Despite all the success of the Houston Rockets over the last seven seasons, there has been a somewhat growing hatred for the franchise from the outside and not just because they have been one of the best teams in the NBA over that span. Not coincidentally, seven years ago the Rockets made a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder to acquire James Harden, the otherworldly offensive talent with a mercurial personality and prominent facial hair. Since then, NBA fans and, in particular, the media outside Houston, have had a love-him-hate-him relationship with the Beard.
The fact that Harden happened to fit perfectly with a controversial style of play that, in part, is revolutionizing the way the sport is played hasn't helped.
From record-setting shooting behind the three point line (and at the free throw line) to testing the limits of the league salary cap to pushing the boundaries of and even redefining the rules on the floor, the Rockets are one of the most wildly progressive and innovative teams the NBA has ever seen, and their boundless desire to do just about anything to get another championship, while laudable, is not necessarily appreciated by everyone.
Then there are the players they have brought in to pair with Harden, none of which would be in the top ten (or 20 or 30) in the league in a popularity contest. From Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to Carmelo Anthony to, now, Russell Westbrook, the Rockets have toyed with lineups and coaches and schemes to do whatever they can to help their superstar live his best basketball life.
Still, it came as a great shock that the biggest team scandal — the biggest NBA scandal in years — would come courtesy of Morey over the summer. With literally one tweet, he nearly destroyed his career (the jury is still out) and may have ruined one of the most profitable business relationships the NBA has ever seen.
Even as the league has gone to great lengths to defend the GM, his tweet supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong has strained a very lucrative relationship with China as well as polarized players, league officials and talking heads across the sports media world..
It has brought even more criticism to a team that seems to court it with every maneuver. Which is why the antidote to all the outside noise can only be one thing: winning. In all sports, there is no better retort to a critic than "scoreboard."
But even with the addition of the ultra-dynamic Westbrook, questions linger about defense, shooting, chemistry — all criticisms, we might add, leveled at Paul when he signed here, a signing that led to a 65-win season, but that was then and this is now. And now includes a summer where the league's parity grew by leaps and bounds with the earth-shaking shuffling of superstars like the Association has never seen.
The Western Conference is never easy. It may be tougher than ever with likely ten or more teams vying for eight playoff spots. Even the East, with the ascendance of the 76ers, continual dominance of the Greek Freak in Milwaukee and question marks around the return of Kevin Durant in....Brooklyn?...is tougher than ever.
It is going to take more than the combined talents of the team's two superstars for the Rockets to reach the Finals, let alone win them. And with that uncertainty, questions abound.
Honestly, you should expect them to be VERY good. Yes, they both want the ball, but so did Paul and that was fine. Also, Paul had a tendency to rub Harden (and everyone at one time or another) the wrong way. Westbrook and Harden are really tight. Have been since middle school. We've seen that they can play together in OKC and despite some morons calling for them to implode at midseason and the Rockets not even make the playoffs, do not bet on it.
Westbrook will likely be the one who has to bend the most. Harden is the better overall player and the team's leader. But as evidenced by his triple-double seasons (yes, multiple), he clearly has no issue doing dirty work. Most importantly, he can warp the game, particularly on offense, like no other player in the NBA, Harden included. It will take some time for them to get completely on the same page, but when they do, it will be scary.
Who is poised to make a leap forward this season?
Keep your eyes on Danuel House and Clint Capela. Capela has continued to increase his numbers every season, but it feels like a big year for him. He was on the cusp of All-Star status last season and then he really struggled against smaller lineups. He has worked on that and getting stronger this summer, so expect that to improve. And he and Westbrook have already developed lob chemistry, something he an Paul never could quite get.
House is our pick for the biggest leap. He has already been inserted into the starting lineup, which will allow the Rockets to bring Eric Gordon off the bench (watch him make a run at the Sixth Man Award this year with his 30-foot jumpers). House has tons of upside. If his distance shooting is consistent and he continues to show that relentless hustle on both ends of the floor, he is going to open a lot of eyes around the league.
The Rockets will always be working on improving defensively. Defensive "guru" Jeff Bzdelik is gone replaced with Elston Turner, who has installed some tweaks to what Bzdelik already had in place. But, the single biggest concern will lie where it always has: shooting. Even with new additions, the Rockets remain a volume three-point shooting team with only a handful of guys who have shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. Can Ryan Anderson revive his career? Will House fill in the gaps? Will Thabo Sefolosha represent the three-and-d guy they have missed since Trevor Ariza and Luc M'Bah a Moute?
