The Houston Texans are 4–2 and looking strong, and the Houston Astros are two wins away from the World Series, but there is another Houston team nearing the start of their season: the Houston Rockets. The Rockets are coming off a 53–29 campaign which ended at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in the second round of the playoffs a season ago. Now the Rockets are looking to begin the climb back to an NBA Title in 2019–20. With the Warriors broken apart, the Western Conference is as open as it has ever been before, and there is quite a bit that could make contenders of this year’s Rockets squad. At the same time, the Rockets have some question marks that could prevent them from reaching the finals. Let’s look at what I like about this team, what concerns I have for them, and my prediction of how the Rockets will fare this year.
What I like
1. The Roster has not changed much. Aside from the big trade to acquire Russell Westbrook and a couple of other free agent signings, the Rockets roster has not changed much. Westbrook gives the Rockets more speed and athleticism, two things Chris Paul can no longer bring to the table at 34 years old.
Roster continuity can be a plus for a team with title aspirations. When looking at how the Rockets are constructed, and their offensive philosophy, there will be two big questions: How will Westbrook be incorporated into Mike D’Antoni’s system? And how will Westbrook and Harden handle their reunion alongside each other as starters?
2. The offense could be more potent than ever. The Rockets finished second in the NBA in scoring in 2017–18, averaging 112 points a night, and finished 11th last year, averaging 114 points a night. It is hard to imagine the Rockets being even better; but the funny thing is, they can be.
The Rockets are likely to play much faster than they did the previous two seasons, and that’s the biggest reason they could be more potent than the previous two seasons. That is not a dig at Chris Paul, because with Paul, Houston could run their offense two ways. They could run and gun, but if need be, they could slow down and play in the half court.
However, with Westbrook now at the point guard spot, I believe Houston will play at a faster pace. Westbrook plays the game at a hundred miles an hour and can be a one-man fast break at times. Russell is better suited to play fast than to slow it down and play in the half court. Add in a couple of three-point shooters and James Harden’s ability to play at an MVP level on a nightly basis, and you have an offense capable of dropping video game–like numbers.
3. Daryl Morey always has a trick up his sleeve. The Rockets were 14th in the Western Conference standings in January last year until James Harden went wild, but another key in the Rockets’ turnaround was Morey’s ability to retool the roster on the fly.
A big reason Morey is in my “likes” list is that every year, Morey finds a way to identify that one player or two who could put the Rockets over the top. After his Hong Kong Tweets, which caused quite the firestorm on social media, I believe Morey is GM’ing for his job this season, even if owner Tillman Fertitta has not publicly stated that Morey’s job is in jeopardy.
Since Morey became Houston’s general manager in May of 2007, the Rockets have never been to the finals and have been to only two conference finals, despite all the wheeling and dealing and the analytics Morey uses. With the Warriors dismantled, the time is now for Morey to pounce and make a deal that will push the Rockets over the hump; otherwise Houston could be in the market for a new GM.
1. Can they defend and rebound? The Rockets have plenty of firepower offensively, but my main concern for this team heading into the season is on the defensive side of the ball. Houston let go of defensive assistant Jeff Bzdelik following their disappointing second-round exit at the hands of the Warriors after pulling him out of retirement to save their defense in November. Houston would go on to have a pretty good season defensively, holding opponents to 109.1 points per game. Rebounding was a disaster for the Rockets, as Houston finished 29th in the NBA in that category; only Memphis and Phoenix were worse.
With Bzdelik gone again, the Rockets’ defense becomes a question mark. In the current depth chart, Houston really only has one “lockdown” defender in PJ Tucker. Everyone else is pretty good defensively, but PJ is the one who guards the other team’s best player on a nightly basis and does a good job of it.
The Rockets’ offense will play at a faster pace, which usually equals more possessions in the game for the other team; however, if Houston cannot vastly improve its rebounding this season and finish at least in the middle of the pack in terms of points allowed, then even in a wide-open Western Conference the Rockets will find it difficult to contend.
2. Are the Rockets built for the playoffs? I believe the Rockets offense will be more potent and will play at a faster pace than they have the previous two seasons. But because they have traded Chris Paul’s ability to adapt and execute in a half-court offense for Westbrook’s abilities in transition, I am intrigued to see if Houston’s offense can remain adaptable.
Another grey area is the Rockets’ system as a whole. Mike D’Antoni is a brilliant offensive coach; however, as good as his system is, it has not pushed any of his teams to the finals. They almost get there, but they just can’t jump that last hurdle to prosperity. Given that D’Antoni will coach the last year of his contract with the Rockets this year, will he make any adjustments to the way he coaches? Will he show Fertitta that he is the right coach to lead this team?
3. Are the Rockets all in? Back in June, I argued that committing to a long-term coach, whether it was D’Antoni or someone else, would be ideal for the Rockets to find success. The Rockets have not committed to D’Antoni, and he is now coaching the final year of his contract.
I’m intrigued about how this situation will play out. The risk of having a coach for only one season is the possibility of players tuning out said coach.
Rockets season prediction
The Rockets will be exciting to watch, and I think they will be a top-5 team in the Western Conference again. As exciting as they will be in the regular season, my doubts with this team reside in the playoffs. I don’t believe this team is constructed to win in the playoffs. As good as Harden and Westbrook are as a duo, I don’t buy the Rockets as a legit contender in the West just yet; but over the course of the season, they have the opportunity to change that narrative.
The Clippers have the best roster, with three defenders who can lock up Houston’s dynamic duo, and they have a better head coach in Doc Rivers. I see Houston going 56–26 and being the number 4 seed, but they will bow out to the Clippers in the second round of the playoffs.
Following a disappointing end to last season and an interesting summer, the Rockets will aim for redemption and begin another quest towards their first NBA title since 1995. Houston’s reunited duo of Harden and Westbrook will face an early test when the Rockets go against the Milwaukee Bucks on October 24 at 7:00 p.m. on TNT.