Hope wasn’t necessarily lost for the Houston Rockets, although they didn’t come close to capitalizing on a serious Kevin Durant injury in the 2018-19 Western Conference Finals. Again, no one was writing them off for this season, but an aging Chris Paul coupled with that fact that they blew a HUGE opportunity certainly made for plenty of skeptics this upcoming season.
Then the stories broke. At first, people didn’t pay much attention to the “Paul and Harden don’t get along” rhetoric. But before you knew it, Paul was on his way to Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook was headed to H-Town.
Did that trade improve Houston’s chances of winning a title? It wholly depends on how you value Westbrook and view his ability to play alongside Harden. Regardless, the trade was obviously one of the marquee moments of the offseason, and like-it-or-not, firmly places Houston in the conversation of 2019-20 NBA Champions.
Let’s continue Basketball Insider’s team preview series with a look at the Houston Rockets.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Rockets made one of the biggest moves of the summer when they traded away Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. Westbrook brings a completely different dynamic to the team than Paul, and at this point in their careers, Westbrook is more reliable scoring threat. He’s a walking triple-double and he shouldn’t have much of an issue fitting in with James Harden. The Rockets are a team that have had title aspirations for a few seasons now but have fallen short each time, including last season’s playoff loss to the Warriors despite Kevin Durant getting hurt. They’re hoping this shakeup will give them a better chance, and now with the Warriors having seemingly come back down to Earth, they too have as good a chance as any to get to the Finals. Having Westbrook and Harden is a great starting point, and it’ll be interesting to see how/if the Rockets change their offensive schemes to fit their personnel.
1st Place – Southwest Division
The Rockets shook things up this offseason, swapping Chris Paul and future draft picks for Russell Westbrook. Westbrook and James Harden are an equally odd pairing as were Harden and Paul, but at least they’re good friends – which is more than can be said with certainty of Harden and Paul. Only four teams in the history of the NBA have boasted two MVPs and each time it’s ended in a championship. Harden, Westbrook, Clint Capella and Eric Gordon will power the Rockets to the Southwest Division crown, but how much farther can we expect them to go? There’s enough depth beyond their core-four in PJ Tucker, Austin Rivers and Gerald Green to provide a boost. But Nene’s contract looked like more of a future asset for trade purposes prior to the NBA altering its value – and that may hurt the Rockets down the road as far as adding additional talent mid-season is concerned. And that could dictate how far they go in the postseason.
1st Place-Southwest Division
There’s plenty of intrigue in H-Town with the surprising arrival of Russell Westbrook. We already know how incredible and effective James Harden is as the best scorer in the NBA, but giving him his former Thunder running mate in the backcourt will be a sight to behold. While questions surrounding fit are warranted with two polar opposite shooters, it’s the opportunities with explosiveness and in transition that should excite fans of basketball everywhere. The new Rockets duo should be able to throw different looks at different defensive schemes, keeping teams on their toes at all times. Westbrook with the ball in his hands will form an instant chemistry with a rim runner like Clint Capela as he did with Steven Adams. P.J. Tucker comes back as the squad’s most gritty defender and top glue guy. Eric Gordon’s officially returning, keeping Mike D’Antoni’s go-to perimeter guy in the mix. Yes, the bench leaves plenty to be desired, however there’s opportunities to stagger with two All-Stars with the ball in their hands. It should lead to plenty of rest for both to save energy throughout a rigorous season.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
As the saying goes, “Go Big Or Go Home,” and that’s exactly what Rockets General Manager Dayle Morey did in trading for the massive contract of Russell Westbrook. The Rockets were by all accounts one game away from the NBA Finals, and while the West seems to have dispersed talent in a more equitable fashion, the window for the Rockets is now and they pounced. Time will tell if the pairing of two extremely ball-dominant players will work — the idea of two unstoppable offensive players makes the gamble worth it. The Rockets still have plenty of shooting and rebounding around their offensive duo, so barring injury, the Rockets should win the division, if not the entire thing this season.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
When the Rockets acquired Chris Paul, a lot of people were concerned that he and James Harden would struggle to run an effective offense together since both players are so ball-dominant. I was of the belief that Paul and Harden are both intelligent, talented players who would find a way to make things work. While there were some bumps in the road, Paul and Harden found a balance and were able to orchestrate one of the most potent offenses in the league over the last few seasons. I am not sure I have the same confidence in Harden and Russell Westbrook finding a similar balance. These two have historically high usage numbers and I’m not sure Westbrook is ready to take a backseat to anyone, including Harden. This combination has more upside than the Paul-Harden pairing had, but there is cause for concern. Having said all of that, I will not be surprised if the Rockets are one of, if not the most explosive offensive team in the league this season. I cannot wait to see what this new duo can do together, especially since this will be the first time Westbrook will have a strong core of reliable shooters around him in some time.
1st Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Rockets salvaged the broken relationship between James Harden and Chris Paul, sending Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for All-Star Russell Westbrook. The deal cost Houston significant draft assets but the team got the younger, more explosive point guard. The team will likely be over the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold once Nene re-signs, but he’ll reportedly ink a partially-guaranteed contract that might be used as a trade chip, or can be cut before July 8 to clear salary.
