Nenê excited to play alongside Paul, Harden on new-look Rockets

Nenê excited to play alongside Paul, Harden on new-look Rockets

Alex Kennedy column

Nenê excited to play alongside Paul, Harden on new-look Rockets

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Fifty-two days.

That’s how long Nenê must wait for the Houston Rockets’ 2017-18 season to tip off. The 34-year-old center is having trouble containing his excitement about the new-look Rockets and how they’ll play together.

“Man,” Nenê says, “we are going to have a lot of fun this year!”

Houston opens their season on Oct. 17 with a nationally televised game against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The big man is understandably excited about Houston’s offseason moves, which included a trade for nine-time All-Star Chris Paul, a four-year extension for MVP runner-up James Harden and solid signings like PJ Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, Tarik Black and Zhou Qi to fill out the supporting cast.

“I am so excited to play with Chris Paul,” Nenê said. “In my opinion, he is one of the best point guards [of all-time] and he’s been one of the best all-around players in the game over the last 10 years. I’ve also gotten to know him a little better, and he is great guy as well.”

Some pundits have wondered how Paul and Harden will co-exist in Houston since both players are most effective with the ball in their hands, but Nenê isn’t concerned at all. He believes the two stars will adjust and thrive alongside one another, especially playing in Mike D’Antoni’s guard-friendly, up-tempo system.

“They’ll be great together,” Nenê said of Harden and Paul. “It will be an unbelievable experience to play with James and Chris. James is the best offensive player in the game and Chris is an amazing ball player as well. They can score from anywhere on the court and they both have a basketball IQ that’s off the charts.

“When they have the ball, nobody will know what they’re going to do. That just makes my job, and my teammates’ jobs, a lot easier.”

At one point, it was unclear if Nenê would be back with the Rockets for the 2017-18 campaign. Initially, the two sides agreed to a four-year deal worth $15 million. However, this contract wasn’t legal under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement due to the NBA’s obscure “Over-38” rule, which prevents a player from signing a deal that’s four years or longer if he’ll turn 38 during the course of that contract.

After this disappointing setback, Nenê weighed his other free agency options. However, he ultimately returned to the negotiating table with Houston and agreed to a three-year deal worth $10.9 million on July 2. At the end of the day, he decided to return to the Rockets because he had a great experience with the franchise last year and didn’t want his stint with the team come to an end so quickly.

“I love the city of Houston, the entire organization and my teammates,” Nenê said, explaining his decision to return. “I got healthy here and I feel younger. It’s a blessing to be a Rocket.”

Re-signing him was an easy decision for Houston’s front office because the big man was terrific as a reserve last season. While Sixth Man of the Year winner Eric Gordon and the award’s third-place finisher Lou Williams received most of the attention for leading the Rockets’ second unit, Nenê was terrific off the bench as well, averaging 9.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 0.6 blocks in 17.9 minutes while shooting 61.7 percent from the field.

He ranked 11th among all centers in Real Plus-Minus (2.31), putting him ahead of stars like Karl-Anthony Towns, Hassan Whiteside and Joel Embiid among others. Even more impressive, he ranked fourth among centers in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (3.62), which was ahead of notable defensive big men like DeAndre Jordan and Whiteside.

He was producing in the playoffs as well, but then his postseason came to an early end when he tore a muscle in his left thigh during the Rockets’ second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs. Nenê is training hard this summer and is confident he’ll be fine by the start of the season.

“I’m very excited for this season,” Nenê said. “We have a great group of guys. We have the talent, leadership and experience to be really good. I have been working extremely hard to get my body ready for this season, and I’m looking forward to going to battle with these guys.”

While Paul was obviously the Rockets’ biggest offseason addition, the acquisition of Tucker is also huge for Houston. The 32-year-old is widely considered one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, and he’s provided toughness and leadership to every team he’s been on. He was highly coveted at last year’s trade deadline and the Toronto Raptors dealt for him because they wanted someone who could guard LeBron James in the playoffs. Toronto hoped to keep him long-term, but Tucker turned down a larger offer from the Raptors to join the Rockets because he believes Houston is closer to contention.

“PJ will help the team in a lot of ways,” Nenê said. “He is a great player who plays with a lot of enthusiasm and physicality. He will help us grind our way to wins.”

The more Nenê thinks about the Rockets’ talented squad and how dominant they can be if they play to their full potential, the more pumped he gets.

“The whole city of Houston is excited about this upcoming season,” he said. “We’ll be ready and we’ll be even more dangerous than before.”

It’s worth noting that the team could get even more dangerous since general manager Daryl Morey may not be done wheeling and dealing. Houston has repeatedly been linked to New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony and Rockets are one of the only teams the 10-time All-Star is willing to waive his no-trade clause to join. Last month, Paul was asked about the likelihood of Anthony joining Houston and he told Marc Spears of The Undefeated, “Man, sit back and wait.”

Fifty-two days.


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