Since acquiring Chris Paul last summer, Houston's stated objective has been to dethrone the Golden State Warriors.
Last year, after MVP James Harden led the Rockets to a 65-17 record and the distinction of being the first team to have a better record than the Warriors in the Steve Kerr-era, the team fell heartbreakingly short of its postseason goal.
With Golden State adding yet another All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins this summer, Houston's path has become even more difficult.
Since all that the Rockets do is compared with the Warriors, the value of each player the team acquires is largely determined by their value against Golden State.
Early in free agency, free agents Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute left the Rockets to sign with the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers respectively. Re-signing Chris Paul and Clint Capela helped mitigate the losses, but the departures of Ariza and Mbah a Moute created two massive holes on the wing.
The first player to fill one of the voids was James Ennis, an affordable and reliable replacement to help shore up Houston's perimeter defence. Standing at 6-foot-7 with a nearly 7-foot wingspan, Ennis has the length to contest Klay Thompson's jumpers and the size to bother Kevin Durant - as much as that's even possible. He won't put up huge numbers, but Ennis can hit open 3s and fill a role that Houston needs to slow down the Warriors.
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While Ennis was added rather quietly, Carmelo Anthony, Houston's marquee free agent addition, arrived with much greater fanfare. Anthony's time in Oklahoma City was much maligned and his arrival in Houston was met with appropriate skepticism, but his time as a Rocket could be fruitful if he embraces a smaller role.
Anthony's ball-stopping tendencies and meagre 6.1 percent assist percentage bogged down OKC's offence but will work for Houston - the Rockets completed the fewest passes per game of any team in the 2018 playoffs. With the ball in Harden and Paul's hands more often than not, Houston expects Anthony to shoot when they pass to him.
Defence remains Anthony's key concern, but there are places to hide against the Warriors.
Golden State's offence is so reliant on their All-Stars that Anthony can match up with Andre Iguodala, Jonas Jerebko and other role players fairly comfortably. Though there will be times he gets switched onto Durant and Steph Curry, playing primarily with the second unit will limit those instances.
While the Rockets also signed Michael Carter-Williams in free agency, his projected role shrank last week after the Rockets traded Ryan Anderson and 46th overall pick De'Anthony Melton to Phoenix in exchange for Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss.
OFFICIAL: GM Daryl Morey announced today that the team has traded forward Ryan Anderson and guard De'Anthony Melton to Phoenix in exchange for forward Marquese Chriss and guard Brandon Knight.- Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) August 31, 2018
📝 » https://t.co/BNCSy3qJrT pic.twitter.com/UD5eHIlk8p
The deal flew slightly under the radar as a tax-saving move for Houston, but both new Rockets have on-court value. Chriss, No. 8 overall pick in 2016, still has massive untapped potential. The 26-year-old Knight is just three seasons removed from being a productive offensive player.
Early in his career, Knight was one of the better young point guards in the league. He led the Milwaukee Bucks in scoring for two consecutive seasons and, after being traded to Phoenix, averaged 19.6 points per game in his first full season with the Suns. Over time, Knight's role and productivity in Phoenix gradually diminished before he suffered a torn ACL last summer.
Prior to his injury, Knight relied heavily on speed and quickness to find open spots on the court. If he's close to the same athlete he was pre-injury and can expand his range beyond the 3-point line - where he shoots at a 35.7 percent clip for his career - he will be a solid backup point guard for the Rockets that helps ease Paul's regular season workload.
Knight has never been a great defender - a fact that's unlikely to change in Houston. There is not a great matchup for him with the Warriors, and the heavy minutes Harden and Paul play in the playoffs are likely to limit his postseason opportunities. Knight does have a chance to become a very good fourth guard for the Rockets this year that could hit a few key shots in a series, but his biggest role will be helping Paul get to the playoffs healthy.
Somehow, even with Knight not having played in over a year, the Rockets' other newest addition could be an even bigger unknown.
Chriss, who is an elite athlete even by NBA standards, never managed to translate his athleticism into production for the Suns. This upcoming season, Houston will hope that a simplified role and greater surrounding talent will help Chriss find success as a Rocket.
Chriss is still a work in progress defensively but he has the tools to be outstanding. He often gambles and had the second-highest foul rate of any player with 1,500+ minutes last season, and yet if he figures out Houston's defensive system, he can become a real asset versus the Warriors.
Golden State has (relatively) struggled to score against long, athletic defences in the past, and Chriss' 8-foot-9 standing reach could make him a menace getting in passing lanes, contesting jumpers and protecting the rim.
The game saving block from Marquese Chriss! #SunsAt50 pic.twitter.com/65ssDO392u- NBA (@NBA) January 3, 2018
On offence, Chriss' length and athleticism make him a huge target for lobs from Harden and Paul. While he's not as great a finisher around the rim as Capela, he does add a floor-spacing dimension with 55.2 percent of his shots coming from outside 10 feet compared to just 0.8 percent of Capela's attempts.
Against the Warriors, the added threat of fading off a screen for a jumper at the top of the key could be game-changing. Chriss has to become more effective on those shots - just 45.7 eFG% on catch-and-shoot attempts last season - but creating that extra bit of space for Harden would make the league's best one-on-one player even more dangerous.
The two All-Stars are the driving forces behind Houston's success, but role players are what often decide tight playoff series. While Anthony, Ennis, Knight and Chriss might not garner the same recognition of the team's top talent, they could very well make the difference in Houston's season.