Newly-acquired Rockets to be tested in China

The Houston Rockets have established an identity as a top offensive team that scores with ease, shoots a lot of three-pointers and plays at a fast pace.

Those qualities have been reinforced after an offseason in which Houston hired one of the NBA’s most accomplished offensive coaches and acquired several players with impressive skill sets. The Rockets hope the changes position them for an 11th consecutive season with a .500 or better record and boost their chances of making a deep playoff run like they did two years ago when they reached the Western Conference Finals.

After finishing 41-41 last season and losing to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs, Houston’s retooling started with the addition of head coach Mike D’Antoni. A former NBA Coach of the Year, D’Antoni led the Phoenix Suns to an average of 58 victories during a four-year span from 2004-08 and helped point guard Steve Nash win back-to-back MVP awards.

The Rockets have their own MVP-caliber guard in James Harden, who averaged career highs of 29.0 points (second in the NBA), 7.5 assists (sixth in the NBA) and 6.1 rebounds last season. Like Nash in Phoenix, Harden will be the centerpiece of D’Antoni’s free-flowing offense, which relies on player movement, spacing and a heavy dose of pick-and-rolls to attack defenses.

Houston anticipates that the combination of D’Antoni’s direction and the team’s personnel changes will make Harden even more effective as a playmaker this season. Harden will now be surrounded by newcomers Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, who will both face their former team when the Rockets meet the New Orleans Pelicans on Oct. 9 in Shanghai and on Oct. 12 in Beijing for NBA Global Games China 2016 presented by Master Kong.

Gordon, a 6-4 guard, has averaged 16.6 points in his eight-year career and shot 44.8 percent from three-point range in 2014-15. Anderson, the 2011-12 Kia NBA Most Improved Player, is a prototypical stretch power forward who averaged 17.0 points and 6.0 rebounds and made two three-pointers per game last season for New Orleans. If both players remain healthy, the Rockets should improve on last season’s below-average three-point percentage of 34.7.

“They’re perfect for our system,” D’Antoni said of Gordon and Anderson.

General manager Daryl Morey added another skilled offensive player when he signed Nene, a 34-year-old center from Brazil with career averages of 12.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists. Nene will team with emerging 22-year-old Clint Capela of Switzerland to anchor the paint after eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard’s departure.

The arrival of Gordon, Anderson and Nene, as well as the return of incumbent starters Trevor Ariza (12.7 points last season) and Patrick Beverley (9.9), gives D’Antoni plenty of firepower to complement Harden.

“There is a rhythm to the game; I believe in that,” D’Antoni said. “I do believe in putting offensive guys on the floor because if you don’t score in this league, you don’t win. Everybody knows that defense is super important, but you have to score.”

With D’Antoni incorporating his prolific offense and new assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik leading the team’s commitment to defensive improvement, the Rockets express optimism about rejoining the Western Conference’s upper echelon.

“People are definitely overlooking us,” Harden said. “We kind of have that underdog mind-set, which is fine. We’re going to work that much harder, come together even tighter and all be on the same page. … We’re going to be all in. We’re going to have the same goal, and that’s to win. Whatever it takes.”

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