Houston Rockets: Apollo 8

A $2.4 million veteran minimum contract is all that is needed for the Rockets to sign an eroding Carmelo Anthony. Clint Capela potentially re-signing to a larger deal is the only thing preventing this franchise from further cementing themselves as the best chance out West to dethrone the Warriors, but much like Apollo 8, the 1968 space mission undertaken by NASA in a six-day span from December 21st until the 27th; Houston will just orbit the moon, the thought of landing is just too daunting right now. If not now, when? The answer is a lot more jaded and subjective, but alas, so are the limited opportunities you’re given to turn in your favor.

The Warriors are currently undergoing a run we haven’t seen since the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers three-peated, and if they win 4 in 5 years, which I believe they will, then we haven’t seen a run like this since Jordan and the Bulls went 6-for-6 in a span of eight years in the 90’s. They’re not thought of as fondly as the Bulls, a legendary juggernaut; the Warriors are just another arrogant super-team right now, and everyone just keeps hopping on the bandwagon. Their individual legacies may never eclipse the legends who preceded them due to the certain fact that people will always factor in the level of competition you faced, but their rings will be eternal, and a testament to their talents. Not all rings are equal, but neither are all franchises.

It’s why Houston finds themselves in such a great situation. Back in 2012, they took a gamble on a 23-year-old James Harden, betting that this young man who had been coming off the bench to provide instant offense for the Thunder, which resulted in that team making its first Finals appearance since before they stole the SuperSonics from Seattle; hoping he could grow into a franchise superstar for them. He did just that right away in the first game of the 2012-13 season against the Detroit Pistons, on Detroit’s home court, dropping 37 points, to go along with 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals, only four turnovers, and all while shooting 14-of-25 from the field, and five-for-six from the line. Not a lot of franchises are willing to make that trade, aren’t intelligent enough, don’t care enough, or just aren’t aggressive enough in pursuing a player they believe can change their fortune. That’s what separates a two-time championship franchise from the rest of the pack.

Three seasons with Kevin McHale, a season of purgatory, and now D’Antoni; when will the Rockets stick the coaching hire? Last season was D’Antoni’s first where one of his teams was top 10 in defensive rating, something that may win you 55% of your games during the regular season, eight Coach of the Month awards, and two Coach of the Year awards, but will ultimately prevent you from reaching the Finals or even winning 50% of your games in the postseason. It’s the same reason why Popovich is 5-0 in playoff series against D’Antoni; 20-6 overall, you need to be smarter on more than one side of the floor. Not only that, you need to be a master strategist out there on the sideline, making the small adjustments to the rotation, the game plan, or even just talking to your players and keeping everyone calm and collected. D’Antoni only draws up offensive plays; changing with the era naturally, but these Rockets haven’t really done anything that D’Antoni hasn’t done before. He reached the Western Conference Finals in ’05 and ’06 with the Seven-Seconds-or-Less Suns, only pushing either series to five, but the point is, he’s been there before. We know he can take offensive talent and spam most of the NBA, but the elite teams and champions have never struggled too much with a D’Antoni-coached team.

To put it abrasively swift, I don’t believe this man can even coach a team to the Finals; tuck those championship aspirations deeper into the back of your subconscious. Houston won’t fire the head coach that helped bring them to a seventh game against the defending champs in the Western Conference Finals, especially since their superstar point guard went down with an injury in a pivotal Game 5 that the Rockets ended up winning to take a 3-2 series lead. If they were smart however, and Daryl Morey, the Rockets General Manager, is a smart guy; they should be looking at other coaching suitors. Significant cap space is going to Harden, Paul, possibly Capela, and for the next two years, Ryan Anderson; D’Antoni will never maximize that potential to a Cinderella Story.

LeBron just signed out West, to a franchise in the Lakers that is already on record stating they’re not too concerned with the regular season win total, but are expecting to make their improvements during the playoffs. Do the Houston Rockets seriously believe adding a declining 34-year-old-Carmelo Anthony to their line-up will improve this team come postseason, especially since he will turn 35 by the start of the Conference Finals, assuming the Rockets make it that far? In the 59 regular season games in New York when Anthony was the primary option, D’Antoni had a 26-33 record, 32-38 overall; meaning he had a 6-5 record when Anthony sat out. That record is slightly misleading since the mediocre Knicks were only 28-26 prior to the trade that sent most of the pieces they could’ve kept had they waited to just sign Anthony in the offseason, but regardless, most of those wins in that 6-5 record came during the Knicks strike-shortened 2011-12 campaign where they won 36 games, during a little moment you might have heard of called Linsanity. Anthony returned to the line-up, resumed his role, and Lin would go on to lose his magic and get injured shortly after that.

