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Did the Rockets lose the off-season arms race with the Warriors?

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The Warriors kept their core intact and added a giant Olympian with a chip on his shoulder and a bone to pick with Houston. Meanwhile, the Rockets appear to have lost more than they gained during a very important off-season.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors - Game Three Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

While the Golden State Warriors are even stronger after signing DeMarcus Cousins, their biggest threat has been diminished. It’s painful to watch.

...on paper, this summer has been ugly for the Rockets. A team that was a step away from glory last year has taken one in the opposite direction.

— Matt Ellentuck, SB Nation

The Golden State Warriors have a singular focus: raising a third straight banner, their fourth in the past five seasons. The Houston Rockets’ “obsession” is to keep that from happening. Honestly, I can see why. Three out of the last four Houston seasons have ended with the thudding sound of the Warriors golden boots connecting on their asses, dropkicking them unceremoniously out of the playoffs.

What makes the Rockets such a fun punching bag is their bizarre inclination to provoke the greatest team of all time, both overtly and subliminally.

Every year, more blasphemy pours out of the heart of Houston: Dubs “ain’t that good”, Stephen Curry wasn’t the real MVP in 2015, and my personal favorite, “The Rockets would have overthrown the Warriors if Chris Paul were healthy in the playoffs”.

Hey, it’s a free country. If they’d rather take their annual postseason eliminations with bitterness as opposed to a quiet dignity, that’s their prerogative. However, regardless of how emotional it makes them, the fact remains: they will take these L’s.

Still, they did win 65 games, were the #1 seed, and forced the champs to seven games last year (did they raise a banner for that accomplishment?). Yet, much like Icarus flying too close to the sun, the Rockets should be more terrified than excited that they came so close to defeating the champs. The last two franchises that came close to extinguishing the light of the Warriors’ greatness are now footnotes in GSoM’s Path of Destruction.

(R.I.P to OKC’s and Cleveland’s respective dynasty hopes). With that in mind, I was quite curious as to what the Rockets were going to do in the offseason. A team built on defensive versatility and outside shooting needed to add some more pieces to complete the dream of their GM Daryl Morey, and coach Mike D’Antoni.

Unfortunately for Houston fans and Dubs’ haters, the Rockets’ seem to have misfired on their chance to close the gap between themselves and the champs. Let’s take a quick look at what transpired.


The Rockets’ bewildering summer

  • Houston watched 3-and-D specialist Trevor Ariza and his backup Luc Mbah a Moute skip town to pursue cash-laden obscurity on other teams. Remember when the Rockets fan base was super high on these guys impact? (read the comments from this cross blogination with “The Dream Shake” if you dare lol). It’s funny, because I don’t remember much “3” from these guys when Houston missed 27 straight threes in Game 7 in Texas. Still, they definitely were irritants defensively, and they were a major part of the Rockets’ versatility all season.
  • Resigned the diminutive, aging, injury-prone, flop artist Chris Paul to a 4 yr/$160 mil contract nearing the back end of his career.
  • Resigned promising young center Clint Capela, the only NBA player delusional enough vocalize the lie that the Rockets are superior to Golden State, to a 5 yr/$90 mil contract.
  • Added Michael Carter-Williams and James Ennis. Yawn.
  • Signed the faded superstar, the Olympic hero, the man with the strongest dad-body in the game, the HOODIED LEGEND, Carmelo Anthony to the veteran minimum, liberating him from OKC. Kevin Durant knows all too well the pain of begging for shots alongside Russell Westbrook, so we should all be celebrating Anthony’s new move.
  • Watched their famed defensive guru, Jeff Bzdelik, retire at the age of 65. Odd timing that this announcement came a few weeks after Melo jumped on board? If you didn’t know, the pair had a supremely contentious relationship back when Bzdelik was head coach of the Denver Nuggets during Melo’s rookie campaign.
  • Traded Ryan Anderson’s Fat Contract for Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight. You may remember Anderson as Steph Curry’s personal welcome mat in the Western Conference Finals. Also, if you’re a casual hoops fan, you may not know who Knight is. Here, let me help get you up to speed:

Wow.

Anyways, D’Antoni believes in pushing his starters minutes to high levels, which makes for Listerine strip-thin rotations. Those six or seven man rotations are led entirely by a backcourt featuring Paul, and a husky MVP 2-guard with sleepy defense and a reputation for collapsing in big games (James Harden). Except now, they have major defensive holes, and signed the volume-chucking Anthony, who didn’t even make Sports Illustrated’s top 100 player’s list.

As my buddy @DupartDavid told me, maybe the FIBA basketball legend of “Olympic Melo” could be unleashed if the Rockets petitioned the league to allow Anthony to play in a hoodie, with a red, white, and blue basketball. Outside of that, I’m not sure what he’s going to do against the Warriors.

“Run it back”? The only thing the Rockets are good at running is their mouths. And CP3 better not run anything back too hard unless he wants to become the official “Icy Hot” spokesman. But...I digress.


