Houston sports fans might be forgiven if they had forgotten it was basketball season again. Not only did the NBA get going about two weeks earlier than usual (a move that eliminates the dreaded four-games-in-five-nights scheduling), but we were kinda busy with a World Series victory and some kid named Deshaun Watson.
Now that the Astros are safely ensconced in a glorious offseason and the Texans are losing more players by the minute (with playoff hopes fading despite a really terrible division), we can all begin to turn our attention to the hardwood where your Houston Rockets are already one of the best teams in the NBA and James Harden is the early-season favorite for MVP. Makes you feel a little better about the Texans, don't it?
Without digging too much into the fact that this is not only one of the best but most exciting teams in the league (they dropped 90 in the first half against Phoenix recently, the second most points scored in a first half in NBA history), suffice it to say they are certainly contenders. They along with the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics would appear to be the early favorites along with Cleveland once they get a couple of their guys back from injury.
Yes, the Rockets were very good last season as well before falling in the second round of the playoffs to the Spurs. But this team is deeper and more versatile than last year's squad with key additions that make them better at both ends of the floor.
The New Arrivals
The biggest acquisition of the offseason was the trade for all-star point guard Chris Paul, but it wasn't the only significant move. The team also signed his former Clipper teammate forward Luc Mbah a Moute (pronounced LOOK bah ah MOOtay) and versatile front court player P.J. Tucker. Paul is the second star Harden needed last year, a guy who can carry the load when the Beard goes to the bench.
Paul missed the first month with a knee bruise suffered in the last game of the preseason, but now healthy, he radically upgrades the offense over fan favorite Patrick Beverley. Paul also is one of the better defenders at his position and an even better passer than Harden with a lower assist-to-turnover ratio.
Maybe as important are the moves to sign Mbah a Moute and Tucker. Both bring versatility and defensive tenacity to a team lacking in both last season. Mbah a Moute is a lean wing player with a long wingspan who can defend multiple positions. Tucker is a big strong post player considered a defensive stalwart for years. Both shoot in the upper 30 percent range from distance as well. People may have spent a lot of time talking about the missed opportunity to land Carmelo Anthony, but GM Daryl Morey did virtually everything else possible to improve the roster.
Player to Watch: Chris Paul
Even with 55 wins, the Rockets had flaws in their game last year. Paul fixes one with the added offensive firepower when Harden rests, but probably the most significant issue was the team's lack of defense. They ranked in the lower half of the league on that end of the floor. Adding Mbah a Moute and Tucker must make assistant coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik ecstatic.
With the new NBA rules, perimeter defense must be played with quick feet and good rotations, neither of which were exactly high on the list of strengths for the Rockets last year outside of Beverley and returning swing man Trevor Ariza. In the paint, Clint Capela and backup Nene were often asked to play goalie or left out of position. The additions of better wing defenders means the team has more options and can employ a Warriors-style switching defense far more often. It has already paid dividends with the Rockets in the top 10 in defensive rating, a remarkable jump from last season when they finished 18th out of 30 teams.
And don't be surprised if they are one of the league leaders in steals. They were in the top 10 last year but currently rank fifth.
Player to Watch: Luc Mbah a Moute
While the team has gone outside the organization to land new talent, they continue to build from within, most notably with Clint Capela. The fourth year center is quickly becoming one of the best big men in the league at only 23 years old and his improvements are notable. He added about 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason, knowing that bulking up is necessary to combat the crop of talented young NBA bigs. He also improved his free throw shooting to a respectable 64 percent (it was up in the 80 percentile for the first few weeks of the season before leveling off). Capela is something of a linchpin for this team because he not only helps to protect the paint, but he offers a perfect lob outlet for Paul and Harden. He is also the team's best rebounder.
The struggle for Capela the last couple years has been conditioning. He couldn't really go much more than 20 minutes per game without getting winded. He's upped that to around 26 and can go 30-plus in a pinch. And all his numbers have improved along with his strength and conditioning. He's already having a career year in points (13), rebounds (11), blocks (1.8) and shooting percentage (68). He leads the league in that latter category, is fifth in rebounds and seventh in blocks. He's also tied for fifth in double-doubles.
