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Can the Houston Rockets become title contenders again?

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon (Photo by BOB STRONG / AFP via Getty Images)

The Rockets are primed to crash the contender party

This upcoming NBA season will be 72 games if everything goes according to plan. The reality of a whacky season due to Covid-19 remains a serious possibility.

The Rockets are in the perfect place to capitalize if any of the top contenders endure an unfortunate injury or covid-related crisis. This is not the season to tank if you are around the top and the Rockets are well-positioned to have another strong season.

After going 44-28 last season while posting the 6th best offensive rating, what should fans expect this upcoming season? The Rockets have built a more balanced squad and their additions outweigh their losses, especially on the offensive end.

The additions of Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins give the Rockets a frontcourt with the skillset to facilitate their lofty offensive ambitions. The two are real threats from the perimeter off of catch and shoot opportunities but can finish in the paint as well.

The Rokets seem intent on incorporating pick and roll actions into the five-out spacing that their micro ball lineups provided. While the five-out offense was heavily reliant on 3-point shooting, the Rockets were routinely able to get either a shot at the rim or an uncontested three.

The draw back of the system was that there was not much movement and the lack of screen setting meant that both James Harden and Russell Westbrook were tasked with creating space on their own. An increase in pick and roll usage and more offball movement will lead to easier opportunities for the Rockets’ lead ball handlers and for everyone else.

With Christian Wood replacing Robert Covington and John Wall replacing Russell Westbrook the Rockets have upgraded their 3-point shooting tremendously. Wood hit 38.6-percent of his threes compared to Covington’s 33.5-percent last season and Wall has hit 32.4-percent of his 3-pointers throughout his career compared to Westbrook’s 30.5-percent.

The Rockets attempted 45.3 3-pointers a game last season, the most in the league, but their success rate of 34.5-percent was the 24th best conversation rate in all of basketball. If they improve by just 1.5-percent to 36-percent, which is just middle of the pack, the Rockets would go from hitting 15.6 threes a game to 16.3. That small uptick in efficency would have led them to average 2.1 more points a game and lead the league at 119.9 points per game.

The offense is going to be the Rockets meal-ticket but their defense will need some improvement if they are to really make the jump into the championship conversation. Last season they finished with the league’s 14th rated defense but there is optimism that it can improve.

The Rockets got absolutely destroyed on the boards last season, especially after they moved on from Clint Capela. The team finished 29th in defensive rebounding and 28th in offensive rebounding rate but they shouldn’t be that close to the bottom again this year.

Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins will help sure up the rebounding and any marginal upgrade in that era will greatly improve their overall defense. The team finished third in their ability to force turnovers and that area of strength shouldn’t see a steep drop off.

The Rockets are primed to have a top-5 offense, and if their defense can be within shouting distance of the top-10 they’ll have all the ingredients of a traditional contender. Expect the Rockets to improve upon their 44 wins from last season and challenge for a 50 win season.

If the Rockets had won 50 games they would have landed the two seed in the West last year. As it stands, they’re not quite as good as the Lakers or the Clippers. The Rockets will be in a dog-fight for the West’s 3-seed but with James Harden in town, they have the inside track on claiming it.

The Rockets will find themselves straddling the line between contender and pretender all season. The Miami Heat did that all last season and made it to the NBA finals.

Next. How Stephen Silas’ will get the best out of the Rockets

The Larry O’Brien trophy hasn’t been paraded down the streets of Houston in close to 25 years. After all the recent near-misses Rockets fans have grown suspicious of their contender status, but this isn’t the season to give up hope.

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