Mbah Moute ( left) guarding JR Smith

There was a point in time hope for Houston Rockets second straight trip to the Western Conference was shaky.

The team’s spot looked to have been usurped at least on paper by Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder and if Stephen A. Smith’s prediction is anything to go by, Los Angeles Lakers will end up facing Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Final next season.

In the early hours of free agency, Houston’s chances of a repeat First seed regular season and postseason heroics took massive hits.

Trevor Ariza bolted to Phoenix Suns for big money Rockets couldn’t afford-$15million for one season-to give the veteran versatile forward. The understated transfer happened when Luc Mbah Moute signed with former club Los Angeles Clippers.

Though neither man stood out for high production-11.7 points in 33 minutes for Ariza nor 7.5 points in 25 minutes for Mbah Moute- both will be missed. The veteran duo makes up for its lack of high numbers with intangible contributions that do not exactly show up on the stat sheets particularly on defense.

Both men can effectively guard three positions from Shooting Guards to Power Forwards and their contributions help on offense too since both can score several feet away from the basket. This trait aids Houston Rockets ultra offense as it provides main operators James Harden and Chris Paul options to dish the ball to when double teamed.

Ariza might have not taken notice but his presence in the starting unit maximized Clint Capela’s production and eventually production. The presence of four worthy shooters around a non shooting Center is difficult to find around the league. This helped Houston get Capela back on a competitive deal laden with several targets to meet before incentives kick in knowing Capela’s value drops on most teams other than Houston. The few teams that play Rockets Ball like Golden State simply do not have space to accommodate another pricey contract.

For instance, not so many finalists in the hyper competitive Western Conference can deal with a 56% free throw shooter. However, Rockets did and came mighty close to beating Warriors in last season’s conference final. To activate $500,000 extra dollars in his five year, $90 million contract, Capela will have to hit score at least 65% of his free throws; grabbing 30% of team defensive rebounds fetches another half a million dollars.

However, the gaping holes left behind by Ariza and Mbah Moute has been plugged by Point Guard Brandon Knight, Carmelo Anthony and Marquese Chriss. Anthony’s worst production campaign registered 16 points in his lone season with Oklahoma City Thunder but that mark is better than Ariza’s. His defense will hurt Houston but playing him with P.J. Tucker in the Forward positions will mitigate the flaws in Melo’s game to a considerable extent.

By sending seldom used but expensive Forward Ryan Anderson and first year Guard De’Anthony Melton to Phoenix Suns for Knight and Chriss, cuts Rockets tax bill by $5 million. Aside financial benefits, Houston is right back in the hunt for an NBA Final appearance after making the recent acquisitions. Nabbing the trio offsets the losses of Ariza and Mbah Moute and places Rockets above OKC Thunder and Utah Jazz for next season.

Brandon knight

OKC has done another great job this offseason by fortifying its bench with former Atlanta Hawks starting Point Guard Dennis Schroder, former Philadelphia Sixers starting Forward/Center Nerlens Noel and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Most importantly, OKC managed to convince Paul George to stay for three more years with the fourth year being a player option. Utah Jazz did little in signings but can count on in house improvement from young players Donovan Mitchell and Dante Exum.

Brandon Knight can score-averaged 15 points per game before missing all of last season with injury- and will be a great addition to the bench filling the backcourt alongside Eric Gordon. Chriss effectively takes over Mbah Moute’s role and despite having all the tools to be a great defender and player, Chriss is yet to put it together to match his lottery pick status in the 2016 Draft. Knight is a volume scorer who needs to handle the ball for long periods to make a lot of impact on the team; this isn’t a mighty challenge considering Gordon can thrive without dominating the ball.

Chriss needs to play like Capela on the second unit to stick around for long. He will be needed to set multiple screens and command attention by launching himself at lobs and put backs. With the starting five close to the best in the league, swapping an underutilized asset for two key pieces on the bench reinforces belief in another excellent season from Houston Rockets.

By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter


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