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The Houston Rockets’ increasingly disappointing offseason underscores the importance of seizing the moment.
Just over a month ago, Houston had the Golden State Warriors on the ropes—up three games to two and heading home for Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets had two cracks at eliminating the eventual champs, probably should have advanced…and didn’t.
Houston missed its moment. And now the greatest challenger the Dubs (Kevin Durant version) have ever faced is receding into the rearview.
This might feel overdramatic; we’re only talking about Houston losing Trevor Ariza to the Phoenix Suns and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Los Angeles Clippers, per a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Neither player is a star, and the Rockets were significantly better against the Warriors in the playoffs when those two were on the bench.
Still, at a time when the entire league is scouring the landscape for rangy defensive aces who can also hit a three, the Rockets just lost two of them.
Ignore the small conference finals sample suggesting Houston doesn’t need its top two wing defenders. Length and versatility keyed a switching Rockets scheme that stifled most opponents, contributing to a No. 6 defensive rating during the regular season. Mbah a Moute could credibly guard five positions. Ariza handled four. Both were integral to an approach designed specifically to disrupt Golden State’s attack, and it’s worth wondering whether the Rockets will even try to employ the same strategy now that their most useful defenders are gone.
Chris Paul is due for decline entering his age-33 season, and physical breakdowns are now the expectation for his playoff trips. James Harden may very well reprise his MVP efforts, but what if he’s suddenly tasked with expending effort on both ends? Chances are his offense will take a hit if he can no longer pass off assignments via switches and/or hide while others do the real heavy lifting on D.
What if Clint Capela—currently getting hosed by bad timing, leaguewide empty pockets and the general inequity of restricted free agency—isn’t the happiest camper if he returns next year on his qualifying offer or a below-market deal from the Rockets, who haven’t even had to consider matching an offer sheet yet?
Carmelo Anthony, a reported target of the Rockets, simply cannot see the floor in meaningful minutes against Golden State. The Oklahoma City Thunder were 2.6 points per 100 possessions better on defense without Melo last year, and he ranked 72nd among 82 power forwards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Twenty-four players took at least 1,168 shots last year; Anthony’s effective field-goal percentage ranked 24th in that group.
He will not help.
In the absence of Ariza and Mbah a Moute, Houston will have to either play objectively worse wings or cull a rotation that was already painfully thin. Is Ryan Anderson going to see high-leverage minutes? Gerald Green?
As bad as that sounds, it beats the alternative of leaning even more on Paul and Harden, who didn’t hold up last year under the strenuous demands of a playoff rotation trimmed to seven players by the time the Rockets met Golden State.
Houston may still be the second-best team in the West, but it has lost critical pieces while the Warriors have retained their entire core and pocketed a playoff wild card in DeMarcus Cousins. This is lamentable on several levels, but the fact that money seems to be the driving force behind Houston’s personnel losses only makes it a bigger bummer.
Because as the Warriors plunge deep into the tax ($40 million and counting), adding Cousins and re-upping with Kevin Durant, Houston is operating more carefully. How else to explain its failure to beat one-year offers for Ariza and Mbah a Moute?
Houston owner Tilman Fertitta said in February he’d pay the tax to field a championship contender. To his credit, he green-lit a new deal for Paul and will have to shell out more for Capela. But Ariza and Mbah a Moute are gone because the Rockets chose not to spend what it would have cost to keep them.
Ironically, the Rockets are going to pay a heavy price for their thrift. They’ve fallen off the Warriors’ level and back into the clump of nonthreatening pseudo-contenders.