#CrystalBasketball: Ranking the Houston Rockets for 2017-18

How does every NBA player stack up heading into 2017-18, based solely on the level at which we expect them to play during the upcoming season?

That’s the question 16 NBA Math staff members and contributors sought to answer, ranking each and every player in the sport’s premier league on a 1-to-12 scale and then seeing who emerged with the highest averages. The distant past was irrelevant. Long-term potential doesn’t matter. Only what could come to pass in 2017-18 is factored in, assuming health for those currently healthy and full recoveries from those presently injured. For example, Brandon Knight will still be included in this analysis; we just assumed he’d already completed his rehab for the torn ACL and now has that as a prior portion of his overall injury history.

All players were graded on the following scale by each evaluator, and ties between players with identical averages were broken by sorting the 16 scores from best to worst and propping up the men who had the highest mark at any point in the top-down progression:

  1. Shouldn’t Get Minutes
  2. End-of-Bench Pieces
  3. Depth Pieces
  4. High-End Backups
  5. Low-End Starters
  6. Solid Starters
  7. High-End Starters, Non-All-Stars
  8. All-Star Candidates
  9. All-NBA Candidates, Non-MVP Candidates
  10. Lesser MVP Candidates
  11. MVP Frontrunners
  12. Best Player in the League (only one player could earn this grade on each ballot)

Journey with us team by team as we unveil the entirety of these rankings, culminating in a look at every player set to suit up for the 2017-18 campaign.

Today’s featured squad? The Houston Rockets, who now feature an All-Star backcourt with both Chris Paul and James Harden.

18. Isaiah Taylor: 1.44

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 0.8 points, 0.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-7.04 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 3 (Adam Fromall)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

A jitterbug of a point guard, Isaiah Taylor looked far better in summer league than he did during his minimal minutes as a rookie with the Houston Rockets. In many ways, it was reminiscent of his contributions with the G League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers, for whom he averaged 21.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 6.0 rebounds and 0.7 steals while slashing 51.5/45.7/81.6.

If he can maintain that level when games truly count, he’ll make all of us look foolish for counting him out. Taylor has as much speed as anyone and understands how to use that quickness to penetrate into the teeth of a defense. So long as he’s balancing out his game with the occasional triple while maintaining enough control to find teammates on the move, he could exceed expectations and settle in as a nice depth piece at the point.

17. Cameron Oliver: 1.60

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 21
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 16.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.6 blocks, 138.54 TPA (for Nevada Wolf Pack)
  • Highest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Cameron Oliver is a raw prospect who likely won’t do much during his rookie season. He needs to prove that he’s worked on his shooting mechanics and started to eliminate the inconsistency that plagues him both outside the paint and around the basket. He has to show he understands the fundamentals of defensive positioning and won’t get baited into vacating his spot at the earliest sign of a pump fake.

But if he can achieve those goals, this 21-year-old power forward could become a two-way asset. Oliver spends plenty of time above the rim on both ends of the floor, and that athleticism is the cornerstone upon which he could build a solid career. He just needs to shore up the weaknesses and get an opportunity first.

16. Tim Quarterman: 1.63

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 22
  • Position: PG/SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 1.9 points, 0.9 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-7.74 TPA (for Portland Trail Blazers)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Tim Quarterman’s game needs plenty of seasoning, but his physical profile will keep getting him opportunities.

This 22-year-old guard—yes, he’s a guard, and that’s not a typo—stands a towering 6’6″ with a 6’9.5″ wingspan and can capably line up at either spot in the backcourt. During his rookie season with the Portland Trail Blazers, he bounced between both guard slots and even spent a significant amount of time at small forward in small-ball lineups, though that’s by no means his natural position. Couple that size with tremendous athletic ability, and you can see the appeal.

15. Bobby Brown: 1.63

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 33
  • Position: PG/SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 2.5 points, 0.2 rebounds, 0.6 assists, minus-19.47 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Since leaving the Los Angeles Clippers in 2010, Bobby Brown has suited up for Asseco Prokom Gdynia, Aris Thessaloniki, EWE Baskets Oldenburg, Montepaschi Siena, Shenzhen Leopards and Besiktas Sompo Japan. But even after logging minutes all over the world and proving he could score in volume against lesser competition, his return to the Association didn’t go too smoothly.