With all the talk surrounding the new additions to the lineup, it might be a familiar face that has the most significant impact as the season goes on.
Player to Watch: Clint Capela
All Kinds of Versatility
Another problem facing the Rockets in 2016 was a lack of flexibility when it came to the lineup. The NBA has slowly moved away from traditional positions and player sizes to more fluid and shifting rosters. It is not unusual to see five players who are all relatively the same size on the floor together. Small ball, something attempted over the years but often considered a defensive liability, is now the way most teams want to play, at least for stretches.
The Rockets didn't really have the horses to pull that wagon in previous seasons, but they do now. Mbah a Moute, Tucker, Ariza and Eric Gordon give them multiple options on the perimeter and multiple big men with varying skill sets (Capela, Nene and Tarik Black) allow coaches to pick and choose lineups based on the opponent similar to the pervasive "game plan offense" in football.
And most significantly, all of the perimeter players can shoot. Tucker and Mbah a Moute were up near 40 percent all of last year as were Ariza and Gordon. Gordon, in particular, has been on a tear this year having moved into the starting lineup while Paul was out. Don't be surprised to see groupings of Paul, Harden, Ariza, Mbah a Moute and Tucker or even Paul, Gordon, Harden, Mbah a Moute and Tucker on the floor at various times this year.
Player to Watch: P.J. Tucker
Loads of Bench Depth
All that versatility means greater depth from the bench, especially with Gordon returning to his familiar sixth man spot now that Paul is back. EG won the NBA's award for best bench player last season (and won the three point shootout at the All-Star Game) and he looks even better this year with more spring and a still-deadly shooting touch.
He is joined by Mbah a Moute and Tucker along with the returning Nene and Black, who like Tucker, brings a defensive toughness on the interior. As the season continues, expect this to be one of the best bench squads in the league, a critical component to teams that is oft overlooked. The vast majority of NBA teams have quality depth in the starting lineup, but what separates the good from the bad and the great from the good is what happens when the starters sit.
Not only will the Rockets destroy plenty of NBA teams once they get to the second lineup, but the added rest will benefit Harden and Paul as the season goes along and the playoffs approach.
Player to Watch: Eric Gordon
Offense Remains the Same (as does James Harden)
The Rockets were one of the best offensive teams in league history last year. Don't expect that to change. They were first or second in multiple categories including scoring, offensive efficiency and three pointers. That will continue unabated with even better shooting depth and a renewed emphasis on the three pointer.
Adding to that is the passing skill of Paul leading to more open shots than most of these guys see on an empty playground. There is absolutely no reason to think team shooting percentages won't improve and guys like Ryan Anderson could have career years.
But it all starts with Harden, who is already leading the league in scoring (31 ppg) and assists (9.9). He's tenth in double-doubles and second in offensive efficiency rating. Additionally, Harden is shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc and once again leading the league in free throws taken and made while shooting 86 percent from the charity stripe. In short, he is an absolute beast and engine that drives the entire team.
Player to Watch: James Harden
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What's on the Horizon?
It seems almost anticlimactic to discuss the team's prospects when you consider how good they are right now. Why bother with the future when the present is so damn good? But, Morey has managed to add some unique young talent, several of whom are getting time to learn at the NBA level. Versatile wing man Terrence Williams returns, but the new guys might be even more intriguing.
First there is Demetrius Jackson, a standout defensive-minded point guard in his second year. His shooting must improve, but he is already a skilled defender and could prove valuable depth in certain situations. Then there is Zhou Qi, the seven-foot-one-inch lanky big man from China. Yes, he will need to add loads of strength in the coming few years, but he already has NBA offensive skills including a high percentage shot from distance. He also has good shot blocking instincts and is an improving passer. He's not ready for the prime time yet, but he could be fund to watch in the next couple seasons.
Player to Watch: Zhou Qi