The Golden Empire’s Summer of Boogie

Meanwhile back in Oakland, the Warriors made sure to lock up their 2xFinals MVP, Kevin Durant, to another “1+1” deal that provides flexibility for both KD and the team. In the draft, the team secured a potential future Andre Iguodala successor in Jacob Evans III, a versatile wing with ball handling skills and shooting ability.

The champs also added a sweet shooting big man with a chip on his shoulder, bouncing back from a major Achilles injury, with a lot to prove. This new hooper has been very vocal about proving the doubters and haters wrong.

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing, JONAS JEREBKO!!!!!!!

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks
The “Swedish Larry Bird” ain’t worried about Melo in Houston
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Oh, and we also added DeMarcus Cousins.

GSoM has spilled a lot of ink on this Olympic giant, including “How Will DeMarcus Cousins fit into the Warriors puzzle?”, and “How DeMarcus Cousins’ skill set will elevate the Warriors’ offense to even greater heights”. I’m curious as to how this monster will recover from his Achilles’ tear, especially in regards to Houston.

After all, the last time “Boogie” Cousins was seen hooping, he was dropping a 15 point, 13 rebound, 11 assist triple double on Houston in a win, before suffering his catastrophic freak injury in the finals seconds of the game.

I’m pretty sure he has Houston red dotted in his scope for his eventual return. Of course, we don’t yet know what version of Boogie we’ll be getting. Many voices in Dub Nation have already nervously wondered if Cousins will get eaten alive by the Rockets on defense, and ruin our switching scheme. This leads me to wonder, why would our coaching staff put Cousins in a vulnerable position?

This is the same team that went to two Finals with physical behemoth Andrew Bogut playing the “ICE” or “goalie” defense. Bogut would sag back on pick-and-rolls, and anticipate using his size and hands to deter anyone driving into the paint.

The great Ethan Sherwood Strauss noted for ESPN in 2015 the genesis of this strategy in Oakland:

(Warriors assistant coach) Darren Erman favored the “ice” style of coverage popularized by Tom Thibodeau. In that scheme, a guard gets between the screen and ball handler as the big man drops toward the baseline, thereby forming a pocket of containment around the man with the ball.

Coach Mark Jackson, who had far from an ideal relationship with Malone, sided with the younger assistant and the newer model for defensive success. It was an approach especially beneficial to Bogut, who isn’t best used as a guy who chases little guys around the 3-point line.

Of Erman’s tenure, which ended in dismissal, Bogut recalled, “[Erman] was a big advocate on sending guys off pick-and-rolls and, to me, funneling to the basket. He was probably No. 1 pusher of that, as far as assistant coaches went. He saw my value there.”

Bottom line: The Dubs didn’t have Bogut chasing players around the three point line, and built an elite defense.

As long as the Rockets’ big money man Capela is in the game, this strategy could work for Cousins. FYI: did you know that last season Cousins’ averaged more deflections per game than Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, or former teammate Anthony Davis? Now I know Cousins’ isn’t known for his defense, but I believe the Warriors can cultivate some good defensive habits with the big fella.

Now, here’s where an astute hoops watcher may interject, “Hell no! Cousins isn’t a good defender and the Warriors can’t use that ICE crap against the Rockets! CP3 is a mid-range assassin! Did you see what he did to Utah when they tried that strategy with arguably the best defensive center in the game, Rudy Gobert?! CP3 murdered the Jazz! And Cousins isn’t as good a defender as Bogut, let alone the ‘Stifle Tower’ ”!

Excellent counterpoint, you really are an astute hoops observer. Except, I’m not expecting Boogie to stop Houston. I’m expecting him to force them into a similar terror.

You see, the difference between the potential of Bogut or Gobert getting lit up by an All-Star guard as opposed to Cousins’ getting scored on is that those other two big lugs’ value is mainly tied to their defensive presence.

Those dudes are goons; they aren’t feared bucket-getters. If there were 10 seconds on the clock, and Gobert had the ball on the block in a playoff game, and someone put a gun to my head and warned me that I could only live if Gobert managed to create his own shot? Just pull the damn trigger and stop wasting my time.

On the other hand, Cousins is one of the most offensively skilled big men in the history of basketball. He’ll also be surrounded by a collection of some of the greatest shooters and playmakers in the history of basketball. If his health allows him to attack mismatches in anyway like we’re used to seeing? Dub Nation, BUST OUT THE BBQ SAUCE AND RELAX THOSE FEET!

Additionally, the champs proved they can beat the Rockets playing small. Now, head coach Steve Kerr can toss in a change up and go huge, forcing D’Antoni to adjust. Now instead of asking David West and Jordan Bell to score during crucial minutes when the Warriors other Olympians rest, Kerr can just dial up Cousins’ number and feed the beast.


Sorry Houston: We don’t believe

So, to sum it all up, the back-to-back champs just handed the Rockets another L, this one in the off-season. The Rockets made lateral moves at best, and have regressed at worst. Meanwhile, the Warriors have made the season more interesting at worst, and created a new Olympic team at best.

By the way Dub Nation, that raging giant doesn’t like Chris Paul either :D