The Red94 2017-2018 Houston Rockets Season Preview

It’s finally time.  After the wildest summer possibly in NBA history, we’re just days away from tip-off when the Houston Rockets will get things going against the defending champion Golden State Warriors.  I trust you guys won’t panic if the Rockets fail to spoil the ring ceremony as even after adding a future Hall of Famer, the gap between these two teams is considerable.

  • I wrote that last season’s objective was simply removing the stench the 2016 campaign had left upon the franchise and changing its narrative.  The Rockets resoundingly accomplished that feat, turning in perhaps the most improbable output in franchise history.  They let Dwight Howard walk, using the savings on shooters for James Harden, hired an actual coach, and reinvented their identity by amplifying their strengths when everyone (myself included) said they should have been focusing upon their weaknesses.  James Harden moved to point guard, got robbed of the MVP (due to the media’s simpleton fixation upon round numbers), and the team overall did enough to get Chris Paul’s attention.  Like Daryl Morey, I too believe Kevin Durant would be wearing red had the team turned in the same year it just did but a season before.  (He said this earlier in the summer on a Bill Simmons podcast).

  • If you haven’t yet, you need to listen to my Houston Rockets season preview podcast with Nate Duncan because I say a lot of interesting stuff that will be too much to type out again here.  Give it a listen, and also subscribe to Nate’s pod because its one of the most overall informed generalist NBA podcasts out there today.
  • I’ve already said everything I needed to say about James Harden’s Game 6, and you guys are tired of reading about it, but I will add that Chris Paul’s greatest potential contribution will be relieving James Harden from the leadership position he’s needed to assume, freeing him up to simply be the most complete offensive force in basketball.
  • Barring injury, there really is no reason for this team to not win 60 games, given that it won 55 last year and, for all intents and purposes, swapped Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrell for Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker, Tarik Black, and Luc Mbah a Moute.  They somehow managed to improve both offensively and defensively without hurting themselves in any area.  Yet oddly, I’ve seen some outlets predicting lower or similar win totals to the team’s 2017 campaign.  The whole spectacle has engendered within me a strong belief that Chris Paul is the game’s most underrated star.  A future Hall of Famer, current top-10 player has switched teams but on some radars, it has hardly registered more than a blip!
  • Houston was #2 in offense a year ago, and conventional wisdom would lend towards the belief that the Warriors are untouchable at the top spot.  But if any of the glimpses we saw in the preseason were any indication, I’m beginning to wonder if the Rockets can mount a serious challenge for the #1 spot in offensive rating.  The bench units will be significantly improved, just by virtue of Paul replacing Beverley as the lead man.  That much we already knew.  But thus far, Harden and Paul have shown literally zero evidence of any forthcoming growing pains as Mike D’Antoni has already integrated sets featuring action involving both players.  The 2018 Houston attack will be last year’s version on steroids, a constant barrage of pressure upon opposing defenses.
  • But any improvement on offense will be gravy because the true room for growth will be upon last season’s #18 DEFRTG.  Paul is literally the only point guard in basketball who is a defensive improvement upon Patrick Beverley, and subtracting Lou Williams–one of the worst defenders in the league–can only yield gains.  But the real potential will come in the form of P.J. Tucker and Mbah a Moute who will give the team the lineup flexibility they haven’t had.  You can close games super small now while not sacrificing shooting; lineups with Tucker at the ‘5’ are my current intrigue.
  • Clint Capela, I think, is the X-factor, as he was last season.  Not resigning Dwight Howard proved to obviously be the right move, but is there a better use of the resources it will take to keep Capela around past next summer?  In many ways, he’s as ideal of a fit for James Harden on the offensive end as you could find, but we’re still waiting on returns at the other end.  Capela’s rim protection has been admirable, but too often, as we saw against the Thunder, he gets chewed up by larger opponents.  Too many times last season, Houston had to come quickly with Nene after Capela had gotten bullied around, and Nene won’t always be around.  Fine, you can pay another bruiser to be the backup long term, but then why are you paying Capela the money it will take to keep him around?  More importantly, can he finally play more than 25 minutes per game this season or are the stamina issues Mike D’Antoni has spoken about a long-term impediment?  What could you get for Capela before the deadline?  He’s really the team’s only enticing trade chip.  Could you snag Demarcus Cousins if things falter in New Orleans?  The Rockets need Clint Capela to grow up this season if they want to challenge the Warriors.
  • Eric Gordon last season shot 39% on 3’s before the All-Star break; he shot 34% after the break.  He appeared in 75 games last season and just simply appeared to wear down as the season progressed.  I’ve said before that I felt a healthy Gordon was a fringe All-Star talent, and with Beverley and Harden, sufficient as a major cog in a championship backcourt nucleus.  Now the team has Paul, and those open looks should only increase.  But I wrote last year that one trend I found troubling was the marginalization of Gordon in the offense after the Williams acquisition.  Whereas before, Gordon served as the primary ball handler in sets without Harden, later in the year his role became relegated to solely that of a spot up shooter.  I wondered whether that lack of engagement had any effect on Gordon’s percentages.  Its possible, though fatigue is the likelier culprit.  In either event, the team in red will need Gordon sharp for more than just the first half.
  • I expect the Rockets to resign Paul next summer.  It’s far from an ideal situation, but what choice do they really have?  Let a likely-still-top-10-player walk, handicapping the window of their other top-10 player, just out of a fear of what might happen three years down the line?  They just can’t afford to exercise prudence.  The hope here would be that Paul ages like Steve Nash and is able to rely on his superior intellect to steer the team late into his 30’s.  Harden, of course, would do the heavy lifting, with hopefully someone else yet to surface.
  • So what’s the goal here?  What constitutes a successful season?  We’re past feel good stories and narrative shifts.  In any normal environment, meaning the last forty years prior to 2015, this Rockets roster enters the season as the odds-on championship favorite.  But in these unfortunate times, the gap is enough for some to dub it insurmountable.  Houston has two top-10 players, depth, shooting, a veteran roster, and rugged defenders up and down the lineup.  Most importantly, they have a system that works, that the players trust, and that produces a whole output greater than the sum of its parts. The Kevin McHale era is safely in the rearview mirror.  Losing to anyone but the Warriors would be a failure.  I expect Houston to stay ready; opportunity can present itself in a moment’s notice.  As I’ve said always, “just be good enough.”  If the Warriors for some reason falter, the Rockets need to be ready to capitalize.






About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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