Houston has multiple trade exceptions but the largest is $3.6 million for Brandon Knight. The team also only has nine fully-guaranteed players heading into training camp, though Isaiah Hartenstein and Gary Clark have half of their salaries locked in. Along with Eric Gordon and Clint Capela, the Rockets have over $105 million invested in just four players this coming season.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Best Offensive Player: James Harden
There might not be another team in the NBA with a choice that is this obvious. Despite other offensive talents on the Rockets, James Edward Harden is simply in a league of his own.
You’ve seen some of the statistics, but let me recap some of them for you. Last season Harden scored 50-plus points nine times. He scored 30+ points for 32 consecutive games, something that hasn’t been done since Wilt Chamberlain. He averaged 36.1 points per game on the season with a mind-boggling true shooting percentage of 61.6 percent. Harden averaged 43.6 points in the month of January.
The above paragraph could be quite a bit longer, but we’ll spare you the reader as the Rockets still have other players to touch on and you don’t have all day to read about The Beard.
Let us just mention this. Harden is arguably the best offensive player of all-time. His ability to get buckets and the efficiency with which he does so is out-of-this-world. He’s strong, fast, smart, and above all fearless. As long as he’s in the NBA, whatever team he plays for is an automatic threat.
Best Defensive Player: Clint Capela
Averaging 1.5 blocks and 8.2 defensive rebounds per game, Capela is the top rim protector on a team that doesn’t necessarily harp defense.
PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon certainly have the ability to be ball-stoppers in their own regard and Tucker especially has an exceptional motor, but neither player consistently impacts the game on defense as Capela does. Elite rim protectors are a dime-a-dozen in the NBA, and when a team doesn’t employ one on the court it shows. As much as the NBA loves three-pointers, they still aren’t as efficient as a good old fashioned, wide-open slam-dunk. So when you have a player that can stop them, it automatically makes them indispensable on the defense.
He’s still young and at times, it shows. His defense absolutely has room to grow. But he’s long, overly-athletic for his size, and gives opponents fits at the rim. Look for him to have an even bigger impact this upcoming season.
Best Playmaker: Russell Westbrook
He’s averaged over 10 assists a night for four straight seasons and in his 11-year career, he’s never dipped below 5 per game. Much can be said about his inefficient shooting spurts, but his ability to create looks for his teammates is unmatched. Age may be finally catching up to him, but his current state still probably places him in the top-15 most athletic players in the league and he definitely uses it to his advantage when running an offense.
What’s funny is prior to the trade, Chris Paul could have very well been considered for this recognition. In all reality, Westbrook is a better playmaker than Paul at this point in their respective careers, mainly because Russell still has more left in the tank than the elder Paul.
Last year for OKC, Westbrook led the team in assists, assist percentage at 44 percent and usage percentage at 30.1 percent. All those marks last season outside of usage percentage were better than Harden who would be considered the second-best playmaker on the roster. Harden can dish it, but not quite as well as Westbrook.
Top Clutch Player: James Harden
89.4 percent of made field goals for Harden in the clutch were unassisted. This means he was able to generate just about every single point he scored by himself without the help of teammates – apart from the occasional screen, at least.
He led the Houston Rockets averaging 4.9 points in clutch situations. Outside of Victor Oladipo who played significantly fewer clutch minutes, that 4.9 mark led the entire NBA.
He had a 49 percent usage percentage which not only led the team but the entire NBA and was a full 5 percentage points higher than the next most used player. It’s very clear that Harden is the go-to guy for this Rockets squad and with Westbrook’s all-over-the-place statistics with late-game heroics it shouldn’t change anytime soon.
The Unheralded Player: PJ Tucker
If James Harden is the motor that keeps this team going, Tucker is the glue that makes sure it doesn’t fall apart. There’s a reason his name wasn’t included last summer in trade talks when the Rockets were trying to get Jimmy Butler from the Timberwolves. This guy can flat out play.
He’s ferocious on defense and can easily guard multiple positions when asked. He is very reliable on the corner three and can heat up from distance better than just about anyone in the league. Not to mention teams send swarms of defenders towards Harden to Tucker is usually wide-open on his attempts.
He’s a bully on the ball, easily plays with the most effort on the team, and constantly seems to have a chip on his shoulder.
As far as players that played the entire season, he led the team in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent taking over 4.5 three per game. He was an even better 43.2 percent from the right corner.
Tucker never puts up astounding stats, but he puts out massive effort every night and always leaves it on the court. He’s incredibly valuable for this Houston team and will be a central part of any championship run they may have.
Best New Addition: Russell Westbrook
Anytime you can add a former MVP to your roster who is still in his prime, you should probably do it. Regardless of the baggage Westbrook carries with him in the form of efficiency and poor shot selection, the guy can still flat out ball. He isn’t tall by NBA standards and has still averaged a triple-double of points, assists, and rebounds for three straight seasons.
