What Exactly Are The Houston Rockets Thinking?

The Houston Rockets led the NBA last season with 65 wins. Houston was also one game away from reaching the NBA Finals — whilst in the process usurping the Western Conference crown from the Golden State Warriors.

While minor cosmetic changes and tweaks occur to most basketball teams in the offseason, conventional wisdom suggested that the Rockets would essentially bring back the same squad from last year.

This wasn’t the case with Houston.

In order to re-sign both Clint Capela and Chris Paul, the Rockets had to cut costs elsewhere. This meant losing both Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to free agency. When looking for replacements, Houston nabbed James Ennis, Michael Carter-Williams and Carmelo Anthony.

Let’s first address the two-for-two swap of Ariza and Mbah a Moute for Ennis and Carter-Williams. Ariza not only was Houston’s best wing defender, but he brought immense experience and professionalism to the locker room. Ariza shot a respectable 36.8 percent from three. In essence, he’s the perfect glue guy for a team featuring considerable firepower.

Mbah a Moute is somewhat similar to Ariza. He’s also an above-average defender with the versatility to guard multiple spots on the floor. An unselfish player, the former UCLA Bruin is never hunting for his shot. As a spot-up shooter, Mbah a Moute was decent (36.4 percent) from beyond the arc. He often was tasked with defending the opposing team’s best wing when inserted into the contest.

Now, those minutes will go to Ennis and MCW. Ennis is springy — and does have some ability on the defensive end of the floor. However, he shot 33.3 percent from three a season ago. Ennis also has minimal playoff experience (especially when compared to Ariza and Mbah a Moute). Carter-Williams is one of the worst shooting guards in recent memory. He’s a career 25 percent shooter from beyond the arc. While decently capable as a playmaker, MCW is atrocious defensively. He’s a massive downgrade when graded alongside the aforementioned duo.

And then… there’s Melo.

We’re not talking about perennial All-Star Melo from his days in Denver. We’re talking about disgruntled, athletically-diminished, selfish-as-always Melo. There are a number of talking points from which to speak upon in terms of overall fit.

  1. Where does Anthony fit on the floor?
  2. Will he start?
  3. Is he going to accept a potential role coming off the bench?
  4. Who is he going to defend?
  5. How is he going to defend?

Last year in OKC, Anthony played as the ‘third cog’ behind Russell Westbrook and Paul George. He registered career-lows in points per contest (16.2), field-goal percentage (40.4 percent), and steals per game (0.6). Though never a fantastic defender, Anthony struggled immensely when forced to move laterally. At this point, he realistically can only guard power forwards.

When looking at Houston’s projected starting lineup, there are some concerns.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to start Paul, Harden, and Eric Gordon together. Though the three were productive when on the court last year, it was a small sample size (100 minutes). Gordon’s potential insertion into the starting lineup would also weaken a bench already beset by depth issues.

If Anthony does make his way into the starting unit, does he play at the three or the four? If positioned alongside P.J. Tucker, the two would struggle against speedier, quicker wings. Tucker is more of a stationary defender relying on strength and mass — whereas Anthony’s defensive ability resembles that of a parking cone.

There also could be a scenario in which Paul, Harden, and Capela start with Ennis and Tucker. Ennis would (in theory) function better as a true wing. Tucker could man the small-ball four spot whilst using his noteworthy brawn. This lineup could be Houston’s best defensive group — though spreading the floor with Ennis and Tucker could be a problem. Opposing teams would likely pack the paint, daring those two to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Along with that, would Anthony be okay with coming off the bench?

One other iteration involves Ennis at the three, and Melo at the four. The team will sacrifice defensive capabilities with Tucker on the bench. However, Melo and Ennis appear to fit better within the parameters of Houston’s offense.

It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out. It’s doubtful Houston can replicate last year’s brilliance. GM Daryl Morey will certainly be active in the buy-out market. A player such as DeMarre Carroll could be available down the line.

With that said, Houston clearly got worse over the offseason.

Image source: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports