HOUSTON - Kenneth Faried had grown tired of the trajectory that had taken place over the past several seasons of his career. A breakout energy man with relentless hustle during his rookie season out of Morehead State, Faried made an immediate impact on the league with his aggressive style of play that earned him the apt nickname ‘Manimal.’ But, through coaching and front-office changes, roster changes, new faces in the mix and role changes, Faried no longer felt like himself. He felt caged.
“Certain places, coaches … certain GMs have structures for the way they want to build their team,” Faried said. “And they try to put you in a box because they don’t want you doing too much because they want to see what the younger guys (have). So you have to figure that out; you have to figure yourself out. Even when you’re a rookie they try to tell you your game, and not let you play outside of that because they want to keep a structure, especially if it’s a playoff team.”
His departure from Denver was unceremonious when you consider the way his career with the Nuggets began. But after a brief stint in Brooklyn — a team comprised primarily of the kinds of “younger guys” about whom Faried spoke — an opportunity presented itself in Houston better than most any that could’ve possibly been available.
The Rockets had already faced plenty of roster turnover themselves (both over the summer and during the season) and were in desperate need for help at nearly every position on the floor. Chris Paul was injured, Clint Capela was facing an extended absence, and Houston’s immense title hopes were beginning to dwindle in the muck and mud of the brutal Western Conference slog.
But as everyone rightfully paid attention to the absolute insanity of the must-see James Harden watch-a-thon, it was guys like Faried and Austin Rivers arriving in the night and immediately revitalizing a team that needed it badly. And where it usually takes players weeks and even months to adapt to new scenery, coaching styles, schemes and their teammates, the Rockets have a way of making it remarkably simple for players to adapt and go right away — to just be themselves.
“We have our strategies, but he’s just a brilliant offensive coach, man, and ultimately he believes in letting guys go,” Rivers said. “But there is responsibility. Everybody needs to know what they do well and don’t do. But ultimately that’s just what drives us to play better and gives us an easier transition.
“A lot of it has to do with the trust coach (Mike D’Antoni) gives you right away.”
It’s no secret D’Antoni is known as one of the most innovative offensive minds in the history of the sport, and his ability to bring new basketball life to players who had been lost in the NBA shuffle is perhaps one of his greatest attributes. Rivers said the wide-open space in which players operate with the autonomy to read and react and figure things out on the fly is what sets his newest coach apart from most others. He called it “structured freedom,” two words that don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“If your game is a certain way, Mike (D’Antoni) just wants you to play your game. I think that’s why everybody’s so confident,” he said. “It’s not an, ‘Oh, we’re putting you in a box.’ Play your game, enjoy the game and have fun playing it, because that’s the only way we’re going to win.”
If there’s one thing we know about D’Antoni, the only box that exists in his world (well, rectangle, I guess) is between the lines of the basketball court. Faried, now in his eighth year as a professional, had taken 25 3-point attempts over the course of his entire career prior to his arrival in Houston. He’s now taken 13 of them in just 16 games as a Rocket, and has made six of them.
“We try to (let them play). I do think the style we play with, especially with Kenneth, it fits his skills. He has to supply the energy and his physicality — he has that — and that’s easy,” D’Antoni said. “The only thing we probably open up is we don’t frown on him taking a three. We want him to. That’s a big part of our game and he knows that his future in the NBA is going to be making 3s consistently, because he’s got the rest of that other stuff.”
And it isn’t like these two players are being used as stopgaps within the system. Both Rivers and Faried have positive net ratings when they’re on the floor, and they’re playing a lot of minutes even with the returns of Paul and Capela. Rivers can be your point or shooting guard; Faried can play the four or five. They’re giving the team more flexibility and experience than they had to start the year, and they’ve been given plenty of time to acclimate before the stretch run of the season leading up to the playoffs.
The Rockets have become a little bit of an afterthought when it comes to title contention despite the expectations over the summer. Sure, Harden playing like Super Mario when he gets the Star all season has kept them cemented in the headlines, but it’s been an uphill battle in the standings because of injuries and unusually large in-season roster turnover.
But Houston is still as dangerous as any team in the league, and it has yet to settle in to what it could ultimately become. They can play big and go small; they can defend when they really want to, and we know they can score; and with the additions of Rivers and Faried (and you can throw Iman Shumpert in this mix, but he just arrived), they can easily go eight or nine deep once rotations shrink in the postseason.
It’s been a tough season thus far for the Rockets, relative to expectations; but you can see the kinks being worked out and the patches being applied. Who knows how far they can climb in the standings given the hole that’s been dug already, but come April, this could look like a team capable of beating anybody. The biggest caveat, of course, is can they stay healthy? And can the rest of the players on this team give Harden enough of a break to save his magic for a late run?
One thing’s for sure: The cavalry tasked with providing that extra help is here for it, accepting the task and enjoying every step along the way.
“(D’Antoni) just lets you go out there and play and figure it out,” Rivers said. “That’s what we do and it’s been fun.”