Friday night features a Western Conference showdown between two playoff contenders. The Rockets (22-8) roll into Memphis fresh off a win in Phoenix to face the Grizzlies (19-12), who just snapped a three-game skid with a win in Detroit.
To get you ready for this big showdown, we have guest Darren Yuvan, a writer over at SB Nation’s Rockets blog The Dream Shake, who joins us as the latest guest for our 5 Questions segment.
We also returned the favor and answered a few of Darren’s Grizz-related questions. You can check that out here.
1. James Harden has always been a ball-dominant guard, so the move to point guard made sense. Currently, the Rockets boast the 4th best offense in the NBA. How much of that is Harden, and how much is the addition of guys like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson around Harden?
Well, both Gordon and Anderson have been perfect fits both alongside James Harden’s game -- which features getting into the paint to collapse the defense -- and Mike D’Antoni’s system, which features a lot of pick and roll in an effort to do the same. Both Gordon and Anderson feast off of the open looks they receive, and both are better than any other three-point shooters the Rockets have on the roster. And while Anderson is pretty streaky at times, “Splash” Gordon, as we like to call him, is having his best season in years. His 17.6 points per game and 43.6 percent shooting from three have him as an early leader for the Sixth Man of the Year award. The Rockets also still have Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley to knock down open triples as well. This is a team with great chemistry.
But everything starts and ends with the Beard. The Rockets go as he goes, and though they do have more weapons around him this season, he’s in the midst of a historic year. He’s leading the league in assists with 11.7 per game, and is only the second player in the history of the NBA to have at least 7 assists in his first 30 games of a season. The other is John Stockton. He’s also scoring as much as ever (27.8 points per game) and has been both the Rockets’ MVP and one of the two front-runners for league MVP through the first quarter of the year.
2. The Rockets have steadily improved on defense since Patrick Beverly’s return, and as of Tuesday have the 16th best offense base on DRtg according to Basketball Reference. That's not elite, but when paired with this offense, it's a dangerous combination. Given that sort of performance so far, what do you think the ceiling for this team is?
If the Rockets continue playing this type of defense, the ceiling is undoubtedly a trip to the NBA Finals. Since Beverley’s return, they have the eighth-best defense in the league over that time period, and I think anyone who hasn’t seen much of the Rockets this year will be surprised at the defensive intensity they bring. This isn’t last year’s squad.
The Rockets have wins over Golden State, Oklahoma City, Boston and San Antonio this season, along with very close losses to the Spurs and the Cavaliers, so if they can keep up this type of defensive play, they can hang with and beat literally any team in the league. They are currently on a 58-win pace, and as long as they stay healthy and continue playing this type of defense, they sky is literally the limit.
3. Clint Capela is a great young player to watch, and it looked like he was really starting to bloom in his first year as a full-time starter before this injury. How much of an overall impact does his loss make? What potential acquisitions do you think the Rockets might look at (Noel or WCS?), and are there any regrets over the Motiejunas situation now?
This is no small loss for the Rockets. Capela is their best pick and roll player, is vicious above the rim off of Harden lobs and is also the best rim protector in Houston. The Rockets will indeed miss him for the next 4-6 weeks.
But that being said, they also have some capable guys to pick up the slack. Montrezl Harrell is a fine young player in his own right, and though he doesn’t have quite the height and length that Capela does, he brings many of the same strengths. He had 17 points and 3 blocks in Wednesday’s victory over the Suns. And the Rockets also have a crafty veteran in Nene. And while he is 34 years old, as long as Houston limits his minutes in the 24 – 26 range, he is still effective. He had 12 points and 2 blocks against the Suns.
The Rockets can also use Ryan Anderson at the five and youngster Sam Dekker at the four in small, quick lineups, and Dekker’s emergence as a factor off the bench is something everyone should keep an eye on. He’s extremely athletic.
For now, I don’t see the Rockets making any moves. I think they’ll attempt to hold down the fort until Capela returns with what they have. He’s expected back in January, and there’s no need to give up assets for another big who will simply clog the rotation once Capela returns. If the Rockets suffer another injury to the front line or Capela suffers a more long-term setback, all bets are off however.
While it would be nice to have Donatas Motiejuanas right now, it was painfully obvious he didn’t want to be here anymore. It’s best for him and for the Rockets that all parties have moved on.
4. With Capela out, how do you think the Rockets match up with the Grizzlies, especially inside?
There is no doubt that the Grizzlies hold the advantage inside against the Rockets. They likely do even with Capela in the lineup. So the best thing Houston can do is make the Memphis front line work extremely hard defending. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of that small, quick lineup with Anderson at center and Dekker at the four in an effort to make the Memphis bigs chase them around the perimeter. They’d be at a disadvantage guarding guys like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph inside, but Mike D’Antoni will be happy to trade threes for twos and to use the threat of the long ball to move Memphis out of the paint and to hopefully open things up inside a little bit. It’s no easy task, but expect Houston to counter the Memphis power game with speed and outside shooting.
5. The Rockets handed out out big money contracts to Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson this offseason. So far, those deals have worked out, but are you worried about the long-term return on those investments given injury history.
The Anderson contract makes me a little more nervous than the Eric Gordon one. Both are signed through the 2020 season, though Anderson’s deal is for a lot more money. He’ll be making $21 million per season by the final year of his contract, and he averages about $20 million per season for the length of the deal. He’s also 28 years old, which means he’ll be 32 by the end of the deal.
Gordon, on the other hand, is a year younger at age 27 and is making just $12 million per season. By 2020, his deal goes up to $14 million. That’s a substantially more palatable (and tradeable deal) for the Rockets, and one that’s not an overpay, even considering Gordon’s injury history. Especially for what he’s bringing to the team right now.
Might the Rockets end up regretting one or both of these deals? Sure, it’s definitely possible. After all, the biggest predictor of future injury is past injury, and both of these players have a pretty big past history. But at the end of the day, I trust Rockets GM Daryl Morey to adjust and work some magic when and if need be. Though I do think the Rockets will be more likely to regret the Anderson deal than the Gordon one.
Thanks again to Darren from The Dream Shake for his great insight into the Rockets. Be sure to check out Grizzly Bear Blues’ Q&A with them as well as you prepare for Friday night’s match-up.