A few weeks ago Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted: “New York has agreed to a deal to send Carmelo Anthony to OKC for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a draft pick, league sources tell ESPN.” Ending the long and seemingly never-ending staring contest that was taking place between the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks this offseason.
As soon as the Rockets traded for Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony came out stating he would only waive his no-trade clause for the Rockets. Without having any time to celebrate or soak in the addition of Paul, Rockets fans immediately shifted their focus to the inevitable Super Team that they would be introducing to the league this year.
But then, contradictory to the Daryl Morrey era, nothing happened. Then Anthony relinquished some of his power too by opening up his options, which eventually led to him being traded to cross-state rival, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Everything after that in Houston felt like a failure. In the current state of the NBA, it’s either create a Super Team or tank to rebuild. The goal is to put together a roster that has a shot at dethroning the Golden State Warriors, or sell your assets, bottom out, acquire and groom young talent, and wait for the storm that is the Golden State Warriors and the 1-year rentals to pass over.
But once fans get over the fact that the Rockets came up short in the Carmelo Sweepstakes, and take a closer at what the Rockets ended up doing with their roster this summer, the pieces they kept by not trading for Carmelo (it was reported that the Knicks wanted Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon packaged as part of the deal, and more importantly to take on Ryan Anderson’s contract of 4 year, $80 million). A case can be made that they’re actually better off without Carmelo.
First, the most obvious upgrade from last year is the addition of Chris Paul. Patrick Beverley for years was the heart and soul for the Rockets, but when you can add one of the top-ten point guards of all time, without losing too much of the defensive intensity Beverley brought with Paul, you take the upgrade in every other statistical category when you’re trying to catch up to the teams ahead of you (in this case for the Rockets those team are the Warriors, Spurs).
Second, it’s no secret that the Rockets biggest weakness over the past few years has been their defense. Which was more apparent than ever in the playoffs last year when the Rockets struggled to stop the Spurs. The worst of it when they eliminated the Rockets in game 6 of the second round without Kawhi Leonard or Tony Parker, sending them home earlier than anyone expected.
A key factor in all this was that Ryan Anderson wasn’t able to hit his shot from outside as consistently as he did during the regular season, which was at 40.3% versus the dreadful 28.3% in the playoffs, while having to consistently switch onto the best scorer and not stopping them in the process, as teams targeted him throughout the season and playoffs.
Third, with the under that radar signings of PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute in a summer filled with high profile stars moving around, the Rockets went out and grabbed two players who will fill in for the bench players that were traded away for Paul (Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrel), with those two being able to tend to their defensive weaknesses from last year, while making sure they got players who could fit right into the system that has a reputation for launching threes at a record-breaking rate.
Mbah a Moute shot nearly 40 percent from three and is said to be working on nothing but that this offseason, PJ Tucker is a veteran that gives the Rockets added depth and someone who can play defense in place of Ryan Anderson who was continuously exposed in key matchups last year.
Another key signing was ensuring Nene was back on the roster, who served as a huge part of Houston’s success last year backing up Clint Capela.
Houston’s ability to incrementally get better without having to change much of the structure of the team will hopefully prove to be more beneficial come playoff time.
Regardless of all of this, Houston fans shouldn’t be too quick to glance over the fact that Harden and Paul will have to figure out how to make things work together, but if Harden slides back to his natural position, and the supporting cast that was brought in improves the weaknesses the team had, then Houston can position themselves to not only offensively keep up with the Warriors but also have the defense to contain them better than any other team in the West. By not trading away Ariza and Gordon, the Rockets are once again one of the deepest teams in the league. It’s now up to coach Mike D’Antoni to create a system with another star handling the ball that will maximize the potential of this team.
Admittedly a tough task ahead, but imagine bringing in Carmelo, a player who D’Antoni actually had a falling out with back in New York, who doesn’t play much (if any) defense, the chances of that scenario working out don’t seem as comforting either. Not taking anything away from Carmelo’s offensive ability, but Eric Gordon, accepting the role he’s in (6th man), might not just be a better overall player at this point in their careers, but is also a better fit for this Rockets team.
Carmelo’s reaction to him coming off the bench a couple of weeks ago already causes some room for concern in OKC. Paul George has said he’s gunning for the MVP. And we’ve all witnessed Westbrook’s tendency to dominate the ball from the start to the end of the shot clock.
Maybe Rockets fans are saying this to comfort themselves, but I believe that this Rockets roster would best Oklahoma’s in a series, because outside of their big three, no one else can shoot in that starting lineup, and their bench is essentially non-existent.
Last year Houston added Gordon and Anderson to improve the offense, this year we’ve added veterans to help defensively and not be a liability offensively. Morey’s approach to improving incrementally on the Rockets strengths and patching up the weaknesses might be a foreign approach to fans in Houston, but it might be the move this team needs now.
If D’Antoni can get Paul and Harden to feed off each other, rather than taking turns, this current roster has the potential to match up with Golden State in the playoffs. Isn’t that what it’s all about anyway?