The Rockets’ puzzling returns, lineup data, and the Westbrook trade

  • We are 37 games in now and I have absolutely no idea what to make of this team yet. They’re sitting in fifth in the West at 25-12, but are 7-3 in their last ten games. The second seed Nuggets are at just 26-11. The Rockets have had some absolutely atrocious losses so far, particularly in December during the midst of a cream puff schedule upon which they should have fattened up. One could say that this is merely a symptom of playing down to one’s competition and that they’ll be fine when it matters as evidenced by some of the gems they’ve turned in against the best teams in the league. The rebuttal there is that this team isn’t good enough to be trusted to just flip a switch. This isn’t the ’98 Chicago Bulls: they haven’t “been there, done that” to where they can be afforded the luxury to carry such a mindset. Rebuttal to that: look at the rest of the West – every team at the top is newly assembled and except for the Lakers, all of the supposed heavyweights are underachieving.
  • The Rockets largely now are who they will be going forward. Eric Gordon was the big addition and he is back. The cutting of Gary Clark earlier in the week in conjunction with the team’s lack of tradable salaries is a strong indication that the team intends to remain under the luxury tax threshold and that no big trades are on the way. They will likely sign a veteran on the buyout market who hopefully can help. But by and large, this is now who the Houston Rockets are. They are the cream of the crop in the league offensively, and are middle of the pack defensively. They have literally been roughly 2nd and 16th in those two respective categories since the third week of the season. The fear here is that I’m not too sure there have been many teams to have won the championship in recent history after being this low in defensive rating at this stage in the season.
  • Danuel House Jr. has been a major problem the last four games, averaging just 4.5 points per game on 32% shooting and 27% on 3’s.
  • The Rockets’ preferred starting lineup of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Danuel House Jr., P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela has now shared the court for 346 minutes. They have a net rating of +9.3, an offensive rating of 109.5, and a defensive rating of 100.1 during those shared minutes. Amongst lineups league-wide who have played at least 200 minutes, their ranks in those respective categories are 7th, 11th, and 7th. Not as sparkling as it was a few weeks back when they hovered around the top in all of those areas. There are only nine quintets who have played at least 300 minutes and the Rockets’ rank in those same areas amongst those are fourth, sixth, and third. I had been saying for some time now that the greatest source of optimism on the early season was how the Rockets’ starters, (with House, not Gordon), had been faring. The thinking there was that if the bench just got a boost, the team would take off.
  • The Rockets could literally either win the championship or lose in the second round. That’s my conclusion. Thanks Booger, back to you in the studio.
  • Where you feel most optimistic is thinking about that Clipper game where the presumptive West favorite threw three All-NBA defenders at James Harden, and Houston came out looking like the better team in essentially all three games. The rebuttal to that is the following question: what does this team look like if James Harden is merely good and not great. Can you rely on him to be great to win a title? Kawhi Leonard certainly was not great in the close-out Game 6 last year in the NBA Finals but his team had enough to help push the Raptors past the top.
  • It was a tough pill to swallow this week watching Chris Paul up close carve his way through the Rockets’ defense, picking it apart with pinpoint precision in leading a ragtag Thunder group to a blowout victory over Houston. For his part, Russell Westbrook played very well in his return despite a shaky start. For me, Paul’s play evoked a certain nostalgia to the wondrous 2017-2018 season, one which–from my timeline I can tell–you either relate to or are disgusted by. I called watching CP3 orchestrate the Rockets offense one of my most favorite experiences in 20 years as a sports fan. My thoughts on the trade remain largely the same. After the initial utter disgust and horror, I came around to it because it extended the team’s window. Westbrook is also a healthier player than Paul despite the latter’s durability thus far this season. But I hated how much the Rockets gave up. And a recent interview by Tilman Fertitta, in which he revealed that he pushed the trade through, confirmed my greatest fears. You probably could have gotten Westbrook for far less had you just waited and let the general manager do his job.

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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