With the resuming of the NBA season still in question, we could potentially be left with some burning unanswered questions surrounding the Houston Rockets.
When Adam Silver rightly decided to shut the NBA down following the coronavirus spreading to one of the league’s own players, the entire landscape of the sport changed as we know it. With nearly one-fourth of the season’s games still unplayed, the Houston Rockets have as many question marks surrounding their near future as any team in the NBA.
At 40-24 and having recently fallen to sixth place in the Western Conference, James Harden and Russell Westbrook have led the charge for what has easily become the most enigmatic team in the league. At one point, they’re winning eight straight, including a victory over two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and the LA Clippers.
In the next few months, they’re stringing together three or four-game losing streaks to the likes of the New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets. While even the best teams in the league have their unusual moments and bad losses, it seems like the Rockets are experiencing them at the worst times possible.
Making the decision to trade one of the league’s best traditional centers in Clint Capela for a defensive and outside shooting specialist in Robert Covington was certainly a gamble. The team knew it would be sacrificing rebounding and shot-blocking in favor of even more of an open-court, free-flowing offense.
That move, along with acquiring Jeff Green, appears to have been the right decision in terms of the style of play Houston is going for. Despite some early March struggles, Mike D’Antoni‘s newly-formed roster was sitting within one game of the fourth-place Utah Jazz when the league officially suspended all play on March 11th.
With Russell Westbrook blowing up in 2020 and Harden trying to regain his early MVP form, it’s difficult to say for sure how the Rockets would have fared when the playoffs began. As we await the future of the league in light of the pandemic crisis, the best we can do is speculate based on our own opinions.
While I certainly can’t see the future, this is my attempt at answering three of the biggest questions that might be left unanswered this season if the worst-case scenario happens and the league has no choice but to cancel the season.
Next: Question 1
1. Would the Rockets have completed their push for a top 4 seed?
While the Houston Rockets spent most of the season in the top half of the playoff seeds in the West, their four-game skid at the beginning of March really hurt them. After a thrilling overtime victory over Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics to close out February, the Rockets had their worst stretch of games all season.
Going from 39-20 to 39-24 made for a rough week, but the fact that three of those losses were to New York, Charlotte and Orlando is even worse. Those losses definitely aren’t the only ones Houston can look back at with the most regret, however.
A December loss to Lonnie Walker IV and the San Antonio Spurs in which the Rockets held a 22-point second-half lead and an embarrassing loss to the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day also sting quite a bit.
The good news for the Rockets is that most of the other teams in the West are having their own issues that are preventing them from separating themselves from the pack as well. This is what seeds three through seven currently look like in the West, along with how many games back they are of the first-place Los Angeles Lakers.
3. Denver Nuggets: 43-22 (7 GB) 4. Utah Jazz: 41-23 (8.5 GB) 5. Oklahoma City Thunder 40-24 (9.5 GB) 6. Houston Rockets 40-24 (9.5 GB) 7. Dallas Mavericks 40-27 (11 GB)
With 18 games still left to play for Houston, the odds are they would likely move up to at least the four spot if the season played out as it was meant to. While they didn’t have any remaining games against the three teams above them, the Rockets do have a relatively easy schedule left.
The Jazz and Thunder were set to square off the night the NBA was shut down, so that would give H-Town a half-game back from one of them right off the bat. They also were set to face off again on April 13th, while the Thunder still had two remaining games against the third-seeded Nuggets.
Utah was also set to have home-and-home series against the Lakers and Spurs, both of which they were 0-2 against heading into March.
Optimistically, the Rockets could’ve finished in third with a little bit of help. Realistically, the Rockets likely would have leapfrogged either the Thunder or Jazz and quite possibly both. If the season resumes as planned, I predict a fourth-place finish for Space City.
