In the Something To Prove series, we’ll take a look at a few players from each team with — you guessed it — something to prove during the 2017-18 season. Some may be at a career crossroads, while others may need to prove an added part of their game is sustainable.
The Houston Rockets entered last season as a high-variance team. The hiring of head coach Mike D’Antoni piqued the interest of many; pairing his vision with James Harden seemed like a match made in heaven, but defense remained a major question mark.
Harden’s move to point guard led to an MVP-caliber year. The Rockets went from 41 wins in 2015-16 to 55 last season. The offense jumped from eighth in offensive rating (105.5) to second (111.8) last season, per NBA.com. The defense wasn’t great (18th), but it was serviceable.
The Rockets knocked off the Russell Westbrook-led Oklahoma City Thunder in round one, then folded in six games to the San Antonio Spurs. It was an especially bad end to the series for Harden, dropping 10 points (2-of-11 shooting), seven assists, and six turnovers in the closeout game at home.
The Rockets got reinforcements for Harden over the summer. They traded for all-world point guard Chris Paul, then bolstered their bench (and perimeter defense) with the additions of Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker.
There may not be a team that had a better offseason than Houston. The Rockets closed the gap on Golden State without sacrificing their core. We’ll see if — or how far — they can push the defending champs this year. On a smaller level, let’s take a look at the players with the most to prove this season.
The ball is in your court: Ryan Anderson
Anderson is what I’d like to call an old school stretch 4. His value mostly derives from his ability to knock down 3s; he’s a career 38.1 percent shooter from deep who drained 40.1 percent of his treys on seven attempts per game last season. That type of shooting prowess on that level of volume has obvious benefits to a team’s offense.
He ripped teams to shreds on spot-up attempts (87th percentile) and in the pick-and-pop (81st percentile). Anderson didn’t just launch 3s; he launched deep ones. The pick-and-pop with him and Harden was nearly indefensible because of how far they could stretch defenses:
The “issue” with Anderson is that shooting is all he brings. The days of being one of the league’s most prolific offensive rebounders are over. He wasn’t an effective post player (15h percentile), and is a black hole once he gets the ball on the block. Defensively, he’s a sieve; he lacks the mobility to handle anyone on the perimeter, and doesn’t possess the length or leaping ability to protect the rim. Here’s a quick example. He doesn’t bother Goran Dragic at all on this drive:
Stretch 4s of his ilk (him, Steve Novak, and to a lesser extent, Ersan Ilyasova) have been replaced by playmaking 4s. Not only can they shoot, they can attack hard closeouts and get to the rim. They can make the necessary reads in short-roll situations. Most importantly, they offer a level of versatility (or at least competence) on defense. Draymond Green and Paul Millsap are the standards in this regard, but that’s also why “tweener” forwards like James Johnson and Jared Dudley are valuable.
Anderson’s lack of versatility, on both ends of the floor, is why he’s not worth his hefty contract, and why the Rockets are so pressed to move him. The challenge for Anderson — this season and beyond — is to add dimensions to his game. He needs to become a more willing passer on the block and in the pick-and-roll. There isn’t much upside for him defensively, but becoming smarter in terms of angles and positioning would certainly help.
We need answers, Sway: Chris Paul
Paul, by virtually any measure, is one of the greatest point guards the NBA has ever seen. Not many players in league history have combined skill, intelligence, competitiveness, and efficiency as he has:
He does virtually everything teams want from a great player: He sees the floor well, takes care of the ball, shoots well from all over the floor, finishes at the rim, gets others involved, and defends at a high level. The only questionable part about Paul’s actual game is his shot selection, and even that comes with two caveats:
- Mid-range jumpers are frowned upon in the Moreyball Era, but Paul is one of the best mid-range shooters in the game.
- The other knock on Paul his that he doesn’t press the issue enough. It seems counterintuitive to criticize a player for not forcing shots, but it does have some merit. Paul is a skilled shooter, shot creator, and finisher. His ability screams “best player on a contender.” However, his reluctance to force the issue limits his ceiling as a No. 1 option.
In previous years, that meant leaning on David West or Blake Griffin to help carry the load. This time around, Paul will have Harden — a bona fide scorer and playmaker — to alleviate some of the pressure.
There won’t be many “excuses” for Paul in Houston. He’s playing alongside a superstar. The floor will be spread. The roster is filled with quality role players. You always have to leave room for potential injuries, but there isn’t much reason for the Rockets to miss a Western Conference Finals berth this season. It’s time for Paul to get that proverbial monkey off his back.
- As mentioned earlier, Harden is coming off another MVP-caliber season. He slapped down a 29-8-11 line with a 44-35-85 shooting split. He’ll move back to more of an off-ball role, which shouldn’t be a difficult transition. He’s already an elite spot-up threat (91st percentile on spot-ups). He shot a shade over 83 percent from the field on cuts last season, albeit on limited volume (23 possessions). The fact that he personally recruited Paul leads me to believe he’s willing to share the spotlight. The real question: Will he exert more energy defensively, and will it be consistent? We’ve seen stretches of slightly above-average defense with flashes of brilliance. He’s a surprisingly sturdy post defender, and has the quickness to hang with most wings. Focus and effort-based elements demand Harden’s attention. If they improve, the Rockets may have a legitimate shot in a potential series against the Warriors.
Luc Mbah a Moute
- Mbah a Moute has long been one of the NBA’s most underrated defenders, comfortably defending both forward spots. He has also doubled as one of the worst shooters in the league. Last year, he shot a career-high 39.1 percent from deep, but on minuscule volume (1.4 attempts per game). His volume rose in the postseason (2.3 attempts), but his percentage plummeted (31.3 percent). It’s clear last year was an outlier, but he’ll also be playing with two elite passers in an up-tempo system. That should lead to an uptick in attempts from deep; knocking those down at a decent clip could put him in position to close out games at the 4, or possibly the 5 in super-small lineups.
All stats via Synergy Sports unless otherwise noted.
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