Sports

Rockets Open Season: Six Thoughts

Eric Gordon needs to have a bounce back year.
Eric Gordon needs to have a bounce back year. Photo by Eric Sauceda
Despite the season ending in the fall, it feels like a long time since the Rockets were on the floor for meaningful games. This year, outside the bubble and with a slightly shortened season, you would think stability would be the key to success. It probably will be for teams like the Lakers, Bucks, Heat and others who try to lay claim to the next title. For the Rockets, much will be about who will still be on the team by the time this season is over.

Despite the short offseason, this has been perhaps the most tumultuous one in Rockets history. New coach, new GM, more roster turnover than we have seen in years and a giant question mark surrounding the team's best player heading into opening night.

If nothing else, it should make for a very entertaining year, but it's probably going to be rough on fans. Here are some thoughts on the season.

James Harden is unlikely to be a Rocket by season's end.

Put the over/under on the number of games Harden will play at around 20 and I'll take the under. It feels more and more like the trade demands and reported heated exchanges in practice with rookies are coming to a head sooner rather than later. The Rockets are clearly going to do whatever is necessary to secure quality return on their former MVP, but at some point this season, perhaps within the next couple weeks, Harden will be a former Rocket. It's a shame considering everything the franchise has poured into this superstar and all he has accomplished in a Rockets uniform. But, this is the nature of sports and we should be prepared that the team probably won't be better (this year) without him.


Players to watch as the season progresses.

Even with the expected loss of Harden, this team is deeper and younger than last year. Gone is small ball, replaced with flex ball, meaning the team will try to be flexible, playing with different lineups and spreading the ball around. Beyond the obvious stars on the roster, keep an eye on Jae'Sean Tate, the tough young forward who most recently played in Australia, Christian Wood, who could be a breakout star this season, and Eric Gordon, who needs to revive his career this season after a miserable 2020. Also, watch for progress from David Nwaba and a bounce back year from Boogie Cousins. And do not sleep on Danuel House, Jr. He is poised to make a leap after an embarrassing premature exit from the bubble for a quarantine violation.

Expect COVID disruptions.

It's gonna happen. Last year, the NBA was the most successful sports league thanks to the bubble. This year, they will attempt to stay safe while being outside the protections of the Florida quarantine. Don't bet on it. Depth on teams will be more important than ever and it could have some significant impacts on playoff positioning as the season continues. And that isn't just for players who get sick. The NBA clearly has some stringent protocols in place and they won't tolerate violations meaning some teams are going to get caught without guys who mess up. Hopefully, that doesn't include the Rockets.

Stephen Silas has a chance to be an outstanding coach.

Before coaching a single game, coach Stephen Silas has already navigated one of the most difficult offseasons in team history as a rookie head coach. His demeanor and candor in interviews has been nothing short of remarkable for someone with no head coaching experience. Fans will love him and our bet is players will too. His system is a hybrid of what the Rockets have done before and a slightly more traditional approach to the game. Definition: We will see more midrange shooting, but still a ton of threes. The league is learning to balance the analytics of threes, layups and free throws with tried and true aspects of the game that make the most of the players on each team's roster. Silas has already demonstrated that flexibility will be the name of the game for the Rockets. We'll see how well it works.

Team achilles could restart some careers.

Three players — John Wall, Demarcus Cousins and David Nwaba — are all recovering from achilles injuries that sidelined them last season. For Wall and Cousins, it's been almost two years. Unfortunately, Chris Clemons tore his achilles in the preseason, not only costing the team a young guard, but Gerald Green as well, who had to be waived to make room for Clemons' now guaranteed salary. Hopefully, the only ankles Wall will be breaking this season will be those of his opponents. He and Cousins have the most to prove with their returns and will be key to the Rockets hope for success. If they are able to return to full or nearly full strength, this will be a tough team to beat.


This team's ceiling is lower than last year, but they can still be very good.

Make no mistake, this team is not as good as last season on paper. They are deeper, but also far less experienced. And if Harden leaves, even if it returns a player like Ben Simmons, you are still losing one of the NBA's best five players at his position. But, this will be a very interesting squad to watch. There are real opportunities for growth with a number of young players, Wood and House in particular, and a chance for guys like Wall, Cousins and Gordon to prove they still have gas left in the tank.

Still, things will have to line up perfectly for the Rockets to content for anything beyond a playoff birth. Most experts are already suggesting they could be on the outside looking in come postseason time. It wouldn't be a shock, but also don't be surprised if they are better than expected. They probably won't be a title contender, especially given the talent on the teams expected to be standing at the end, but they also will not be a cellar dweller, barring catastrophic injuries. Above all, this team will be fun to watch.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke