Bold predictions for Rockets’ 2016-17 season

The 2016-17 NBA season is officially underway, and the Houston Rockets already look like one of the league’s most intriguing teams. Offensively, James Harden and Co. could be special, and we’ve seen evidence of that thus far throughout the preseason and two regular-season contests.

While the Rockets’ offense has lived up to the hype, the defense still has a ways to go. The Rockets are currently 1-1, following up a head-scratching loss to the Lakers with a sound defeat of the Mavericks. The season could go either way depending on the progress made at both ends of the floor. Will this be the year Houston puts it all together, or are the Rockets headed for yet another disappointment after a lackluster 2015-16 campaign marred by injuries and in-fighting?

Here are five bold predictions for the Rockets’ campaign.

1. James Harden will be a top-five point guard 

We are in a golden era for point guards, and each of the league’s elite floor generals brings something special when they are on the floor. Russell Westbrook’s combination of size, speed and hops makes him arguably the best athlete to ever play the position. Stephen Curry is the sport’s greatest shooter. Chris Paul excels at making everyone around him better with his uncanny court vision and leadership skills. Kyrie Irving’s ball-handling acumen can shatter the cagiest defender’s ankles. All four will be in the running for the MVP this season.

James Harden is an excellent blend of all four of those men. Like Westbrook, he can get to the basket whenever he wants and has the savvy to consistently draw contact. While not the marksman that Curry is, Harden’s career 36.8 percent shooting from deep makes him a outside threat that defenses must always account for. He’s averaged at least seven assists the past two seasons, which is bound to increase with the move to point guard. He’s also finished second in the scoring title race the last two years and averaged at least 25 points per game every season since joining Houston in 2012.

Harden averaged 20.2 points (third-best in the NBA) and 10.7 assists (first) in exhibition play. Even though he lost Dwight Howard, his supporting cast is much deeper and stronger than it’s been in previous years. “The Beard’s” preseason success is carrying over into the regular season. He’s tied for fifth in scoring (30 PPG) and leads the league in assists (12.5 dimes per game). Westbrook is the only other player to rank in the top 10 in both categories.

Harden will face heavy competition for that fifth spot. Damian Lillard, John Wall, Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry are all All-Star-caliber talents who will make compelling cases on playoff contenders this season. Harden’s inconsistent defense will also be the first thing detractors point to when comprising their rankings.

However, Harden is putting more effort into getting stops than he did last year, and the hope is that persistence pays off going forward. Still, the combination of Harden’s remarkable durability and the gaudy numbers he’s bound to put up in D’Antoni’s system make him a fringe MVP contender and solid bet to be one of the five best point guards in basketball this season.

2. Ryan Anderson will have a career year

Something has always stood in the way of Ryan Anderson’s road to stardom. He emerged as a sweet-shooting big man in Orlando, nabbing Most Improved Player honors following the 2011-12 season. That summer, he was traded to New Orleans and was a key cog in the Hornets/Pelicans’ rebuilding effort. He was in the midst of a breakout year in 2013 (19.8 points, 6.5 rebounds) when a scary neck injury cut short his season and threatened his career. He managed to bounce back, but injuries and the presence of superstar Anthony Davis hindered his progress. In 484 career games, Anderson has made just 159 starts.

Now in Houston, he has the starting power forward spot to himself and will feast on open looks created by the defensive attention Harden will draw. Anderson averaged 17 points per game last season, but those numbers extrapolated per-36 minutes increase his scoring output to a career-high 20.2 PPG. In addition to being a lifetime 37.7 percent shooter from downtown, Ryno is an underrated weapon on the interior, and the Rockets will need his presence down low to make up for Capela’s lack of polished offensive skills.

The Cal product is off to a slow start thus far, averaging nine points and five boards in two games. He’s still shooting a solid 37.5 percent from three, but Houston will need him to be more aggressive. His 10 field goal attempts per game is tied with Ariza for third-most on the team, behind Harden and Gordon.

The main concern for Anderson will be injuries. He’s never played a full 82-game season and appeared in more than 66 games just once in his eight-year career. However, if he can stay healthy, the playing time and touches will be there. That will put the 28-year-old on course to be the star he was always meant to be.

3. Trevor Ariza will be moved by the trade deadline

The Rockets signed Trevor Ariza two years ago for his trademark perimeter defense as well as the opportunity to be a third option behind Harden and Howard. The deal hasn’t been a complete bust. He’s missed just one game in his second stint with the team, while averaging a modest 12.7 points per game.

However, there are plenty of reasons to believe the 31-year-old’s days in Space City are numbered.

First, it is an unwritten rule that the trade deadline cannot pass without Daryl Morey making a move. He’s pulled off a midseason trade every year he’s been in Houston with the exception of last season, when a deal that would send Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton to Detroit was nixed by the league. With a mandate to improve upon last season’s lackluster campaign, Morey will be looking for trade chips to dangle. Harden isn’t going anywhere. Barring a blockbuster, it’s hard to see Anderson, Gordon or Capela relocating either. That leaves Ariza, who was the subject of trade talk last season, as Morey’s next-best asset.

