The Houston Rockets made a big splash this summer that can’t be viewed in a vacuum. Many other top teams made similar moves and a season of challenges await.
The major addition of Russell Westbrook has led to a mixed bag of opinions when trying to predict how the Houston Rockets will do next season: From some saying that the move was simply a talent grab with the hope that things will work out to projecting the team to once again finish with a top-five record in the league. The team’s upside is undoubtedly greater now that they have the type of player that can decide on any given night to write his own name in the history books.
Russ brings somewhat controlled chaos to the court that can turn any game or series on its head. The Rockets are hoping Westbrook can help take them to their first NBA Finals appearance in over 25 years this season. Pairing him with the unguardable, side-stepping James Harden will give them one of the greatest backcourt tandems the league has ever seen, if not the best.
One big problem Houston is facing is the league appears to be trending toward wings and bigger lineups this coming season. The Western Conference may be stronger than it’s ever been, with the more than just a handful of teams all having legitimate title aspirations.
Even teams that didn’t quite make this list have an argument that they can compete for a championship with a little luck. The Portland Trailblazers are a team that surprises everyone each and every year to the point where you can probably go ahead and chalk them into the top six even if you don’t see a reason to.
The Spurs, having made the playoffs for an incredible 22 straight seasons, also continue to fly under the radar. San Antonio will be welcoming back their starting point guard Dejounte Murray this season after he missed all of last year; plus of course, they still have Gregg Popovich heading the team with his expected brilliance.
The Rockets do not have an easy path to a title even with the star power they obtained this summer. Here are the biggest threats to the Houston Rockets in the West this season:
Next: No. 5
5. Golden State Warriors
I know, I know. tHe DyNaStY iS oVeR.
But is it really? This current Warriors iteration is quite similar to the first one that won the title and then went on to win 73 games the following year. In fact, this team may even have a little bit more firepower.
That being said, the future success of the Warriors still fully hinges on the health of Klay Thompson. If he can return sometime around the NBA All-Star break and get back into his usual groove before the playoffs, this team is still very scary.
We all remember the last time Steph Curry had full control of the Golden State offense. You know, dropping a casual 30.1 points per game on an obnoxiously good 50.4/45.4/90.8 shooting display and earning a unanimous MVP. Given the similar structure of this season’s team, there is no reason Curry can’t come close to those numbers again. Add in the isolation prowess new acquisition D’Angelo Russell brings to the table from Brooklyn and this team suddenly has new ways to beat you.
The Warriors have never been heavily reliant on the pick and roll, but the addition of Willie Cauley-Stein may lead to Steve Kerr adding in more variation. Cauley-Stein also adds the kind of upside few centers have offered for the Warriors in recent years. Kerr always seems to get the most out bargain bin centers — I mean the dude turned JaVale McGee into a two-time champion and starting-caliber center.
The Warriors have been the bane of the Rockets’ existence the last few years and Daryl Morey has done everything in his power to construct a squad to defeat the Dubs’ death lineup. The only problem for the Warriors now is the death lineup is officially six feet under.
Now, a roster constructed to exorcise those demons has to defeat a team developing a new identity in the Dynamic Duo era.
Next: No. 4
4. Utah Jazz
The Jazz may have made the biggest assortment of moves of any of the teams projected to be at the top of the West this season. In his first two seasons, Donovan Mitchell has been forced into being the team’s first, second, third, and fifth option, with occasional lobs to Rudy Gobert taking up the fourth spot. Mitchell’s efficiency did not blossom in his second season as much as Jazz fans would have hoped. Teams were able to key in on the former Louisville Cardinal and stagnate the offense for stretches, which is what doomed Utah in the playoffs last season.
The lack of help for Mitchell is the main reason Utah was at the forefront of the trade reports surrounding Mike Conley and also why they were willing to give up so much to eventually get their guy. Conley gives the Jazz their second playmaker and will not hurt their suffocating defense in the slightest. Conley’s Grizzlies were the only team in the West last year to give up fewer points per game than the Jazz. Coupled with the addition of Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz now have much more firepower on the offensive end.
Utah may be the only team in the league next season without a true defensive hole in its projected playoff rotation. Harden has been the only player in the league the last few years to make Gobert look like a defensive liability by getting him in isolation, and Rudy seems to be holding a grudge.
Being sent home by the same team two years in a row will make the Jazz hungrier than ever, with a laser focus set directly on the Houston Rockets. That could be a real problem when facing a new-look offense rearing to feast.
