In Review: 53-29 | First in the SW Division | Lost 2-4 to Golden State, West Semifinals
Head Coach: Mike D’Antoni (246-173 with HOU, 628-499 overall)
What To Expect:
In retrospect, people are saying the Chris Paul/James Harden pairing didn’t work, but the truth is that despite their differences they formed the second-best backcourt in the NBA. Unfortunately for the Rockets, the best was the team that eliminated them in each of the last two seasons – the Golden State Warriors. With Russell Westbrook now in Paul’s spot, the Rockets may well have the best backcourt in the league. They also have size in the front court, tough-minded defenders at multiple positions, solid depth and three star-caliber players in Harden, Westbrook and sixth-man Eric Gordon. Will it be enough to be the last team standing in an incredibly deep and star-laden Western Conference? At the very least, the Rockets should open the playoffs at home with one of the top four spots.
Any team with Mike D’Antoni at the helm is going to run and gun, but with high-octane MVP candidates like Harden and Westbrook running the show you can bet the Rockets are going to put a ton of points on the board. Don’t be surprised if they are the top offensive team in the NBA this season. They have dominant playmakers, a plethora of three-point threats and can also go inside with Clint Capela and do some damage in the paint. Last season, the Rockets were 11th in the league at 113.9 points per game; this season they will almost certainly be top five.
The downside of having D’Antoni’s hurry-up offense on the court is that his teams also tend to give up a bunch of points. Last season, the Rockets ranked 17th in defense, yielding 110.1 points per game and only two teams (Washington, Phoenix) allowed more points in the paint. Defending the paint starts with the guards committing to stop penetration, something Harden has never done well. It remains to be seen whether Westbrook can be more of a factor in this area than Chris Paul, always a solid defender, was for Houston. No matter how many points Houston scores, if they aren’t at least in the top 10 defensively it’s hard to see them coming out of the ridiculously tough West.
Top Offensive Player:
James Harden remains one of the hardest players two stop on the offensive end. He has a lightning-fast first step, he has a devastating step-back three, and he can get anywhere he wants to on the court. He scored more than 55 points on six occasions last season, making him one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history. He also scored 40 or more points 25 times. Bottom line? If stopping Harden from scoring is your gameplan, you’d better have a good Plan B.
Top Defensive Player:
Russell Westbrook is by far the best defensive player in Houston, and only six players in the NBA had better defensive ratings last season. They were all big men. Westbrook’s physicality and tenacity promise to make Houston a factor on the defensive end in ways that Mike D’Antoni’s teams have never been.
The Rockets will start each game with two point guards on the court, though both are shoot-first point guards. It will be interesting to see if Russell Westbrook will assume a pass-first mentality when he has a premier scorer in Harden to feed. It will also be an adjustment for Harden, who is a capable passer but prefers to create off the dribble. At the end of the end of the day, whichever of Houston’s guards ends up being the primary playmaker will be nearly impossible for defenses to stop.
Top Clutch Player:
Russell Westbrook was tied for 14th in the NBA in clutch scoring last season, while James Harden was tied for 24th, so Westbrook would seem to be the man for Houston, all things being equal. Of course, we often see the presence of a second dominant player change the way another one plays, so it could be that Westbrook’s presence will push Harden to be an even better clutch player. As things stand, when the game’s on the line the ball should be in Westbrook’s hands.
The Rockets didn’t have much luck in free agency, but then that’s never their strong suit. They did, however, take advantage of yet another issue in Oklahoma City that emerged when Paul George elected to blow town in favor of joining Kawhi Leonard with the Los Angeles Clippers. Suddenly thrust into rebuilding, Thunder Sam Presti sent a star player to Houston for the second time. Russell Westbrook’s reunion with former Thunder guard James Harden promises to be one of the more entertaining situations to watch in 2019-20.
The Burning Question:
It’s not all bread and roses in Houston . . .not just yet. Westbrook has proven to be hard to play with, and Harden didn’t exactly mesh with Chris Paul, hence the trade. If Westbrook and Harden can co-exist and excel, the Rockets will be sitting pretty and could find themselves in the NBA Finals come June. If Westbrook and Harden have a hard time sharing the ball and struggle to play off the ball, the Rockets could have a serious problem on their hands.
Bill Ingram serves as Executive NBA Editor for BackSportsPage.com and has covered the NBA for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheRocketGuy