Houston Rockets Team Preview
Title Contender Scale: 9
Conference Ranking: 2nd
NBA Ranking: 2nd
2016-17 season summary: The Rockets started their 2016 offseason by signing Coach Mike D’Antoni, which meant a change to the Rockets play style was imminent. What we didn’t know was that they’d take the most threes in the NBA, move James Harden to point guard, and win 55 games. Harden was phenomenal, averaging 29 points, 11 assists (best in the NBA), and 8 rebounds per game. He was second in MVP voting and was on the All-NBA first team. The Rockets got the 3rd seed in the West, drawing a matchup with Russell Westbrook’s Thunder. Oklahoma City proved to be no match for the Rockets though, as the series was over in 5 games. The Rockets advanced to the second round, where they went against the Spurs. After a game one win in San Antonio, many thought the Rockets had a legitimate shot at getting to the Western Conference Finals. But, after their first win, the Rockets gave up two games in a row. Down 2-1, they took game 4 at home to even the series. Mike D’Antoni’s 7 man rotation (due to Nene getting injured) was certainly affecting the starters, as they looked tired and couldn’t close out games as well as they had the whole season. The Spurs won the next two games and advanced to the conference finals, while the Rockets were forced to watch from home and think what if. They certainly had some memorable moments throughout the regular season, like when James Harden became the first person in NBA history to score 50 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists in a single game. They also broke the single game three point attempt record, shooting 64 threes against the New Orleans Pelicans, 24 of which they made (that was also an NBA record).
Offseason Overview: The Rockets were among the most active teams this offseason, making both big and small moves in what Houston GM Daryl Morey is calling an “arms race.” They used their second round pick in the 2017 draft on German Power Forward Isaiah Hartenstein, but don’t expect him to play at all this year. After the draft, they also signed Cameron Oliver from Nevada. Their first big move of the offseason was on June 28th, when they traded for Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul. In order to get Paul, they made a ton of small trades. Darrun Hilliard (Pistons), Shawn Long (76ers), Tim Quarterman (Trail Blazers), DeAndre Liggins (Mavericks), Jared Uthoff (Mavericks), and Ryan Kelly (Hawks) were all traded to the Houston Rockets in exchange for cash considerations. Of those six players, three are still on the team: Long, Quarterman, and Uthoff. After acquiring all of those players, Houston traded Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer, DeAndre Liggins, and Darrun Hilliard for Paul. They waived Ryan Kelly soon after the trade was completed. This left a lot of open roster spots for the Rockets, so you can bet they were active in free agency. Their first matter of business was bringing back Nene, who gave them good value off of the bench. I’m sure he helped a lot with Clint Capela’s development as well. After getting Nene, the Rockets went out and signed four players: P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Tarik Black, and Troy Williams. Of the four, I expect Tucker and Mbah a Moute to play the most. They both play great defense and are proven veterans. The Rockets also signed 2016 draftee Zhou Qi, a 7 footer from China, to a multi-year contract. Expect Quarterman and Uthoff to be waived at some point before the season starts.
Additions: Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Tarik Black, Troy Williams, Zhou Qi, Shawn Long, Isaiah Quarterman, Jared Uthoff, Isaiah Hartenstein
Losses: Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer
Favorite offseason move: Trading for Chris Paul. It shows the Rockets aren’t content with winning 55 games and want to be a place where superstars go. Because of the Chris Paul trade, it’s very likely that Carmelo Anthony could land in Houston.
Least favorite offseason move: Signing P.J. Tucker to a 4 year deal. I don’t mind him getting $8 million a year, but he’s already 32. If the Rockets could’ve gotten him for 2 years, this would be a much better deal.
Starting Five: Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela
This is a pretty scary starting five. Not quite on the level of the Warriors, but good enough to match anyone else. Paul and Harden are phenomenal scorers and playmakers, Ariza is an elite defender, Anderson is a solid three point shooter, and Capela has the potential to be a great two way player.
Key Reserves: Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Nene
Eric Gordon is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. He provides instant offense when he comes in the game. Tucker is a bulldog, and will provide above average defense for the full time he’s on the court. Don’t expect him to score a lot, though. Nene is also solid. People didn’t realize how valuable he was to the Rockets until he went down in the playoffs.
Key player: James Harden
After getting a full year to play as the primary ball handler, can Harden handle playing off the ball more now that Chris Paul is on the team? Or will this lead to chemistry issues? If Harden can keep scoring at an elite level, I think they’ll be fine.
Who needs to improve: Clint Capela
If Capela can improve his two way abilities, the Rockets would make a huge jump on defense compared to last year. Capela has shown signs of improvement since the start of last season and I expect him to make the jump.
X-Factor: Chris Paul
Paul is known for his mid-range game, and Houston GM Daryl Morey is known for his hatred of the mid-range. So, what will we see from Paul this year? Will he adjust to the Rockets’ three point based game? If he does, I think the Rockets could hold their own against the Warriors.
Projection: 60+ wins
Biggest question: What will the on-court chemistry be like between James Harden and Chris Paul?
Future outlook: Gordon, Anderson, and Harden are locked up for the next 3 years. Paul and Ariza, however, are free agents after this year. If the pairing doesn’t work out and Paul leaves, then the Rockets got rid of a lot of assets for a one year rental. I’d expect Ariza to return no matter what, though. In terms of young talent, they’ve got both Capela and Qi, who are big men full of potential. The Rockets don’t have their pick for this upcoming draft, but they do in 2019. I’d expect them to be a top 4 seed in the West for the foreseeable future as long as they can keep Chris Paul or manage to sign a different star next offseason.
Best case scenario: Chris Paul and James Harden mesh well and average 40 points combined with 20 assists. Their improved defense and 3 point barrage on offense ends up being the Warriors kryptonite. Paul George and Russell Westbrook don’t play well with each other, and the Minnesota Timberwolves experience more growing pains. The Rockets end the season as the 2 seed and beat the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, drawing a matchup with the Cavaliers. The Rockets offense proves to be too much for the Cavs when LeBron isn’t on the court, and they win in 7.
Worst case scenario: The Chris Paul and James Harden experiment doesn’t work out well and the Rockets stumble their way to 50 wins and the 4 seed. They win their first round matchup but get destroyed in the second round by the Warriors. Chris Paul and James Harden can’t shake the “always lose early in the playoffs mantra”, and Paul leaves for greener pastures in free agency.
Possible moves that team could make: It’s very likely we see the Rockets move Ryan Anderson for Carmelo Anthony in the next month. This would make them better defensively (while Melo is nothing more than a below-average defender, Anderson is atrocious. This means it’s an upgrade), and even scarier on offense.
Final Verdict: I think that Paul and Harden will mesh better than most people think, and the Rockets will be the 2 seed in the West. I don’t think they have enough to beat the Warriors just yet, but if they can trade for Melo without giving up their bench depth I’d give them a fighting chance. For now, I’ll go with the Rockets losing in the Western Conference Finals to the Warriors, but showing enough fight to convince Paul to stay and bring another star to Houston.