Preview: Houston Rockets

2017-18 Houston Rockets


Projected Record: 56-26 (3rd in West)

Over/Under: 55.5

2016: 55-27 (3rd in West)


Key Additions:

  • G Chris Paul
  • F P.J. Tucker
  • F Luc Mbah a Moute
  • C Tarik Black
  • C Zhou Qi

Key Subtractions:

  • G Lou Williams
  • G Patrick Beverley
  • F Sam Dekker
  • F/C Montrezl Harrell

Summary

Strengths:

  • Enormous offensive upside
  • Versatile wing defense
  • Three-point shooting

Weaknesses:

  • Questionable frontcourt depth
  • Back end of rotation could be thin
  • Harden and Paul will need time to gel

The Rockets enjoyed a return to relevance last season after a disappointing 2015 that saw Kevin McHale get fired and 8-seeded Houston get pummeled down by the Golden State Warriors. Now under the leadership of fabled offensive schemer Mike d’Antoni, James Harden exploded for a ludicrous 29-8-11 stat line, finishing second in MVP voting and powering a frisky Rockets offense en route to a 55-win season and the West’s third playoff berth. Though they were ultimately eliminated by the eternal San Antonio Spurs, the Rockets dispatched rival Russell Westbrook and the Thunder and the season could hardly be regarded as anything other than a success.

Then they got Chris Paul.

The price for Paul was steep – the Rockets parted with bench scoring aficionado Lou Williams, defensive bulldog Patrick Beverley, frontcourt hype man Montrezl Harrell, and promising young shooter Sam Dekker, along with some smaller pieces and a protected first round pick – but it was worth it. The additions of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute were clever, and Tarik Black shores up the rotation to an extent, while younger Zhao Qi – a second-round stash from last year – adds a bit of young intrigue.

There’s been a lot of discussion about how James Harden and Chris Paul might clash stylistically with one another – Harden runs a more up-tempo game, while Paul likes to slow it down and calculate – but I think it might be nitpicking. They’re both incredibly smart basketball players and Mike d’Antoni is one of the league’s best offensive minds. Personality-wise, the party-animal James Harden of a few years back might have rubbed the ultra-serious Paul the wrong way with his antics – remember that Harden was an active contributor to the feud with Dwight Howard – but I do believe Harden has matured as an individual since then. They’re going to figure this thing out before long, and I’m excited to see what happens when they do.

The Rockets are deep and versatile, loaded with the kinds of two-way players the modern day league loves so much. Trevor Ariza, Tucker, and Mbah a Moute can handle a wide variety of defensive assignments while spreading the floor with their three-point shooting. Clint Capela is a tough rim protector who can make plays rolling to the rim, in the mold of a Tyson Chandler or DeAndre Jordan. Eric Gordon, Nene, and Ryan Anderson can get hot and carry an offense on nights where the big names don’t have it – although the latter of the three might be unplayable against the West’s best teams. It’s a fascinatingly designed roster made of interchangeable parts, and if they stay healthy, I believe their matchup versatility might make them the biggest threat to Golden State – at least, as much as any team can be.


Most Valuable Player: James Harden

Harden might be an infuriating player to watch at times (he’s shot at least 10 free throws per game in four of the past five – and the fifth season, he was at 9.1), but he’s undoubtedly one of the league’s best offensive players, and he had a deserving case for last year’s MVP award – though I went for Russell Westbrook, myself. Harden has matured quite a bit from the party animal that arrived in Houston in 2012, and he and coach Mike d’Antoni have made for a pretty perfect pair. I don’t know that he’ll come away with that MVP award this time around, but if the Rockets are as good as they look, he’ll certainly have a chance.

X Factor: Chris Paul

I cheated here. This is pretty much cheating. Chris Paul is the second-most valuable player on the Rockets, and he’s almost certainly going to be great this season. There’s not much “X” in this factor.

The larger point, I think, is that there aren’t many guys you could remove from the Rockets due to injury or ineffectiveness that would dramatically alter how the team performs this season beyond Harden and Paul. If Trevor Ariza loses a step, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute see some more time. If Clint Capela gets hurt, Nene and Tarik Black can split his time between them situationally. There’s a very Belichick-ian “next man up” structure in place here that could really make the Rockets pretty slump-proof as long as they figure out the Harden-Paul balance and neither of those two gets hurt.


Conclusion

This year’s Rockets will be right up there with Oklahoma City and San Antonio for the 2-4 seeds in the Western Conference, and though I have them listed third right now, I’d frankly accept the three teams in pretty much any order. I believe James Harden and Chris Paul will be much less of an awkward fit than many seem to be expecting, and I love the versatility of their roster (though I think they lag behind Oklahoma City in terms of sheer star power).

If any team in the West were to somehow knock off a health Warriors team, my money would be on Houston. They’re going to again be one of the NBA’s best offenses, and their roster allows them to adapt to whatever schemes the Warriors throw their way – perhaps even the vaunted Death Lineup. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a mile behind the Warriors this season just like everybody else. I just have to squint a tiny bit less to see their path to victory, whatever that means.

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