Second, Ariza’s scoring has dipped each season since coming back to Houston. After averaging 14.4 points per game with Washington in 2013-14, his production dipped to 12.8 PPG the following season. Last year, that number dropped a hair to 12.7 PPG. With Anderson and Gordon making big money to be offensive contributors, Ariza’s offensive output is bound to decline again. That hasn’t happened so far, as his 16 points per game is third-best on the team behind Harden (30 PPG) and Gordon (18.5), but it’s early and that number will likely fall.

Ariza’s offense isn’t the only thing trending downward. The Rockets allowed 107 points per 100 possessions last season with their starting small forward on the court. When Ariza sat, that number dropped to 102.3 points. The Rockets are already allowing 3.8 points per 100 possessions more this season when Ariza is on the floor.

With a new coaching staff in place, Ariza’s spot isn’t guaranteed. Once Patrick Beverley is healthy, the team will likely trot out a small-ball lineup of him, Harden and Gordon at times. Ariza could potentially play the 4 in that rotation or lose minutes to the club’s bevy of forwards. K.J. McDaniels will also be a bigger factor this season than he was under J.B. Bickerstaff and Kevin McHale’s regimes.

The $15.3 million Ariza is owed over the next two seasons is hefty, but also movable in the NBA’s increasing economy (especially since he’ll make less next season). Contenders are always in the market for a veteran 3-and-D guy, and Ariza is sure to generate some interest come February. If McDaniels continues to impress, there will be more incentive for Houston to dangle the veteran swingman.

4. Clint Capela will average a double-double

One of the most exciting aspects of the Rockets’ 2016-17 season will be the development of 22-year-old center Clint Capela. Capela’s production has increased each season thanks to the team continuing to carve out more playing time for him. His minutes jumped from 7.5 as a rookie to 19.1 last season as a spot starter at both center and power forward. As a result, his scoring and rebounding more than doubled from 2.7 points and three boards during his debut season to seven points and 6.4 rebounds last year.

This season, Capela is in line for even more playing time as the team’s starting center. He’s become a favorite target for Harden on pick-and-rolls that culminate in alley-oops. The plethora of shooters on the floor will also create space in the paint, which will allow Capela to clean up on the glass.

Per 36 minutes, Capela’s 2015-16 numbers jump to 13.3 points and 12.1 rebounds per game. Even with Nene cutting into some of Capela’s playing time, Capela is averaging 10 points and nine boards in just 25.5 minutes per game. Nene’s shoddy defense demands the Rockets either tether him with Capela or put the Swiss big man on the floor more during critical moments. That means his numbers are bound to increase along with his playing time.

5. The Rockets will be a top-five seed in the West

As bad as Houston was last season, it’s important to remember this team is only two years removed from a 56-win campaign and a trip to the Western Conference Finals. That was the season James Harden finally applied some effort on defense and was the runner-up to Steph Curry for the Most Valuable Player award.

The Rockets were also sixth in defensive efficiency that year before dropping to 20th last year. Defense continues to be a problem area for Houston, as the team is now 26th in defensive efficiency and allowing 109 points per game. Opponents are also shooting 47.3 percent from the field against Houston, which places them 24th in the league.

It’s too early to write Houston’s defense off already. There’s a lot of new pieces in place, and it’s going to take time for Jeff Bzdelik’s influence to truly take hold. The Rockets might not be as stout as they were defensively, but the potential is there for them to be at least middle-of-the-pack at stopping enemy offenses.

Harden is committed to being a two-way player and finally shutting up the naysayers who clowned his defense for years. He isn’t hampered by an offseason injury nor did he report to camp out of shape like he did last year. With the scoring load on his shoulders lessened, he should have more energy to be at least adequate at the other end.

Capela, while not the intimidating presence that Howard was, is still a solid rim protector who will make opposing scorers think twice about coming to the hole. Ariza, McDaniels and Beverley should all chip in on the perimeter, as well.

Offensively, the Rockets were the fourth-highest scoring offense in basketball last season despite injuries and poor chemistry. With Harden at the helm of D’Antoni’s fast-paced scheme, Houston is averaging 110 points per game (seventh in the NBA) and rank fourth in offensive efficiency. There’s nothing to suggest that trend won’t continue as chemistry improves.

Last year, three wins seperated the fifth seed (Portland) from the eighth seed (Houston). Since then, Oklahoma City (last season’s three seed) lost Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Dallas (sixth) lost Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia, replacing them with former Warriors Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. Memphis (seventh) is already dealing with injuries to Parsons (knee) and Tony Allen (knee), in addition to having an aging supporting cast.

Once you get past the top three in the West (Golden State, San Antonio and L.A. Clippers), you could talk yourself into or out of any of the other teams in the conference. Portland surprised many people by winning 44 games during a rebuilding year and earning the fifth seed, but did they overachieve or are they just getting started? Utah has a ton of potential, but can they stay healthy? Minnesota is poised to break out, but haven’t made the playoffs since George W. Bush’s second presidential term. Will the young Wolves’ talent win out or go through some growing pains? Sacramento has the best center in the league in DeMarcus Cousins, but can “Boogie” stay calm long enough to lead this team to the postseason?

Despite everything that went wrong for the Rockets last season, they still made the playoffs and were a few wins away from a prime spot in the tournament.

Imagine what they can do once they get their act together.

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