By Adam Spolane

The Rockets open the 2016-17 season Wednesday in Los Angeles, and following last year’s disappointing 41-41 campaign that ended in a 5-game flame-out against the Warriors, the team made massive overhauls by bringing in a new coach and spending over $135 million in free agency, but that doesn’t mean the Rockets are without questions, though. 

Will James Harden be a leader?

He’s said all the right things so far, which he always does, but there are reasons to think he will be the leader he’s supposed to be:

  1. He’s the longest tenured Rocket
  2. He’s the highest paid Rocket
  3. He’s the Rockets undisputed best player
  4. Dwight Howard is gone
  5. He’s bothered by the way he’s perceived

“We had another leader last year. He had his opinion and voice, I had mine.”

The subtraction of Howard will hurt, but I don’t think Harden will miss him. Howard is still really good, but he isn’t as good as Harden, despite making more than him last season and accomplishing more in his career. He still thought of himself as the team’s alpha-dog, and didn’t want to take a step back. That hurt the team. Now that he’s gone, Harden’s voice will be loudest.

“When’s the last time someone averaged 29, 7, and 6 and didn’t make an All NBA Team?”

That’s what Harden asked reporters at last month’s media day, and he has a point. He wasn’t in shape at the start of last season, he probably got Kevin McHale fired, and the guy was a walking blooper reel at one end of the floor, but to say he wasn’t one of the six best guards in the NBA last season is absurd. He carried a team to the playoffs that frankly wasn’t very good. The slight came because of the negative way he is perceived around the league. Part of that negative perception is earned, but not all of it. He’ll never be able to wash it all away, but this season can get rid of some of it.

Can they survive without Patrick Beverly?

The Rockets guard will miss at least three weeks due to knee surgery, though the timetable seems optimistic, but it’s a bad sign for Beverly who played in 71 games last season 15 more than the two seasons prior which doesn’t include sitting the entire 2015 postseason. Losing Beverly is big not only because he’s a good player, but because of the staggering lack of depth the Rockets have at the guard position. Behind Harden and Eric Gordon the Rockets have K.J. McDaniels, Booby Brown, and Tyler Ennis. Mike D’Antoni can get creative with his lineups, but that isn’t ideal. Oh, and while he’s not quite as good as his reputation, Beverly remains the Rockets best perimeter defender, so missing him for an extended period is bad news for what is already projected to be a leaky defense.

Can they score with Harden off the floor?

Points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor Points per 100 possessions with Harden off the floor
2013-2014 110.7 103.6
2014-2015 107.7 93.7
2015-2016 107.2 99.1

The 99.1 points per 100 possessions the Rockets scored with Harden off the floor last season would be just behind the Sixers and Lakers for worst offense in the NBA. The big challenge for D’Antoni is figuring out to keep the offense afloat for the 8 or so minutes a night when Harden is on the bench. The roster isn’t stocked with playmakers, so this will be an issue that was only highlighted when Harden was off the floor in the preseason (just watch last week’s game in San Antonio). I think the plan going in was the have the Rockets bench unit anchored by Nene and Eric Gordon, but Beverly’s injury might force them to scrap that plan. It’s anyone’s guess what D’Antoni tries now.

Does Sam Dekker bounce back?

The Rockets took Dekker with the 18th pick in the 2015 draft. He played in 3 games and did not score a single point in six total minutes. Judging by the preseason, the Rockets expect him to be a big part of their rotation this season, and he’s looked fine during the preseason. He’s tall, he’s athletic, and he can play multiple positions. He draws Chandler Parsons comparisons because of the whole “white” thing, but he’s not nearly as skilled as the former Rocket, so let’s temper our expectations a bit. He does plenty of good things on the floor, and he’s healthy now. Seeing as how he’s the only Rockets first round pick from the last two drafts, they need him to be good and they need him to make a contribution now.

Can they stay on the floor?

The Rockets have already lost Beverly, and their three big free agent pick-ups from the summer haven’t exactly been a picture of health over the years. Ryan Anderson, Gordon, and Nene have combined to miss 23 percent of their team’s games over the last four seasons. Nene is going to miss some time, he’s old, that’s to be expected, but Gordon and Anderson are absolutely crucial to this team. Without them, say goodbye to the 2016-17 Rockets.

Will they ever play 2 bigs at the same time?

The Rockets only have three traditional bigs on the roster at this point (sorry, not counting Chinanu Onuaku). At no point in seven preseason games did Clint Capela, Nene, or Montrezl Harrell play at the same time with Anderson starting at power forward and Dekker backing him up. Last season, the Rockets started Josh Smith, Donatas Motiejunas, and Terrence Jones alongside Capela and Howard, starting the two together for about six weeks. With Mike D’Antoni in town, those days appear to be long gone.


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