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2014-2015 Houston Rockets Season Preview: Win Total Prediction

The new NBA season is just around the corner, and it can’t come soon enough. It’s time to get ready for the next chapter in Houston Rockets history, and therefore it’s time to make serson predictions. Until the first game ends, everyone starts out undefeated and all the potential is untapped. But what will the Rockets look like at the end of the year?

The most direct question is also the most obvious. How many games will the Rockets win? A simple question with a simple answer, right? Simple? Yes. Easy? Nope. Predicting wins in most seasons is hard enough as it is, but with the off-season the Rockets have had, the challenge is doubled. Challenge or no, there’s an answer to that question and a process to that answer.

The first step is schedule analysis, something I’ve recently gone over to some degree. Houston’s schedule isn’t striking (for a Western Conference team) in terms of rest and overall strength. However, the West is a brutal war zone, and that tends to flatten out win totals for the playoff teams. Simply judging by this tends to give a number slightly below what actually ends up happening, and this year looks to be no different. The schedule suggests (through a process that is honestly not interesting enough to warrant much explanation) 49 wins for the Rockets, a number that the record may or may not show me railing against earlier this summer.

There’s more to a team than their schedule, however, and it’s this pile of factors that the Rockets are counting on. Players age, mature, learn, work out, and gel with one another between seasons. Players join and leave, and a team’s fortunes can also be looked at as a comparison between teams. This year’s team must be compared against last year’s, and this team’s progress must be compared against that of their competitors. Which factors do we have, then?

First and foremost: James Harden is getting better. If he hadn’t been playing in the FIBA World Cup of Basketball, this prediction would have been up sooner. Watching what Houston’s most core player (even though I think Dwight Howard gets the team MVP for last year) does on a national stage is important and edifying. He looks better. He still has trouble with help defense and he still can’t stay in front of his man very long if they attack the basket, but he at least consistently gave effort on defense… until a switch happened, in which case things got ugly. He won’t be a defensive weapon any time soon, but he will certainly be better last year, and actually is a serviceable man defender in many cases. His offensive game is lethal and is only getting more effective. When he plays off the ball, scary things happen, and he’s going to keep getting better for years. Fear the Beard, NBA. No matter what your impression of James Harden is, he’s gonna score on you.

The rest of the factors? The growth of the young guys: The Terrences Jones and Troys Daniels of the team. Motiejunas, Canaan, Jones and Daniels all have nowhere to go but up. Kostas Papanikolau and Nick Johnson are unknowns but certainly won’t hurt the team. Johnson in particular looks very promising. The team will also continue to gel. There was some roster turnover, but nowhere near what the team faced over the last two summers.

Losing Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin are all unhappy blows, but of the three of them Parsons’ loss will probably harm the team most. Lin was good but seldom even scraped the surface of his potential in a system that he didn’t mesh with. Asik was largely a non-entity that season, something many people forget. Newcomer Trevor Ariza will replace Parsons in the depth chart, and the jury is very much still out on how much of a loss that is, or even if it’s really a loss at all.

Then there’s the big factor, the hardest variable to account for of all. General manager Daryl Morey has a tendency to rock the boat with trades, and this season isn’t likely to be any different. He always makes a move at the trade deadline, even if it’s just a bench tweak. The plan will, as always, be to acquire an all-star talent. As always, that’s a longshot. Whatever trade the Rockets arrange will likely improve the team, as Houston has no real reason not to be in win-now mode. All of these things account for changes, both good and bad. So how many losses will this nasty off-season cost Houston?

Here’s the shocker: none. With the potential trade factored in, I actually think we can expect the team to have improved slightly, something that’s a little surprising. I give them 55 games based on a comparison to last year. Combined with the 49 from the season, that leaves us with an unsatisfying number: 52 wins. Enough to make the playoffs barring total madness, but probably not enough to grab home court. That’s a fifth seed, maybe a sixth if two of the Grizzlies, Warriors and Mavs have good runs. This season may be a bit of a letdown for Rockets fans in terms of win total, but it’s going to be fun. And perhaps most importantly, these Rockets will have something to prove. Maybe this year they’ll prove it.

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