Now, one season after playing minimal minutes for the Rockets, he’s a 33-year-old competing with plenty of younger backcourt members for rotation minutes. The odds are against him, unless he can start connecting on his shots from within the arc. Brown wasn’t a particularly efficient scorer overseas, hit only 38.3 percent of his field-goal attempts with Houston last go-round and made just 38.4 percent of his live-action shots during his first NBA stint.

14. Chinanu Onuaku: 1.83

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 20
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 2.8 points, 2.0 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-0.65 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

For Chinanu Onuaku to carve out a larger role in the rotation, he must assert himself as a high-quality defender. Though the underhanded free-throw attempts are intriguing and he can shoot a high percentage around the basket by sticking to dunks and easy finishes off the glass, his shot-blocking work and knack for protecting the paint need to translate before head coach Mike D’Antoni can hand him any meaningful minutes.

The rejections weren’t there as a rookie. Onuaku averaged just 0.7 swats per 36 minutes. But he was still an impactful player in his rare run, posting a strongly positive defensive box plus/minus that stemmed from his ability to deter shot attempts while inserting himself in passing lanes. Unfortunately, though, he “held” opponents to 62.5 percent shooting when he was stationed at the rim in his five appearances, and that’s not going to get the job done.

13. Zhou Qi: 1.88

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 21
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 16.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.3 blocks (for Xinjiang Guanghui)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Zhou Qi is not your typical 7-footer.

The 7’1″ center weighs only 210 pounds, and he’s going to get pushed around at the NBA level. His length still makes him a threatening presence while guarding the paint, but the physicality isn’t there quite yet. It wont be for a while, and that ensures he can’t play big minutes during his rookie season, even if the Rockets used the No. 43 pick of the 2016 NBA draft to acquire him.

But eventually, this 21-year-old could develop into something special. He’s far more agile than most 7-footers, and his shooting range already extends out to the three-point arc. He’s the total package and fits perfectly within the D’Antoni schemes, so long as he fills out his massive frame and can withstand the toil of the 82-game NBA schedule.

12. Shawn Long: 2.00

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 24
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 8.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 16.81 TPA (for Philadelphia 76ers)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

After averaging a double-double for each season he spent at Louisiana Lafayette, Shawn Long made the most of his sparse minutes with the Philadelphia 76ers. Once he worked his way off the Delaware 87ers roster and started playing for the big boys, he shot efficiently around the hoop, showed off some three-point range and held his own defensively. Though this is almost assuredly the result of an exceedingly minuscule sample, he finished No. 3 in TPA for the 2016-17 rookie class, trailing only Joel Embiid and Davis Bertans.

Will that remain true during his sophomore season? Probably not. Definitely not, actually.

But if Long can keep splashing in jumpers and improves after letting foes shoot 59.7 percent when he was protecting the rim as a rookie, he may play enough minutes to justify the votes of the four panelists viewing him as a legitimate depth piece.

11. Troy Williams: 2.06

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 22
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 6.2 points, 2.3 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-28.3 TPA (for Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Troy Williams is an athletic and intelligent cutter who can often find the right routes to the painted area. His physical tools also aid him on the defensive end, where he can jump into passing lanes and still recover to guard his assignment on the perimeter. But his future in this league is predicated upon the growth of his three-point jumper, and that didn’t look great during his rookie season out of Indiana.

The bad news? Williams hit only 29 percent of his triples while taking 2.1 per game over the course of 30 appearances. The good news? Once he landed with the Rockets, he hit at a 38.1 percent clip.

The unknown news? Whether he can keep that going in a sample that’s larger than a half-dozen contests.

10. Tarik Black: 2.81

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 25
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 5.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.7 blocks, minus-35.82 TPA (for Los Angeles Lakers)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)

Right now, Tarik Black is not a valuable offensive presence unless he’s dunking.

Don’t be fooled by his 51 percent shooting from the field, because he doesn’t knock down any triples and doesn’t do quite enough from the stripe to offset the other holes in his game on the glamorous end. Even more concerning is the worry that his 75.2 percent at the stripe could be a significant aberration after he hit 55.1 and 42.2 percent during his first two go-rounds. Unless that improvement is legitimate or he starts averaging more assists than turnovers, he’ll need to thrive defensively in order to have value.