Next: No. 3
3. Denver Nuggets
Let’s take a second to think about how many games last year’s Nuggets team could have won if they had been totally healthy. Starting guard Gary Harris missed 25 games, starting small forward Will Barton missed 39 games, and rookie first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. missed the entire season. Those are three difference-making players that could all be returning to a team that snatched the West’s second seed and won 54 games through the sheer willpower of The Joker.
Nikola Jokic solidified himself as not only one of the two best centers in the NBA last season but also as a top 10 player period. Then, he got to the playoffs and became even better. Jokic is the focal point of an elite offense that also boasts a flamethrower of a point guard in Jamal Murray, who will have a lot of incentive to keep improving.
Unlike the Rockets, the Nuggets did not make any huge splashes this summer. They expect their improvement to come from the continued growth of the NBA’s second-youngest team from a year ago. The two teams play drastically different styles, with the Rockets’ isolation-heavy offense revolving around Hardens’s individual brilliance contrasting the Nuggets’ everybody-eats offense orchestrated by its maestro, Jokic.
Both teams will require their stars to shine in order to take them to great heights, but the Nuggets expect to be able to lean on their second unit more heavily than the Rockets. More consistent play from the likes of Danuel House, Gerald Green, and Austin Rivers will be a must to conquer the depth from the team in the Mile High City.
Next: No. 2
2. Los Angeles Lakers
It’s tough to have LeBron James on your roster and not be considered a title contender. Last year’s Lakers team was, without a doubt, the weakest outfit he’s been a part of since his first stint in Cleveland, but the pendulum has again swung back into The King’s favor. This summer, the Lakers decided against young talent and instead snatched a juggernaut. In trading for Anthony Davis, Rob Pelinka gave James arguably the most talented teammate of his career, and if he can actually hold LeBron accountable on defense, watch out.
During LeBron’s peak, he was a lock for the NBA All-Defensive First Team, having been selected five consecutive seasons from 2009 to 2013. If the now-older king can apply more of his veteran wisdom to the defensive end, he will certainly become a plus-defender once again.
This team could be a major problem for the Rockets. If the Lakers are able to play bigger with James, Davis, Javale McGee, Danny Green, and Avery Bradley, the Rockets could struggle to match-up without sacrificing spacing on the offensive end. Playing Clint Capela and Tyson Chandler together is not ideal in the pace-and-space league we currently live in, but there are few other options when trying to guard a lineup featuring Davis at power forward.
If the Lakers can find a bigger lineup that can switch enough while also having enough defense in the backcourt, the Rockets won’t be able to run their preferred small-ball squad with Tucker at center without huge sacrifices in the rebounding and rim-protecting department.
The key will be forcing any big not named Anthony Davis off the court with the pick and roll. McGee has shown over the last few seasons to be a very reliable rim protector, but can be taken advantage of in isolation. The smaller the Rockets can force games to be, the greater the opportunity for success.
Next: No. 1
1. Los Angeles Clippers
You will catch the Los Angeles Clippers at the top of many projected win totals lists for next season and with good reason. They added reigning NBA Finals MVP and destroyer of worlds (and dynasties) Kawhi Leonard and paired him with Paul George, who just so happened to finish in third place for the regular-season MVP. When you consider this is the same team that traded its best player at the trade deadline last year and still took two games at Oracle Arena in the playoffs before these additions, it’s no surprise the Clippers are feared in the west.
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Doc Rivers always gets the best out of his players, and the last time he got his hands on a Defensive Player of the Year/MVP-level player, it ended pretty well.
The big problem the Rockets will face when playing the Clippers will be figuring out who will match up against the two All-NBA wings. P.J. Tucker will likely spend all of his time on the floor between the two stars, but the other primary defender Houston should use is the biggest question.
The roles will likely fall on Eric Gordon and Danuel House, who have both struggled in stretches when guarding elite wings. Gordon is undersized in his match-up with either player and House struggles to stay consistent for long stretches on defense in general.
This defensive issues Houston will face is potentially why 6-8, 225 lb Gary Clark could carve out some more minutes this season. Clark was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in both 2016 and 2018 during his time at Cincinnati and has the size to guard both Leonard and George. For a player that averaged less than 13 minutes per game as a rookie, however, that would be a lot to ask so soon.
While the Houston Rockets have plenty of reason to believe they’ll be towards the top of the West come playoff time, the rest of the conference is no joke.
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After making such a dramatic change in their lineup over the summer, Houston will need to figure everything out quickly to avoid dropping in the standings in such a loaded conference.