Following a disappointing 41-41 season that ended with an embarrassing playoff loss to the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors, one would think the Rockets would temper their expectations for the 2016-17 season. Friday, at media day, that was hardly the case.
“Championship,” Rockets guard James Harden replied when asked what he would consider a successful season.
When asked if that was a realistic goal following last season’s troubles and the loss of Dwight Howard in free agency, the Rockets guard remained confident.
“Realistic,” he said. “We have more than enough in that locker room to win, and we’re willing and able to compete with anybody on any given night.”
It’s September, everyone is confident right now, but every Rocket who took the podium at Toyota Center Friday seemed happy and excited, which wasn’t the case six months prior.
“I think we’ll be better on both sides of the ball,” Rockets owner Les Alexander said after he kicked things off by announcing that Yao Ming’s number 11 would be retired February 2, when the Rockets host Howard and the Atlanta Hawks. “I think the coaching staff is fabulous. I think we have one of the top three players in the league, and I think our new guys all bought into winning. I think we are going to win more games than people anticipate.”
Alexander’s team flew under the radar over the summer, but made significant additions in forwards Ryan Anderson and Nene, as well guard Eric Gordon. Anderson and Gordon will help an offense that attempted the second most 3-pointers in the NBA last season, but finished in the bottom of 3-point shooting percentage.
“(It feels like) a fresh start,” point guard Patrick Beverly said. “You work hard and you move into that new apartment, and everything feels fresh. That’s how it feels around here. Like a breath of fresh air.”
A fresh start was needed after last season’s failure. It began with 3-straight 20-point losses, and things could never get going even after the dismissal of head coach Kevin McHale 11 games in. There were times when it felt like it was coming together, but the team could just never get over the hump.
“At some points in the season it felt like we were taking the right steps, but with the season that we had last year, I don’t even know how to explain. It was just a weird, weird, weird year,” forward Trevor Ariza said.
“We had another leader last year. He had his opinion and his voice, and I had mine,” Harden said.
Harden didn’t mention him by name, nobody did, except for replacement Clint Capela, but he was clearly talking about Howard, who opted out of the final year of his contract and signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks. With him and last season in the squarely in the rearview mirror, the Rockets are ready to move forward, and like Harden, Beverly thinks this group, led by its star, could be special.
“We expect big things,” he said. “Myself saying that (Harden) being MVP and (Harden) leading us to the championship is very attainable and I don’t think that’s subject to change.”