And that’s a tough ask, as well. During his second full season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Black allowed opponents to shoot 51.1 percent when he was protecting the rim. That number must trend down if he’s going to beat out the other bigs competing for minutes in D’Antoni’s rotation.

9. Nene: 4.19

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 35
  • Position: PF/C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 9.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, 12.48 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (Brian Sampson)

Before a left adductor tear knocked him out of action, Nene was proving he still had game during the Rockets’ postseason run. Over the course of nine clashes, he averaged 10.0 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 70.6(!) percent from the field. No one could stop him from rolling to the rim with confidence, and his physical brand of defense worked rather nicely on the inside of Houston’s schemes.

At this stage of his career, Nene is never going to play big minutes. He’s too fragile, and the coaching staff has to treat him accordingly.

But when he’s on the floor, the Brazilian big man can still show off his rangy defense and deft touch from the low block. That’s valuable, even in a system that prioritizes athleticism, speed and outside shooting.

8. Luc Mbah a Moute: 4.25

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 31
  • Position: SF/PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 6.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 28.62 TPA (for Los Angeles Clippers)
  • Highest Grade: 6 (Dan Favale)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)

We’ll let Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley take center stage here:

The Clippers fared 10.7 points better per 100 possessions with him than without, and while the talent around him helped, so did his two-way play. He didn’t take a ton of threes (1.4 per game), but he made a high enough percentage (39.1) not to spoil the spacing. And his defense was stout as always—he finished with a 2.32 defensive real plus-minus (ninth among power forwards), while opponents shot 3.4 percent worse against him than their average.

Luc Mbah a Moute may not have a glamorous game, but the versatility of his defense and his ability to hold his own in one-on-one situations make him one of the offseason’s most underrated additions. He should immediately reward the Rockets with switchability and a willingness to expend the vast majority of his energy reserves on the preventing side.

7. P.J. Tucker: 4.50

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 32
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 6.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, 41.34 TPA (for Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors)
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)

The days of P.J. Tucker serving as a three-and-D contributor are now behind us.

Though his 40 percent clip from beyond the arc during his brief stay with the Toronto Raptors helped push his season-long mark up to 35.7 percent, he’s now topped 37 percent just once in his last five NBA seasons. His shot also regressed back to the mean during the playoff run north of the border, as he hit just 0.9 of his 2.8 deep looks per contest.

But the defense hasn’t gone anywhere. Constantly bodying up against players and pushing them away from the painted area, Tucker is a physical stopper who can capably defend multiple positions. He thrived everywhere during the 2016-17 campaign, unless he was tasked with defending spot-up shooters who patiently waited in the corner as he strayed away in search of a more active role.

6. Ryan Anderson: 5.19

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 29
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 13.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-35.27 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (Adam Spinella)

The rare player who seems more comfortable shooting from a few feet beyond the three-point arc, Ryan Anderson has become quite the specialist for the Rockets. Though he’s a defensive liability who rarely lives up to his size on the glass, he’s so good at spacing out the floor and drilling catch-and-shoot jumpers that Houston has no choice but to hand him a major role.

In 2016-17, Anderson drilled 42.9 percent of his field-goal attempts off the catch, as well as 42.7 percent of his relevant triples. That, in a nutshell, encapsulates his value, and he’ll likely be even better going forward when he can run pick-and-pops with both Chris Paul and James Harden. Be prepared for him to take serious aim at the three-point record books for a player his size, so long as his defense doesn’t force him off the floor in crucial situations.

5. Eric Gordon: 5.31

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 28
  • Position: SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 16.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, minus-67.75 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (Andrew Bailey)

If the six voters who pegged Eric Gordon as a solid starter are to be proved correct—and remember, a player coming off the pine can still be valued as a starter in this exercise—then he’ll need to prove the second half of his 2016-17 season wasn’t more telling than the first. Though this shooting guard still won Sixth Man of the Year, that was largely because of his scorching shooting during the campaign’s opening salvo, back when he was on pace to shatter records for three-point shooting.

After the All-Star break, though, Gordon averaged 14.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists while shooting 37.6 percent from the field, 33.9 percent from downtown and 84.5 percent from the stripe. Those efficiency marks aren’t even close to where they need to be, and they cast doubt on Gordon’s ability to successfully defend the biggest accolade he’s earned in his nine-year career.