His fit next to Harden will be spectacular at best and horrendous at worst, and it’s hard to see any sort of a happy medium between those two. If it works out, Morey will be considered a genius and the trade will have been deemed a success. If it doesn’t? Well, only time will tell.
– Jordan Hicks
WHO WE LIKE
1. James Harden
Despite his quirky offensive moves, his lethargic pace of play in the isolation, and his ability to draw fouls that upon review still don’t seem like fouls, Harden is stellar. Every time he suits up we have the pleasure of watching what could be the best offensive player to ever play the game.
He has transformed the stepback three into something that is both unguardable and efficient. He forces teams to scheme their entire defensive plan around what he’ll do night in and night out. His gravity opens up looks for his teammates that for some teams seems unfathomable.
He’s the heart-and-soul of the Rocket’s franchise. Their success is tied directly to him and what he does.
2. Eric Gordon
Gordon inked himself a nice little extension recently and it isn’t without reason. He’s played exceptionally well for Houston and was a huge reason they even made it past the first round last year. His defense on Donovan Mitchell, coupled with his outrageous true shooting percentage of 61.9 percent, was a major reason Harden’s less-than-ideal play was covered up as Houston trounced a solid Utah team in five games.
Having an offensive weapon as strong and diverse as Gordon as your third or possibly fourth-best option is a great place to be. He can get to the rim on almost anyone, play bully-ball where necessary, and shoot at a high mark from three. He’s as close to a big three as Houston is going to get. Gordon is a key cog to the starting unit.
3. Daryl Morey
The statistical wiz himself, Morey pulled off one last stunt that could help Houston hoise the Larry O’Brien for the first time in many years. It’s funny, you’d think that on a statistical level – at least as far as scoring is concerned – that Westbrook would be the last player Morey would want on his roster. But clinging to an aging Paul (and his scary contract) for another season might actually be worse than an inefficient-at-times Westbrook, and Morey knew that.
He made the trade, which was a blockbuster by all accounts that no one saw coming, and he’ll just have to live with the results. Russell could alter his game, it could work harmoniously, and the Rockets just might be champions. Despite what happens, Morey executed the right move and made a daunting situation – with Paul’s contract and all – actually turn out to be a bright spot moving forward. And if it doesn’t work out so well, at least the Harden-Westbrook duo will be a PR team’s dream for the first half of the season until it all implodes.
4. Mike D’Antoni
This is the man that turned Harden into the league’s best point guard – at least on a production standpoint. He’s led the charge on multiple franchises now to make offense the key ingredient to a championship run. He’s revolutionized the three-ball and how many you can shoot in a game. But has any of it paid off yet?
You can definitely argue that they were just a Chris Paul hamstring away from going to the finals two seasons ago, but would they have made it past LeBron? Regardless of your opinion on D’Antoni’s coaching style, he’s proven himself to be one of the better coaches in the league today. He schemes incredibly well for opponents and hides certain weaknesses as good as any coach out there. If anyone can make Westbrook and Harden click on the court it will be him.
– Jordan Hicks
Offensively they are the best team in the NBA. James Harden is a flat-out monster and adding the hyper-athletic Westbrook to the mix will only make the cogs spin faster. They have solid shooting from three at every position outside of the five and have the means to get players open looks better than any team in the league.
Besides Westbrook, the core of the team now has a good three-plus years of playing together so their continuity will for sure help them get places. If they can ease Westbrook into the fold and get him comfortable quickly, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with early on. They don’t have many old veteran players and health shouldn’t be much of an issue, either. If Westbrook can stay healthy, their starting unit will be solid.
– Jordan Hicks
Their biggest weakness could end up being their egos. Although nothing was officially said, there were plenty of reports about how Harden and Paul never got along. Westbrook has as big of a personality as the next guy, so there are skeptics out there that believe the Harden-Westbrook connection won’t work out. The last time they were teammates they were both young and figuring out their way in the league.
If their personalities don’t clash and their style of play gels on the court? Look out, because they will be very good. But if history has shown us anything, we absolutely should not assume they will get along until it plays out.
– Jordan Hicks
THE BURNING QUESTION
Was Westbrook’s acquisition, coupled with Paul’s departure, enough to get Houston a championship?
In a vacuum, adding a player with the accolades Westbrook contains is tremendous. But unfortunately for the Rockets, it doesn’t paint the entire picture. Westbrook’s game is everything the Rockets have tried to avoid. He consistently takes bad shots, he’s never been a good three-point shooter, and he often tried to take over games. Has he had success in small spurts? Yes. Is he incredibly talented at almost every aspect of the game of basketball? Absolutely. But his fit with Houston’s system is curious.
Ultimately, he’ll help Houston win games and they’ll remain in the top three out West going into the playoffs. But it’s unlikely he’ll morph his game into what Houston needs, and by failing to do so Houston won’t make it out of the second round. Let’s be real, Westbrook is a huge reason OKC struggled in the playoffs the last two seasons despite Paul George being on the roster. Why should we have any reason to believe he’ll change his game?
– Jordan Hicks
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