D’Antoni was never able to properly utilize Carmelo as a primary scorer. He allowed him to roam freely too much, pounding the ball into the hardwood, hesitating, head-faking, posting-up, jab-stepping, and pulling up, but yet, never running any offense. It’s why even though D’Antoni and Anthony argued over him taking more three’s, he was actually more successful hitting the three while simultaneously increasing the percentages of his shots taken from behind-the-arc at a significant clip in the following season; 19.3% overall in the 66-game lockout-shortened season, where D’Antonio coached 42 of those Knicks games, compared to the 27.8% of Anthony’s shots coming from behind-the-arc in 2012-13, meanwhile connecting on a 37.9% rate; second-highest in his career. How did Mike Woodson take D’Antoni’s 23.6 points-per-game on a 42.9% field goal percentage, run-and-gun version of Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks and make it successful? Simple, he slowed the pace down, and continued implementing the spacing concept that D’Antoni had already been trying to acclimate the high-scoring forward to.

Scoring attempt percentages at the basket went down from 35.3% in Denver to 26.5% in New York, while his threes increased from 13% to 23%, decreasing his percentage of long-two’s attempted for the first time since 2006-07, while converting his three’s at a higher rate. He stagnated under D’Antoni in the strike-shortened season, in an instance where two men had a similar vision but different ways on seeing it through. For D’Antoni, simply allowing Anthony to make the best of the offense while pushing the tempo as much as he could, like Steve Nash before him, was good enough. Anthony needed more help than that, and D’Antoni never quite understood why. It really all boils down to the fact that Anthony is not a playmaker, which is why he continued taking less shots at the rim, taking a few steps back every possession to space the floor for the 2012-13 Knicks, taking fewer shots from 3-10 feet, while keeping his mid-range relatively the same but once again, turning his long two’s into three’s. It was a genius strategy that allowed an aging Jason Kidd and a fluctuating guard rotation to keep the ball moving, keep the floor spaced, and get easy looks to the big men at the basket or shooters at the three. Anthony thrived in this system due to being the one who could go isolation and take over a game with his offense, while simultaneously being able to plug right into the floor-spacing, slow-paced, half-court offense style of play.

That’s all to say, will D’Antoni figure out how to use a significantly older Carmelo Anthony a season after being defeated by a version of the Golden State Warriors that’s somehow more complete than ever before? Houston thrived last season by allowing James Harden and Chris Paul to isolate on opposite sides of the floor, and either beat a man off the dribble, or call a pick-and-roll to create a mismatch, initiate offense, drive to the rim, or kick out to shooters. That sounds like the perfect schematic to plug Carmelo Anthony into, but now he’s 34, and definitely a grumpier man than ever before. He sacrificed his 10-to-20 foot isolation game more than ever before with the Thunder last season, and the pace is only going to increase on the Rockets. The shot attempts from mid-range will likely continue to decrease as well, something Anthony is already on record as stating he wasn’t comfortable with in his role with the Thunder last season1.

As far as being effective as that type of player, I don’t think I can be effective as that type of player. I think I was willing to accept that challenge in that role, but I think I bring a little bit more to the game as far as being more knowledgeable and what I can still do as a basketball player.

If Anthony still believes that upon signing with the Rockets, should the Rockets continue to feed that ego; they will certainly fall short of expectations once again. Clint Capela re-signing will allow the Rockets to remain a strong presence in the paint defensively; doing the dirty work and cleaning up any messes down low while providing quality rebounding, and easy alley-oop opportunities if the defense isn’t paying attention. That, along with the new defensive rotation of P.J. Tucker and James Ennis, as well as solid perimeter defense from Chris Paul, Michael Carter-Williams, and some contributions from Eric Gordon; Houston’s hoping to replicate the defensive pressure that their hybrid wing switching defensive scheme with Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Tucker was able to apply on the perimeter last season. In the probable chance this defensive scheme can replicate what the Rockets achieved defensively last season, does adding Anthony actually make the offense better?

He shot a woeful career-low 40.2% field goal percentage, while also taking a career-low in field goals attempted per game. He shot a worse three-point percentage than last year, but his three-point shooting has always been sketchy from year-to-year. Regardless, he saw more open shots than ever before, even if he was fairly detached from the Russell Westbrook System, and yet, he still shouldn’t have been clanging wide-open shots all year-long. A career-high 40.2% of his shots came from behind-the-arc with the Thunder last season; what is he realistically going to provide this Rockets team with? He’s a liability on defense, and we’re not sure if he’s hit his floor or if he’s on the verge of falling through the foundation yet.

You can argue he can provide consistently adroit pick-and-pops in the mid-range to mix up Houston’s offense, while occasionally extending out to the three, but why can’t Harden just take a few less three’s a game, take one more mid-range jump shot a game, and actually diversify his actual offensive skill set even more than he has since arriving in Houston? D’Antoni does run a real offensive system, which is why his teams win more games than a team like the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder, whose head coach allows the star player to run whatever he likes whenever he likes, which is why they won only one more game despite adding another All-Star in Paul George, and a former star in Carmelo Anthony. A player like Anthony however; one stubborn to change, stuck in their ways and delusional over their own corroding skillset, that kind of player can destroy a team’s chemistry and throw off a locker room. I’m not saying this team won’t be successful if they pull off all these signings, I’m not saying they won’t find a way to make it work with Anthony on the court, I’m saying don’t be surprised if the Lakers knock this team off in the second round

Editor’s Notes

1. Fansided – thunderousintentions.com – 4/29/2018 – Carmelo Anthony: Observations from Melo’s intriguing exit interview

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