It was the first possession of the Houston Rockets’ 2016-17 season. As James Harden moseyed across half court, Clint Capela and Ryan Anderson set stagger screens for Eric Gordon. Gordon cut through the paint, Harden subtly faked a pass in his direction, turned and hit a popping Anderson a foot behind the arc.
Anderson paused for a second, seemingly not yet comfortable with the green light he’d been gifted by Mike D’Antoni. Then Anderson rose and nailed the three, his hand gently touching Julius Randle’s contesting right hand (the first and only time Randle’s ever used that hand on a basketball court).
Time and Chris Paul have dulled the magnitude of adding Anderson, but back on Oct. 26, 2016, when Anderson hit that very first shot in Rockets red, he was kind of a big deal. For four years and $80 million, Anderson had agreed to take his talents to Clutch City. He had agreed to, along with D’Antoni, Gordon, and Harden, revive the Rockets.
In 2016, Houston was coming off a bitterly disappointing year that involved far too little winning and far too much Dwight Howard. In the months that followed Anderson’s first shot, though, the Rockets amassed 55 wins, third-most in the NBA, and 14 more than in 2015-16.
Harden was spectacular; he should’ve won MVP. D’Antoni was spectacular; he won Coach of the Year. Gordon was spectacular; he won Sixth Man of the Year. Anderson, he was spectacular, too.
Anderson averaged 13.6 points and 4.6 rebounds. He attempted 7 threes per game, 62 percent of his shots, and converted at 41 percent. His three-point attempt frequency ranked in the 97th percentile among all bigs, his conversion rate in the 83rd. Anderson spaced the floor expertly, helping power the Rockets’ offense to heights topped only by the Warriors of the Golden State.
Then came the playoffs. Anderson (among others) struggled, the Rockets disappointed, and the summer doldrums descended upon Houston.
Of course, the summer is anything but dull when Daryl Morey holds the keys to your franchise. The offseason, again, brought reinforcements to Houston. This time, an all-time great point guard…and a bunch of guys to replace Anderson.
PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute might not have Anderson’s shooting stroke—few do—but they have enough to get by on that end. Meanwhile, they’re serious disruptors on the defensive end, which Anderson is in his own right, but more so in a sense that’s likely to drive his own coach to reach for a bottle.
So, in his second year in Houston, as the other members of the 2017’s Houston renaissance continued to star and thrive, Anderson took a back seat. He played less, started less, and shot less (though he still launched from deep about as often and well as any big in the league).
Come the playoffs, his minutes really fell off. Anderson served as a fairly prominent rotation player in Houston’s first-round victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves but accepted a further reduced role in Houston’s second-round handling of the Utah Jazz. With a series looming against the monstars, the general expectation was that Anderson would remain firmly planted on the bench.
It was, therefore, quite the surprise when Anderson started the second quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Immediately, it was evident why blog boys far and wide had anticipated seeing Anderson in more of a cheerleader’s role. Seconds into Anderson’s first and only stint of the game, David West jostled with him for post position. Anderson committed a foul. Golden State inbounded the ball from the sideline, and this happened:
Anderson fails to step far enough to dissuade Klay Thompson from launching a three out of a dribble-hand-off, and the second-greatest shooter of all-time gets a premium look. Against Thompson, you have to know better, and you have to execute better. It was this type of inattentive and bad defense that allowed Thompson to attempt an inexcusable 15 threes in Game 1.
In his five minutes on the court, Anderson did some positive things, like helping to force a switch and then intelligently spacing the floor:
But for the most part, he got picked on defensively…relentlessly:
Undoubtably, Gerald Green is at fault for losing Thompson after being fooled by Draymond Green’s convincing sell of a decoy down screen. However, Anderson’s T-Rex wingspan allows West to easily pass over him to a cutting Thompson. When the Rockets switched, Anderson was further victimized:
Thompson, who’s not exactly known for his ability to break down defenders off the dribble, blows by Anderson with ease, draws help, and finds an open knockdown shooter. Against Anderson, it’s always too easy for the offense.
When Anderson’s five minutes were up, the Rockets’ one-point lead had flipped to a two-point deficit. He did not appear in the game again. In fact, he did not appear in any game again until 3:49 remained in the fourth quarter of Game 2. The Rockets led by 26. He was put on ice again until 5:11 remained in the fourth quarter of Game 3. The Rockets trailed by 29. He’s officially been relegated to mop up duty.
In the five minutes of meaningful basketball Anderson played this series, it became abundantly clear that he is no longer suited for basketball at its highest levels, where deficiencies are hunted and punished with ruthless consistency.
Should the Rockets advance to the NBA Finals, even against a lesser level of competition, it’s hard to see Anderson being of much use. Limited as the East’s finalists are, both teams hunt weaknesses absent mercy. For the rest of the Rockets’ playoff run, Anderson will be a $20 million bench warmer.
And that might seem ridiculous and excessive, but think back to Oct. 26, 2016. With that first three, Anderson launched an epic run, a reinvention of a franchise briefly in flux. Anderson’s contributions were vital to lifting Houston from the fringes of the playoffs to the NBA’s elite. Without him, there’s no Paul to challenge the Warriors, no Tucker and Mbah a Moute to steal his minutes.
While the Rockets must go forward without him, they wouldn’t be here without him, so here’s to you, Ryan Anderson, the Rockets’ most valuable bench warmer.