The 2018 Western Conference finals may well be remembered not for what it was, but for what it could have been. Less than a year in the making, the matchup was a culmination of Houston’s all-out effort to topple the unbeatable Warriors as most of the league either actively or tacitly conceded defeat. And yet, the seven-game series lacked some of the intrigue that felt forthcoming all season long. Andre Iguodala missed the last four games with a left knee sprain, Chris Paul sat out the final two with a strained hamstring and strategic matchup hunting corrupted some of the artful and surgical flair with which the two teams played all season. Still, these Rockets pushed Golden State as hard as it had been pushed in the Kevin Durant era. Had a handful of things broken the other way, it might be Golden State facing a critical offseason.
Instead, Houston is scrambling to remain in contention with a group that may have already reached its peak. The financial realities of contending in the NBA hit the Rockets hard this summer. With Paul and James Harden on max deals and Ryan Anderson’s hefty contract still on the books, the team had no room to retain Trevor Ariza—lured away by Phoenix for one year and $15 million—or Luc Mbah a Moute, who returned to the Clippers on a one-year, $4.3 million contract. Even with Clint Capela still unsigned, the Rockets are a pricy bunch.
Teams with so little margin for error can hardly bear to lose players so integral to the fabric of their roster, especially under Mike D’Antoni, who is reluctant to go deep into his bench. The Warriors, through brutal exploitation of their opponents’ weaknesses, limit the pool of players that can even stay on the court in the playoffs. Mbah a Moute and Ariza were among those that could survive the gauntlet, and the Rockets are thin on replacements. James Ennis, who inked a two-year deal with Houston after Ariza’s departure, is a fine stopgap on the wing, but may leave teams with higher expectations wanting. Gerald Green will be punching well above his weight in anything more than a microwave bench role, while expecting playoff-caliber minutes from De’Anthony Melton sets a high bar for a rookie that proved so little at the college level.
After rumors of mutual interest between the Rockets and Carmelo Anthony swirled for weeks, if not months, the mercurial star will sign with Houston, according to the New York Times' Marc Stein. But while Anthony offers a nice scoring punch, he’s hardly a panacea. With virtually all of the offense routed through Harden and Paul, the Rockets simply don’t need what Anthony brings to the table as much as they need tough, versatile defenders. Few wings combine defensive versatility and shooting—the essential pillars of Houston’s strategy—as effectively as Ariza and Mbah a Moute. Chiefly, they were vital components of the Rockets’ switch-heavy scheme. The Rockets posted a top-three defensive mark with Mbah a Moute on the court; during the playoffs, their defense was almost 11.5 points per 100 possessions better with Ariza on the floor than with him off. Both are strong, physical defenders with plus wingspans. Mbah a Moute routinely hounded wings and jostled with bigger players while Ariza makes even the league’s best perimeter scorers work for everything.
It’s here that Anthony and the Rockets clash ideologically. Throughout his career, Anthony has mostly shown a lack of engagement on defense and an unwillingness to accept anything less than a star’s workload on offense. Despite their offensive limitations, Ariza and Mbah a Moute were self-aware, and filled specialized roles buoyed by Harden and Paul’s playmaking. Anthony, meanwhile, subsists almost entirely on having the ball in his hands and occupies areas the Rockets actively avoid; an isolation by Harden or Paul is a fundamentally different proposition than one by Anthony. Every possession he soaks up by nodding and jabbing is one not orchestrated by an elite facilitator, and he isn’t efficient enough to justify a primary role.
Mbah a Moute and Ariza helped give the Rockets balance. They were low-maintenance support players without delusions of larger roles, but threatening enough to be paid their share of attention. Only Eric Gordon made more triples than Ariza off of passes from Harden, while Mbah a Moute had the most efficient offensive season of his career last season. Perhaps those marks offer hope for Anthony’s fit. Stylistic differences notwithstanding, Anthony has the skills to be weaponized in D’Antoni’s offense. But a team that challenges the Warriors must be cogent and stable in all areas. Given the changes they’ve made, the Rockets will have to prove once again that they’re that team.