Houston Hoops

2017-2018 preview: Rockets are poised to make a deep playoff run

James Harden will once again lead one of the best offenses in the NBA. Houston Rockets/Facebook

Well that offseason flew by. The regular season is back in action this week, and after a wildly forgettable second round playoff exit, a new-look Rockets team looks set to once again try to be the David to Golden State’s Goliath. I’ll be covering the team on a weekly basis from here on, so I suppose now is a pretty decent time to get acquainted with the 2017-2018 squad.

What’s New?

Well, a lot; but before we dive completely in, let’s get a little context. Last season, the Rockets swaggered into the playoffs with a 55-27 record as the third seed and dispatched the Oklahoma City Westbrooks (more commonly known as the Thunder) in convincing fashion, four games to one. Suddenly there were murmurs that Golden State might have a challenger to the Western conference throne. Those murmurs were almost immediately snuffed out after a disappointing effort against the San Antonio Spurs, who sent the Rockets home with their tail between their legs after a 114-75 blowout game six clincher. Rockets superstar and MVP runner-up James Harden finished 2-11 with 10 points and six turnovers that game.

Such an embarrassing playoff exit after a brilliant regular season campaign left Rockets fans frustrated. I was personally dejected. It looked like a team that quit, and I decided that if the team was content with first and second round exits, then I’d prioritize watching them accordingly. It was obvious that the team - as constructed - couldn’t make a deep playoff run because Harden was simply out of gas after carrying the team all season. To add to the issue, there simply weren’t any clear cut answers to the problem out in free agency. Rockets GM Daryl Morey reassured the media that he “had a few tricks up his sleeve,” this offseason, and the Rockets fans all collectively smiled and nodded.

Sure, you do, Daryl. Sure, you do.

Then it happened. A little more than two weeks after the Finals had wrapped up, Morey swapped roughly half of our bench with the Los Angeles Clippers for superstar point guard Chris Paul; effectively pulling the trigger on the biggest trade the Rockets had executed since bringing in Harden in 2012.

Well…that’s uh….that’s a pretty good trick, Morey.

But he wasn’t done there. While everyone was busy dropping hot takes over whether Harden and Paul could coexist, Morey was low-key rebuilding the bench with gritty defenders that can shoot the three. The next thing you know, the Rockets had signed just that in forwards P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Adding to the intrigue of this new look roster is the Chinese freak of nature, Zhou Qi (pronounced “jo chee”), who – while his minutes may be limited to begin with – could eventually provide a serious matchup issue as a seven-footer with a jumper who can stretch the floor.

What to Expect:

The Rockets starting five is almost identical, with the exception of the addition of one of the best point guards in the league. James Harden will still be the work horse, but I expect his notoriously absent defense to return once again now that Paul is there to shoulder some of the load. They’ll each be given time to operate the offense on their own while the other rests, but when they’re both on the floor, look out. As long as Ryan Anderson regains some semblance of a reliable three point shot as a stretch four, the starting five will leave opposing defenses with the unenviable predicament of having to choose what poison to be beaten by. If they choose to guard the 3 point line, the Rockets will gut them with Harden, Paul, Eric Gordon and – to a lesser extent – Trevor Ariza off the dribble. Anyone who has watched the Rockets play a game the past few years knows that playing loose and focusing on guarding the rim isn’t even an option. Losing fan favorite Patrick Beverly wasn’t my favorite part of the Chris Paul trade, but I expect  Tucker to fill the role of the scrappy defender that Beverly left behind. Keep an eye on Zhou Qi as he adjusts to the NBA. Like I said, if he can transition quickly enough, he has the potential to be a better stretch big than Ryan Anderson and can produce some serious headaches for opposing defenses.

In short, expect a more dynamic Rockets offense to be complimented by a much better defensive effort. This team, if healthy, looks poised to make a much deeper run than last season’s group.

Prediction:

The key is a healthy Chris Paul, which isn’t a guarantee. If he’s healthy, this is a team that can win the southwest division. I predict just that, and at worst they fall second to the Spurs. As far as the playoffs go, I can see a deep run, potentially to the Western Conference Finals. I envision the Thunder being an issue if their new core manages to jell early enough into the season, as well as the Spurs (as usual), and of course the Warriors. A possible pest team could be the Timberwolves, considering the moves they’ve made in the offseason. But now to the question that everyone’s been asking since 2015:

Can they beat the Warriors?

Here’s the deal. Last summer I started powerlifting and got about as strong as I’ve ever been in my entire life. I became pretty confident because I assumed that I was stronger than just about every average person I came in contact with. Then I’d meet up with my buddy, Jeff, who is a 300 pound professional power lifter, watch him bench press 500 pounds, and I fall back down to earth.

The Warriors are Jeff. They’re too big, and too strong, and too deep. No matter what the Rockets do at the moment, they will never be as big as Jeff. I certainly hope I’m wrong, but unless there are multiple serious injuries to the Warriors, it’s essentially their world and we’re just living in it. That doesn’t mean that the Rockets won’t be a ton of fun to watch this year, though.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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