at home with the Finals on the line is a textbook case of result belying the process. There’s no reason to believe Houston would befall the same fate under the same circumstances next May. Lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Unfortunately, the realities of that phenomenon represent a problem for the Rockets, too. The expectation they would be nipping at the Warriors’ heels again a year from now hinged first and foremost on the assumption of staying the course. Golden State won’t ever be dethroned by star power alone, but the combination of talent, scheme, chemistry and continuity Houston managed to conjure in 2016-17. It will be very, very hard to come by again next season, and not necessarily because the Rockets are any worse off on paper.
James Ennis is a steal at the minimum. He’s an active, aggressive defender of both guards and wings, and should thrive playing in an uptempo system that limits his offensive responsibilities to sprinting the floor in transition, attacking close-outs and sneaking behind inattentive defenders for basket cuts. Ennis isn’t a knockdown shooter, but it’s not like he’s Tony Allen or Andre Roberson, either. He shot 35.3 percent on catch-and-shoot triples last season, per NBA.com/stats, and should find better looks playing next to James Harden and Chris Paul than he did with the Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies a season ago. If Ennis can forces defense to respect his jumper, there’s no reason why he won’t thrive with the Rockets.
“I think James Ennis could be really good,” D’Antoni said last week. “I think people are downplaying him.”
It’s the fact that Ennis, for all intents and purposes, has to replace both Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, back to the Clippers on a one-year deal worth half the mid-level exception, in Houston’s two-way attack that looms so potentially large. Carmelo Anthony, officially bought out by the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, isn’t as washed up as his brief stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder made him look. His jump-shooting struggles, so costly last season, seem more like a one-season blip rather than the new normal at this point, and there’s certainly something to be said for his ability to beat switches by bullying smaller defenders on the block – a wrinkle Houston lacked in its first season with Paul despite putting up the highest non-Warriors offensive rating of the decade.
Offensively, the Rockets should be better in 2018-19 whether Anthony embraces the diminished role he was so reluctant to accept with the Thunder. D’Antoni’s only obligation is to wins and losses; he’ll bench Anthony if the future Hall of Famer’s usage proves problematic. Worse is that cutting his minutes is the only way to mitigate the impact Anthony’s presence is primed to have on Houston’s defense.
It won’t matter all that much in the regular season. D’Antoni can stagger Harden, Paul and Anthony to ensure at least one of them is on the floor at all times, and toggle his rotation in crunch time to avoid slotting the latter on a dangerous opposing guard or wing. Of course, those determinations would be much easier to make if Anthony would drop his stubborn resistance to coming off the bench. Even if Anthony opens at small forward next to P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela up front, it’s highly unlikely Houston finishes most games with its starters. There are just too many places for the opposition to attack with both Harden and Anthony on the floor in winning time, and the reigning MVP certainly won’t be losing minutes to a thirty-something scorer who no longer has a position. It’s entirely plausible that Ennis, playing for his fifth team in as many seasons, is the one closing games at Anthony’s expense.
The answer should be much more simple in the playoffs, as Ryan Anderson learned the hard way last spring. Golden State isn’t going anywhere. Even if the Rockets are able to out-score opponents en route to a Western Conference Finals rematch, it won’t be enough to match the Warriors’ raw offensive fire power. Ariza was absolutely critical to Houston taking Steve Kerr‘s team to seven games in May. He guarded Durant and Curry for a combined 322 possessions in that series, nearly twice as many as the total of any other Rockets defender, according to Second Spectrum tracking data.
“There is no way we can do what we do without him,” assistant Irv Roland told ESPN’s Zach Lowe of Ariza midway through the Conference Finals.
Ennis is gritty enough to take that challenge head-on, but even doing so successfully wouldn’t mask the deficiencies met by Houston’s offseason. The Rockets found their most lasting means of success on defense against Golden State by downsizing, taking Capela off the floor, making Tucker their nominal center and switching across five positions. Without Ariza and Mbah a Moute, limited by lingering effects of a shoulder injury throughout the playoffs, getting to that lineup configuration could become a real chore for D’Antoni – and not just because Anthony lacks the lateral quickness to be included among them.
The only similar lineup that comes close to replicating the two-way effectiveness that posed such a real threat to the Warriors is Paul-Harden-Eric Gordon-Ennis-Tucker. Ennis is a less-reliable shooter than the notoriously-streaky Ariza, though, and Gerald Green, inspiring as he was last season, is hardly the kind of player a coach wants to count on come May. Even the newly-acquired Michael Carter-Williams is more playable in switch-everything situations than Anthony.
No matter. The loss of Ariza and Mbah a Moute always meant the Rockets would be forced to play differently going forward. Capped-out and with wings coming at a premium, Houston was never going to be able to replace them seamlessly. It’s not just the loss of two key contributors that stings, though; the addition of Anthony brings its own headaches, and compounds existing ones. Does that change the Rockets’ standing in the Western Conference? Probably not. Against the Warriors, though, their already-slim margin for error seems even thinner.