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Can The Rockets Squeeze Into The Playoffs?

Surprise! The Houston Rockets have played great since the departure of their franchise cornerstone, but can they keep it up?

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The Houston Rockets came into the season as what appeared to be a dysfunctional franchise. The most prominent faces on the team all wanted to jump ship. Before the season even started, the Rockets lost head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey. Russell Westbrook was shipped to Washington for John Wall, and James Harden had made it clear he wanted to be next to leave. 

When the Rockets traded their second-best player in franchise history, James Harden, expectations for the season were understandably low. They had been 3-6 with Harden, but have now gone 5-3 since trading him and are on a four-game winning streak. Their roster is now filled with guys who feel they’ve been overlooked and are looking to prove their critics wrong. 

Coach Stephen Silas was dealt a difficult hand but has made the most of it. Since the Harden trade, the Rockets hold the second-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.7. They have a slew of elite defenders that can break up opposing teams’ sets and force turnovers. They are also doing this with multiple key guys missing games to injuries like John Wall and Christian Wood. 

The biggest signing the Rockets made this past offseason was adding Christian Wood. He has continued his strong play from last season with Detroit and has put his name towards the top of all Most Improved Player conversations. Wood is averaging 23.4 points per game along with 10.8 rebounds per game with a 60.6 true shooting percentage. He’s been their offensive fulcrum and shows improvement on an almost game-to-game basis.

John Wall’s return from his Achilles tear has been remarkable – somehow, he still has his burst of speed and his passing ability. While his outside shot has struggled, he can still get in the paint and wreck havoc on any team in transition. Wall has also shown he can still defend when he’s engaged. It’s still too soon to say so with any certainty, but the Rockets have to feel good about landing the better player in John Wall in the trade with the Wizards, plus a first round pick. 

DeMarcus Cousins has been up-and-down. He’s had a couple of monstrous performances but has mostly struggled, especially on the defensive end of the floor. His lateral movement isn’t great, and teams have taken advantage of him. Still, Cousins has shown he’s still an above-average passer at his position. His finishing at the basket is probably the clearest sign of his struggles, as he’s made 17 of his 49 attempts within five feet of the basket, an abysmal 34.7 percent. 

The addition of Victor Oladipo gives the Rockets another scorer who can also defend at an elite level. He’s only played in five games in Houston, but if he can continue to find the form he had when he was an All-Star, the Rockets will be more than satisfied. Oladipo will be entering free agency this offseason and will be highly motivated to give potential suitors every reason to pay him.

The rest of the roster is a group that has been overlooked or underappreciated at some point in their careers. Silas has plenty of options of guys who come in and consistently play hard like David Nwaba, Jae’Sean Tate, PJ Tucker and Sterling Brown. Even rookie Mason Jones has flashed his potential in his limited minutes. 

But it remains to be seen how good this Rockets team can be. They certainly have the personnel to maintain a top defense, but their offense has struggled to consistently get good looks. There’s reason to believe their offense could improve as Silas coached the offense last season for the Mavericks, which had the best offense in history last year. As Wall, Oladipo and Cousins get more acclimated, the offense could see an uptick. 

The Rockets do not own the rights to their own first-round pick this year, so they have no reason to tank and every incentive to try and make the playoffs. Moreover, it’s possible they look to add another piece at the trade deadline in order to accomplish that. Remarkable that the Rockets, after all the dysfunction, are just one game under .500 with reason to be optimistic.

The post-Harden era in Houston is underway and it may be better than many believed it to be. 

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