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| Sports |

As an Uncertain Season Begins, We Answer Some Questions About the Rockets

Will Russell Westbrook be here long enough to lead another playoff run?
Will Russell Westbrook be here long enough to lead another playoff run?
Photo by Eric Sauseda
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Stability. It's one of the most underrated yet critical components of a winning franchise in any sport. The longer guys play together, the longer they work under the same system, the better they tend to get. For the Rockets, the years-long stability that came with the same coach and general manager (even the same owner), never mind their signature star in James Harden, was nearly entirely erased over the last year. And we still don't know what more is yet to come.

Fortunately, basketball is perhaps the most resilient sport when it comes to change. Huge, sweeping changes that alter the course of a franchise can happen in the middle of a season and the team can improve. We need look no farther than the Rockets history when the trade for Clyde Drexler in the middle of a season where the team was attempting to defend its title turned out to be the lynchpin to a second championship.

Still, this offseason has been one of the most turbulent in team history and there is a lot riding on what happens over the next few weeks as the team enters training camp. For the moment, there are more questions than answers. Let's address a few of them.

Will James Harden and Russell Westbrook both play for the Rockets this season?

Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way right off the bat because it is not an easy question to answer. Both Harden and Westbrook let it be known they wanted to be traded this offseason. Harden went further in requesting a trade specifically to Brooklyn. Fortunately, the Rockets' new GM understands that moving a star in his prime rarely results in success and to get good return on Westbrook's unique talents, they will need to be ultra careful.

Rumors of a deal involving the Wizards John Wall for Westbrook never really materialized and the boatload the Rockets reportedly want for Harden (and rightfully so) didn't have any takers. That leaves everyone in a bit of an awkward position. The Rockets are hoping the two stars will find some equilibrium back in camp and surrounded by a new cast of younger talent as well as a new coach. Harden is said to be enthusiastic about the signing of Christian Wood, but will that be enough? Only time will tell. At this point, odds are Harden remains in Houston for the foreseeable future. Westbrook, on the other hand, we will have to wait and see.

Is Christian Wood really the answer?

Speaking of Houston's big offseason signing, the young, athletic big man sure does seem to have the weight of the franchise on his shoulders from the jump. The Rockets have been searching for a talent like Wood for years, an athletic big who has shooting range and can rotate defensively. Wood does seem to fill that bill, a young player whose star has risen quickly thanks to his offensive skillset and high motor. The question will be if that is the missing piece to this Rockets puzzle.

Wood does check a lot of boxes, youth being one of them. The Rockets were one of the oldest teams in the NBA last year without draft picks that were sold off in trades for Westbrook and others. The team did its best to restock both on youth and picks in the offseason with Wood being the centerpiece. He is likely to thrive with Harden both as a floor spacer and a target for lobs that worked so well with Clint Capela. If Wood and Harden can capture some of that magic and the young center can continue to grow, it could be a game changer for the Rockets this year and in years to come.

How will new coach Stephen Silas do in his first head coaching gig?

Talk about being thrown into the fire. Silas got his first gig as a head coach hoping to helm a playoff team with two signature stars. He still has that for the moment, but the hold is tenuous and he could be the key to whether it all comes together or gets blown apart. Fortunately, despite his lack of head coaching experience, Silas has two decades of proven coaching excellence under his belt, particularly in Golden State as a part of the Warriors dynasty.

He is particularly good at working with guards and the team has loaded up on others with similar knowledge (Jeff Hornacek, John Lucas as assistants). And he and his staff are young, in some cases, as young as the players they will be guiding. It will undoubtedly infuse new energy into a staff that has been the same for a long time. Whether that will result in excitement or chaos is unclear, but Silas appears to be highly qualified and surrounded by good people. He just needs to get his stars to buy in.

Who has a chance of surprising fans who may not currently know who they are?

Most recognize the big names on the Rockets roster and even some of the more prominent role players like Eric Gordon, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker. But, there are definitely new names and not just Christian Wood. Demarcus Cousins signed a veteran minimum deal with the team in hopes of reviving his career. Ben McLemore is back with his outside shooting touch and G League stalwarts like Bruno Caboclo remain on the roster. But, there are a couple players you might not recognize worth watching.

First is David Nwaba, a wing player with a huge wingspan and legitimate defensive prowess. Nwaba suffered an achilles injury in December of 2019, but he is considered a premier defender for his position and shot 42 percent from three before his injury. Then there is Jae'sean Tate, who played in Australia and is considered a younger P.J. Tucker. Finally, keep an eye on rookie K.J. Martin. There's a reason the Rockets gave him a guaranteed deal.

Are there big moves in new GM Raphael Stone's future, and can he handle them?

It's a good question. Based on the offseason, it seems clear that Stone is not going to jump at just any offer. He is going to make good, measured decisions based on what is best for the franchise. He has shown no rookie jitters as the new GM and there is no reason to think those will suddenly emerge.

But, will he pull the trigger on a big deal during the season? One thing his predecessor was not afraid of was the huge move and it is clear his owner is willing to give him the room to make bold strokes in trades. But, Stone, by all accounts, is not going to rush any moves, nor should he. When the time comes he will certainly be tested. The Rockets are in a very odd position going into this year. But, there is no reason to think he won't make the right moves.

What does all this change mean for the team on the floor? Will they still be good?

If the Rockets remain relatively intact, there is no reason to think they won't be a playoff team again and potentially a top four team in the NBA. This team has legitimate talent at the top end and has added some depth and youth in the offseason. Whether or not they can hold it together is really the question.

If the team can retain Harden and Westbrook, while convincing them they are moving in the right direction, there is no reason to believe they won't be one of the best teams in the Western Conference. If they are forced to move one or both of their superstars, all bets are off and they could go from a West contender to a lottery dweller in the blink of an eye. 

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