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The Post-Harden Rockets Have A Different Style — And Lots Of Possibilities

For almost a decade, the Houston Rockets lived at the forefront of innovation in the NBA. Since 2012, when they acquired James Harden, the Rockets have tried to solve basketball by both shifting the foundation over which the game is played and acquiring complementary talent to suit those ends.

Those quests brought the Rockets to some strange shores. As Steph Curry and the Warriors pulled the rest of the NBA into a modern era of player and ball movement, the Rockets went in the other direction, toward stasis and heliocentrism. From 2016-17 to 2019-20, the Rockets threw the fewest passes per game of any team while also traveling the shortest combined distance on offense.

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That stasis served one purpose: to let Harden shape the offense in his image. In 2018-19, Harden attempted 12.1 pullup 3s per game, more than any full team attempted that year, save of course the Rockets themselves. In that same season, Harden finished 16.4 possessions per game in isolation, more than any full non-Rockets team since NBA Advanced Stats started tracking the data in 2015. He led the league in free throw attempts every season from 2016-17 to 2019-20. No matter how you felt about the Rockets, they were doing something different, and in many important ways Houston changed the league as a result.

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The Rockets also found plenty of success playing that style. During those four seasons, they won the second-most games of any team. They scored the most total points,1 played the fourth-most games in the playoffs and came within a statistical anomaly of beating the Kevin Durant-Steph Curry Golden State Warriors in a series in 2018.

But Houston’s scheme never quite got it over the championship hump. And less than a year later, the architects of those Rocket offenses have moved on. Harden and head coach Mike D’Antoni are gone, as is general manager Daryl Morey. It even seems that Houston’s isolation revolution is over, leaguewide. Today’s Brooklyn Nets, with three isolation wizards in Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Harden himself — and D’Antoni as assistant coach — combine to use fewer possessions per game out of isolation than Harden alone last season.

Accordingly, the new regime in Houston is frighteningly normal. The Rockets now play like every other team in the NBA. The stepback lost; homogeneity won. They are also on track to finish below .500 for the first time since 2005-06. But for the first time since acquiring Harden, that doesn’t really matter. The team is no longer fixated on the present. Instead it is looking squarely at the future.

To that end, Houston is finally building a roster made for the world of the regular NBA. For years, they acquired players to complement the unique structure of Harden-ball. P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley and a host of others were asked to stand still and hit 3s on one end while switching and battling with opponents of varying size on the other. Succeeding on both ends required a very specific combination of skills.

That’s not necessary anymore. Since Harden was traded on Jan. 14, the Rockets have attempted a middling 9.6 pullup 3s per game. They’re throwing more passes per game than they have since 2016-17, though they’re still near the bottom of the league in that respect. Correspondingly, in the 2020-21 season as a whole Houston’s isolation possessions have been cut in half from last season, with its pick-and-rolls up by almost two-thirds.

And now that isolation-ball is dead, the Rockets are diversifying their talent portfolio. Houston’s young core is now amorphous, promising and ill-defined. That’s a good thing.

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This past offseason, the Rockets signed Christian Wood for $41 million over three years, which seemed a beefy offer for a player who averaged 11.2 points per game over a five-year career. But he has exploded this year, averaging 22.0 points and 10.2 rebounds per game as Houston’s starting center. Wood is obscenely athletic around the rim, shooting 80.3 percent there — the best mark in the league among players attempting five or more such shots a game. He uses the third-most possessions per game as a roller in the pick-and-roll, and has been more efficient than Anthony Davis in such plays. On top of his interior scoring, Wood is shooting 42.1 percent from deep. He also creates havoc on defense, with great steal and block rates. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, a compilation metric, lists Wood as tied for the eighth-most impactful player in the league on a per-possession basis this season. Recently, Wood has been sidelined with an ankle injury, and his loss has correlated with Houston’s downturn; before Wood hurt his ankle, the revamped Rockets went 8-4 after trading Harden, and they have gone 0-7 since.