Most importantly, can Westbrook, a career 30 percent shooter from distance, improve to even 34 or 35 percent with the wide open looks he expects to get? The Rockets truly do live and die with the three pointer. If this is their year, they will need to do a whole lot more living and a whole lot less dying, particularly in the playoffs.
Will Mike D'Antoni be around after this season and will his looming free agency impact the team?
D'Antoni seems particularly well wired for the high stress job of coaching. They guy can shrug off just about anything. The team's mantra the last two seasons of "Who cares, what's next?" is evidence. But the way he and ownership came to an impasse over his contract this summer seemed pretty substantive, as did the Rockets decision to lay off assistant coaches without consulting him.
Still, he is an absolute pro's pro and his situation shouldn't have a direct impact on the team overall until the offseason. Whether he remains in Houston, however, will be heavily dependent on how things go this year and...
At this point, only a fool would say it is better than 50/50. While the storm clouds have receded a bit, this is not a story that will die anytime soon, particularly for the Rockets who stand to lose tens of millions of dollars in Chinese contracts. The big question looming is whether Morey can get back to doing his job effectively given the schism his tweet caused inside the league, never mind what happened in Asia. At this point, we can't say for sure.
What we can say is Morey is one of the finest GMs in sports. He has innovated the game and constantly pushes the boundaries, which is exactly what you want out of an executive. Owner Tillman Fertitta called him the "best GM in the league," and he might be right, assuming he can survive the political firestorm he inadvertently created.
We could talk about the veterans like Sefolosha or Tyson Chandler, but the guys probably most worth eyeballing are youngsters like Ben McLemore and Chris Clemons. McLemore has the opportunity to have an immediate impact with the hole left by Houston favorite Gerald Green when he broke his foot in training camp. The former No. 7 pick may be looking at his last real shot to be relevant on an NBA team. He has the requisite size and talent to be a productive bench player on both ends of the floor, but he will have to prove it.
The dark horse is Clemons. A might mite at only about five-foot-nine (in shoes), he is an absolute scoring machine reminiscent of another diminutive former Rocket guard, Calvin Murphy. Clemons can flat out shoot the ball. He is the third leading scorer in NCAA Division I basketball out of tiny (noticing a theme?) Campbell, and he is an absolute load on the offensive end of the floor. His size makes him a defensive liability, but if he gets a shot as a playmaker offensively, he could produce even on a team loaded with talent.
When will we know if the Rockets are really going to be a legit contender?
After the first month or so of the season, the Rockets should settle into regular rotations and start finding a rhythm. Barring injuries, they could be rolling by Christmas. Defense will be the key. They started rough last season (well, they started rough everywhere last season), ranking 25th defensively, but were the second best squad on that end of the floor after the All-Star break.
If they are able to improve their communication and get on the glass, this is a team that can play with anyone. And they are going to score in bunches, at times absolutely overwhelming lesser teams. They will be fun to watch.
How good can they be defensively?
How good they can be is not as important as how good they need to be. For the team to be good, they don't need to be top three or even top five defensively. They cannot, however, be in the bottom third of the league. If they improve to get near or into the top ten, that will be sufficient considering their prolific offense.
Also critical will be certain defensive pressure points, namely rebounding and transition. They take so many three pointers, they will absolutely have to guard against run outs and easy baskets on the break. They also need to get on the glass, something that should improve with Westbrook, one of the best rebounding guards in the league, and guys like Chandler.
At this point, it is difficult to say who will emerge from the crowded Western Conference, but if there were money to be wagered, we'd put ours on the Clippers. The combination of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George makes them a contender automatically, but add to that a roster of players that made up one of the better teams in the West in the second half of last season and you have all the makings of a very tough opponent. The Lakers may be the glamour team and squads like Utah and Denver will be dark horses, but the mix of defensive and offensive talent on the Clippers will make them extra tough.
As a side note, the battles between Westbrook and Patrick Beverley at point and Harden and Leonard at guard should be epic.
W hat is our prediction?
We are optimistic about the Rockets, but that doesn't necessarily mean we think they are or will be the best team in the West, let alone the NBA. After a bit of a rough start, they should get into a groove by the holidays and stay there with ups and downs to be expected. Injuries are always the great equalizer, but assuming no significant downtime for their core, this is a 50-plus win team with a seed somewhere in the top half of the playoff picture.
Other teams and injuries will play a huge role, as they always do, in shaping the postseason picture, but we fully expect the Rockets to make a deep run in the playoffs and perhaps finally reach their first NBA Finals since the '90s.