It’s mid-August, and that means that NBA coverage is at its most sparse. The schedule was already released, all the free agents who will have a real impact have been signed, and training camp is weeks away. Season previews, predictions, and pre-season games are all down the road, while July’s excitement is in the rear view mirror. While there’s a moment to breathe, let’s take a look at what the Rockets have done, what they have to do, and how many wins we should expect from them this season.
The Houston Rockets are going to be better this season. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement (though, surely, some will disagree), and it’s the springboard for all predictions for this season. No matter how you figure wins, be it by a strength of schedule style analysis, a look at the calendar, point differential metrics, or a gut feeling, it’s critical to know and admit that, yes, they’ve improved. In fact, the ways they’ve improved are honestly fairly straightforward.
The biggest improvement was adding Dwight Howard. This isn’t brain surgery. When healthy and motivated, he’s the best center in the league, and when injured and unmotivated he’s still better than Ömer Aşık in nearly every way. By no means is any of this meant to disparage Aşık, who’s clearly one of the best centers in the league. Unfortunately for him, he’s now the best backup center in the league. The new dynamic might not be good for Ömer, but it’s huge for the Rockets, who now have the absolute best center rotation in the league. That’s big. That’s twin towers big. That alone is a marked upgrade in the wins column.
But, strangely, general manager Daryl Morey continued to do his job after signing Dwight Howard. Thomas Robinson and Royce White may have been punted out the door to make room for Howard, but the rest of the offseason saw very little turnover and a large degree of hiring. Carlos Delfino may have hoofed it back to Milwaukee to rejoin the Bucks, but the (honestly superior) Francisco Garcia stayed on, signing a renegotiated veteran’s minimum deal. The Rockets picked up Isaiah Canaan in the draft, and he looks like a promising prospect in future seasons. B.J. Young, Robert Covington and Jordan Henriquez all went undrafted and are all hoping to spend their rookie years with Houston. Marcus Camby decided to return to his adopted home of Houston, rounding out a nice center rotation. Omri Casspi, Reggie Williams and Ronnie Brewer all signed minimum contracts in hopes of having renaissances on Houston’s roster.
That’s actually quite a bit of talent added on top of the already present reserves. In fact, that’s too many players. Given that every NBA is required to retain no more than 15 players when the seasons starts, training camp may be very competitive. The addition of Brewer means that even waiving the three undrafted rookies and stashing them in the D-League isn’t enough. Houston may release one of their new additions, such as Casspi, Williams or Brewer, or they may try to move one or more of these players in exchange for an upgrade or at least a future draft pick. The point is that Houston has, if anything, too many worthwhile bench players, and will have more depth than last year while still signing a megastar.
Unsung in all of this is the simple fact that Houston’s core is going to improve. James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Ömer Aşık, and last year’s remaining rookies (Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejūnas) are all young and still developing. While it’s unlikely that all of them improve this season, it’s even more unlikely that none of them do. We’ve seen, from teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, that simply retaining young talent and keeping the core together can have a very positive effect. Even if Houston had made no offseason moves, you could confidently pencil them in for more wins.
So, with all of those factors together, how many more wins will they have? Well… some? Definitely some more wins. Mitigating factors such as the western conference improving in general, and the southwest division improving in specific, will hinder Houston’s hopes at a 60 win season. In the east, that might be very doable. Out west, one expects something closer to 55. All those positive changes surely account for more than ten more wins, but a stronger division and many looming question marks bring that number back down to a clean ten.
If we look at the season schedule itself, this isn’t too far off. Taking into account back to back situations and road trip situations, there are probably somewhere around 40 games the Rockets really should be winning this season. (For what it’s worth, lots of them are all together in January, which might be a great month for Houston.) There are around 17 games they’re probably going to lose, and the other 25 could reasonably go either way. If, for simplicity’s sake, we assume the Rockets will win about half of those games, that gives us something in the 52-53 win range. That’s within a couple games of that theoretical 55, suggesting that at the least this prediction is consistent. If we split the difference there, we can settle on 54 wins, a respectable number for a team that won 45 last season.
If the Rockets do indeed land at 54 wins, that very respectable number might turn out to be woefully insufficient. That was good for second in the east last season, but would have been a mere sixth in the brutal west. There’s no reason to believe that the west will be any less brutal, save for the fact that the Denver Nuggets seem to have nosedived. Houston may very well be looking at a fifth seed if they put together 54 wins, a testament to how competitive the western conference is likely to be this coming season and into the playoffs.