Meanwhile, undrafted rookie forward Jae’Sean Tate plays like a mobile brick wall with limbs. Defensively, he can snuff guards on the drive and meet centers above the rim. The Rockets hold opponents to 4.1 points fewer per 100 possessions with Tate playing, the second-best mark on the team. Offensively, he uses his strength and motor to his advantage, helping Houston grab 8.3 percent more offensive rebounds with him on the court, a top-five mark in the league. And while impacting Houston’s bottom line, Tate also puts up impressive box score numbers. In terms of per-game averages, he has been a top-10 rookie in points, rebounds, blocks and steals and top-15 in assists. Tate is a quirky driver, but he makes lightning-quick decisions and can create advantages with the pass. His possible futures, like Houston’s, are multifarious. He could develop into an undersized stretch center like Tucker, a lockdown wing defender like OG Anunoby or anything in between.

Beyond Wood and Tate, Houston’s package of veterans is impressive. In John Wall the Rockets possess a classic floor general who is looking healthy for the first time in years. Guard Victor Oladipo hasn’t shot well from the field since being traded to Houston as part of the return package for Harden, but he was an All-Star in 2018 and 20192 and, like Wall, is starting to return to health. Leftovers from the Harden era remain useful as well. Gordon is in the midst of his best season in years — not only has he shot well, but he has been excellent as a secondary creator in the pick-and-roll. Tucker remains a defensive stalwart. If the Rockets decide to turn seller at the trade deadline, they could nab a trove of assets in exchange for their vets, newcomers or remnants of the bygone Harden era.

They could decide Wall and Oladipo are major cogs for the future, too. The Rockets have handily won Wall and Oladipo’s minutes together, and they have decimated opponents with Wood playing as well, albeit in fewer minutes. Perhaps with a healthy Wood, the Rockets are already a competitive team who could fight for a playoff spot. The post-Harden Rockets exist as a shell-encased seed, hurt by injury but ready to germinate. It’s possible they bloom into a winner sooner than expected.

None of Wood, Tate, Wall or Oladipo were on the roster last season. The Rockets have pulled off a rebuild in a matter of months, and they could tool up to compete for the playoffs next season or tear down and build through the draft. No matter the path they choose, Wood and Tate are sure to be Rockets for a long time. They are two-way forces who can succeed on the court while playing a variety of styles — the opposite of the rigidity Houston demanded of its players during the Harden era.

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Most importantly, in this new core, the Rockets have options. For almost a decade, they were a team with one narrow goal: win in the present. They subordinated all else to that effort, including trading for Chris Paul, then Russell Westbrook, then Wall in trying to find Harden’s perfect running mate. Once they traded away Harden, Houston withdrew from that rat race. Now they’re just trying to find talent, however it may come along. The Harden trade, netting four first-round picks and four pick swaps with the Nets, helps in that regard. And it turned out — contrary to Harden’s parting shots — plenty of talent was already on the roster.

The Rockets don’t know yet what type of team they’ll be in the future. In Wall and Wood they have the tools to spam high pick-and-rolls. In Oladipo, they have a scorer who can isolate from the wing. Or perhaps the Rockets will be defined by their defense for the first time since they employed Shane Battier and Ron Artest;3 Tate and Wood are solid building blocks there, too. Their identity, like the team’s, is mutable. But the Rockets’ not knowing who they are must be refreshing after playing the same way — and being the only team to play that way — for so many years, without so much as a championship to show for it.

The Houston Rockets are dead. Long live the Houston Rockets.

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  1. With the gap between them and the second-place Los Angeles Clippers larger than the gap between the Clippers and the 11th-place Oklahoma City Thunder.

  2. Oladipo didn’t play in the 2019 All-Star game because of a season-ending knee injury.

  3. Aka Metta World Peace aka The Pandas Friend aka Metta Sandiford-Artest.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.