Next: Question 2
2. Which superstar would have shined brightest in the playoffs?
Since he joined the Houston Rockets for the 2012-13 season, James Harden has unquestionably been the leader and anchor of the team. As he goes, so do the Rockets. For much of this season, he’s remained in that role, averaging a league-high 34.4 points per game through 64 games.
While there were moments in recent years when Chris Paul took over in crucial playoff games, it’s never been in doubt that this is the Beard’s team in the last eight-plus years. This season, Russell Westbrook has proven that he’s the closest thing Houston has ever had to a potential first option in place of Harden.
While he understandably had a rough start in a new environment, Russ shifted into another gear in the new year, playing some of the best basketball of his career.
The Rockets won nine of 11 games in February thanks to Russell’s extraordinary month. In that time, the Brodie averaged 33.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and six assists per game on 54.9 percent shooting.
It’s not only what Russell does statistically for Houston that makes him special, but it’s also his energy and effort level that make him special. Westbrook is always in overdrive, and that’s exactly the kind of thing that thrives in D’Antoni’s system.
So the big question is: which former MVP would be the main star for the Rockets if the playoffs indeed happen this year?
It would be simple to just say both, but that would be the easy way out. If I had to put money on it, I’d say Westbrook would come through the biggest when it mattered most in the playoffs this year.
This isn’t so much anything against Harden as it is an observation of how the team works. Russell’s skill set has been building up just for a team made up of guys like this: quick, shooter-heavy lineups that are all ready and willing to fire away.
On top of that, teams are choosing to double James at halfcourt often, leaving Russ free to work his magic on the drive. I would expect much of the same in the playoffs, as Harden is more dangerous from more areas on the court.
This should leave Westbrook to feast on drives and assists as there are only so many defenders that can be thrown at the duo.
While Harden will obviously still have his superstar moments, I believe Westbrook will make the biggest impact overall if the playoffs still happen this year.
Next: Question 3
3. Was micro ball the key to the Rockets winning a title all along?
Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey have never been ones to take a traditional approach to the game. From Morey’s analytics-based approach to D’Antoni’s run and gun revolution, you have to give them credit for coming at the game from a new angle.
Everyone knows about D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns that shifted the game forever. As we learned recently from an interview with Mike and his former pupil Steven Nash, he believes his small-ball strategy didn’t go far enough in those early-2000 days.
“I think we limited our success by not playing quicker and shooting more threes,” agreed Nash during the interview. Now with almost an entire roster full of quick shooters, the biggest question facing the Rockets is: is it enough?
Now loaded with an army of 6-5 and under players anxious to get out on the break and let it fly, has D’Antoni been given the roster he’s been destined to have in order to finally win a championship? It’s tough to tell, as Houston has looked like the best team in the league on some nights and completely lost on others.
Overall though, the answer to this comes down to defense. Quite simply, the Houston Rockets have not been playing consistent enough on the defensive end for my liking. Granted, the NBA as a whole has been skyrocketing in points per game, much of that due to D’Antoni’s innovations.
However, being a bottom 10 team (22nd) in points allowed per game and right in the middle in defensive rating (110.2 points per 100 possessions) is just not good enough.
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The two teams in the West I considered the favorites going into this season, the LA Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, are doing substantially better on defense.
Thanks to the efforts from guys like Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard, the Lakers are third in the league in defensive rating while the Clippers are 13th.
Granted, the Clippers are only two spots ahead of the Rockets in this category, but Leonard has proven in two different environments what he is capable of, and his defensive ability basically equals that of three average NBA players.
In a scenario in which the playoffs were able to resume this year, the Rockets would have their hands full with an average defense.
They addressed their perimeter defense by getting Covington, and Harden and P.J. Tucker aren’t exactly slouches on that end as well, but it’s hard to see it as being enough to reach the NBA Finals.
Of course, they play the games for a reason. What makes the Rockets dangerous is how deadly they are from deep and how often they shoot the longball. With how often they shoot from beyond the arc, even a decent shooting night can carry Houston.
It just likely will take longer and require some roster changes to actually happen.