4. Clint Capela: 5.63

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 12.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.2 blocks, 32.31 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 7 (Frank Urbina)
  • Lowest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)

What’s better than Clint Capela getting to run the pick-and-roll with James Harden? Clint Capela getting to run the pick-and-roll with James Harden and Chris Paul.

The young center scored 1.14 points per possession as the roll man last year, which placed him in the 72.9 percentile. Expect both those numbers to improve once he gains chemistry with the incoming point guard, who’s an even better distributor than the incumbent while coming off a screen and probing the defense. Paul has made DeAndre Jordan’s career that much better, and he should have a similar impact working with his new big man.

Oh, and that’s not all Capela offers. Throw in some top-notch interior defense and the lateral quickness to switch on PnR sets run against the Rockets, and you have a big man who’s on the verge of becoming a complete player making a big impact on a contending squad.

3. Trevor Ariza: 5.75

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 32
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 92.43 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 7 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)

For Trevor Ariza to validate the two panelists viewing him as a high-end starter, he’ll need to bounce back from beyond the arc. Shooting 34.4 percent from downtown simply won’t cut it, even if the small forward is taking 6.9 attempts per game. Fortunately, all signs point to him doing so, whether we’re looking at his percentage in the preceding season (37.1), the 2017 playoffs (37.7) or his career average heading into 2016-17 (35.2).

But should Ariza remain an inefficient contributor from the Rockets’ favorite area, he’ll still prove valuable. His lockdown defense is vital to these troops, especially when he switches over to cover up for James Harden’s struggles on the preventing end. And if you’re a young man or woman learning how to play the game, take some time to watch Ariza as he denies his assignment an entry pass; few in the league are more adept at properly fronting or cutting off lanes in that situation.

2. Chris Paul: 9.25

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 32
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 18.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 9.2 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.2 blocks, 330.75 TPA (for Los Angeles Clippers)
  • Highest Grade: 10 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 9 (multiple voters)

Point guards aren’t supposed to remain this effective as they move into their 30s. But in this case, “PG” doesn’t stand for “point guard.”

Chris Paul is a “Point God.”

The transition from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Rockets shouldn’t prove too tough for Paul, who’s arguably the best in the NBA at controlling the tempo of a game. He minimizes his turnovers because he’s always in complete control of the proceedings, waiting to get to his preferred spots and delaying his passes until he has a clear lane to a teammate. This Houston system should work wonders for preserving his prime play, especially now that he gets to split touches with James Harden.

Plus, Paul should also continue to function as a preeminent two-way player. Even when he’s working in an off-ball role—he thrived in such situations with the Clippers—he can be patiently waiting for opportunities while conserving energy to compete for yet another league-leading tally in steals per game.

1. James Harden: 10.75

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 28
  • Position: PG/SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 626.23 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 11 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 10 (multiple voters)

During the 2016-17 season, James Harden added 56.2 points per game with his assists and scoring figures, leaving him just behind 1972-73 Tiny Archibald for the top mark in NBA history. He was responsible for almost everything the Rockets ran, calling his own number with frequency and playing the type of ball that general manager Daryl Morey dreams off while still showcasing his vision as a passer nearly as often. Thanks to his remarkable knack for drawing whistles, he even became one of seven players who have ever averaged at least 29 points with a true shooting percentage no worse than 61 percent.

But his role will now change. Probably.

Playing alongside Chris Paul, Harden will likely see fewer touches. If he can take advantage of the lessened responsibilities and become a more competent defender, he could very well factor into the MVP race once again, even as he’s joined by a celestial backcourt mate. That’s just by no means a guarantee, both because quality defense has always eluded him and there’s no assurance he sacrifices too much of his offensive burden.

Who’s rated too high? Who are we selling short? Join the conversation using #CrystalBasketball on Twitter.

Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math or NBA.com.

Many thanks to our entire panel of voters: Andrew BaileyArjun BaradwajNick BirdsongMichael BrockTony EastDan FavaleAdam FromalRyan JarvisJordan McGillisTom RendeBrian SampsonAdam SpinellaEric SpyropolousTim StubbsFrank UrbinaLouis Vicchiollo

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