SALMAN ALI

2018-19 Houston Rockets season preview and predictions

Carmelo Anthony was a big off-season addition. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

On the heels of a Western Conference Finals that many believed was theirs to lose before Chris Paul injured his hamstring, the Houston Rockets decided to shake up much of their roster this summer which came as a shock to many. With most expecting them to take a step back, Houston has a lot to prove going into the 2018-19 regular season.

Win Total Prediction: 58

Houston’s Las Vegas over/under is currently set at 56 wins and although they did lose some key pieces this summer, It’s hard to envision a nine-win drop off from last year. Chris Paul and James Harden provide a baseline of excellence that is so high, it almost doesn’t matter who the surrounding cast is. The ingredients are still there for Houston to be amongst the best in the league offensively, which will net them 50 wins on its own (given the history of top five offenses). Under Mike D’Antoni’s tutelage, the Rockets will be playing with a spread floor and a Hall of Fame facilitator in the game at all times. The losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute have little to no impact on this.

Defensively, there may be some slippage, but even so, it's unlikely they'll be worse than 15th in defensive rating. Last year, the Rockets managed to post an impressive 103.8 defensive rating which was good for sixth in the league. While Ariza and Mbah a Moute may have played a part in this, it can be argued that Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela played bigger roles and all three are still present. When healthy, Chris Paul is an All-NBA level defender at the point of attack. P.J. Tucker may be one of the more versatile forwards in the league, a true glue piece for Houston. And Clint Capela is one of the league’s premier switch-defending big men, with an improving ability to protect the rim. The additions of James Ennis and Michael-Carter Williams should help offset some of the defense lost from Ariza and Mbah a Moute.

The New Guys

As mentioned earlier, the Rockets have overhauled the backend of their roster quite a bit.

 

 

Houston has seven new players coming into this season, all with something to prove. No offseason addition has felt particularly safe for the Rockets this summer as all of them have questions marks to varying degrees. The additions that stand out are of forwards James Ennis and Carmelo Anthony. Ennis and Anthony are expected to pick up most of the minutes that were previously given to Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza. The problem is both Ennis and Anthony have yet to be major cogs to a winning basketball team in over five years.

Ennis profiles to be a very similar player to Luc Mbah a Moute, who provided great minutes off the bench as a swiss-army knife level defender. The problem is he's never been asked to play the minutes or role he'll have to play for Houston. And while Anthony has had some promising returns early in preseason for Houston, he will still have to prove it through the course of an 82-game regular season and provide value for Houston in the playoffs. It's a tall order for both players.

The Rockets have taken on hefty reclamation projects by acquiring Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Knight, and Marquese Chriss. Both Carter-Williams and Chriss were in danger of falling out of the league and Knight is coming off a significant ACL tear in his right knee. It's unlikely Houston will hit on all of these guys, but if they can get solid value out of one or two of them, that's solid enough return to make the gambles worth it.

Carter-Williams has been more than promising in his first two preseason games. However, other than his rookie year, the larger sample size paints the picture of a negative basketball player who's struggled to find a consistent role in the NBA. The argument could be made that Mike D'Antoni has the ability to bring the best out of these kind of players though. D'Antoni's system empowers players to play freely and to their strengths, which is what Houston hopes will happen with Carter-Williams.

As for his role on the team, it seems the Rockets view Carter-Williams as a wing combo who can defend multiple positions and be disruptive. He’s also a good passer when given the freedom to handle the ball, which the Rockets seem to be allowing him to do in preseason. It’s unlikely he’ll ever be a starter level NBA player, but the possibility for him to be a decent reserve shouldn’t be dismissed.

Brandon Knight may be the most sure thing among this group of gambles. Knight is a career 15.2 PPG and a 35.7% 3-PT shooter and at points in his career, he was an elite shooter. The Rockets have had a backup point guard position available for years and if they simplify his role to scoring and spacing the floor, Knight can capably play reserve guard for this team. He may be a poor defender and his contract is gargantuan, but it doesn’t mean he can’t contribute.

Old Faces, New Challenges

The top-end of this roster is going to be asked to do a lot this season. With the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, players like P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon will likely see a bump in minutes per game. Mike D’Antoni has said that Gordon will play starter minutes (forward to 3:15) this year. There’s even been talk of more three-guard lineups from the Rockets this year, with the possibility of Gordon starting.

Although both are a year older, James Harden and Chris Paul will be asked to carry out the same role and production they had last year for the team. That’s a high bar, but both are capable of it. The only question is whether or not the Rockets will opt to give both of them rest days throughout the season as a preventative measure.

The greatest place for upward mobility among last year’s group resides with 24-year old Clint Capela. It’s possible Capela gets better around the edges of his game (namely rim protection and passing out of pick and rolls), but the most obvious area of growth for him is the amount of minutes. Capela has played four seasons in the NBA, but has yet to play 30 minutes per game for an entire season.

Potential For Midseason Shakeups

This year more than ever, the Rockets will be candidates to make midseason additions to their roster. Houston opted not to spend all of their taxpayer mid-level exception this summer (approximately $4.5 million remaining) and will have all of their first round picks moving forward. With all the talk about how much wing-depth they lost this summer, they have left themselves the possibility to improve significantly during the season.

Every year, good players shake loose from miserable situations and contenders tend to pounce on them. Among buyout destinations, Houston will be among the best teams and will likely have the most money to spend among contenders. The possibility for a significant trade also remains if the Rockets decide they need more than what the buyout market is giving them.

Other than that, it’ll be much of the same for this year’s Rockets. A lot of winning with unbelievably high expectations from ownership and the public.

 

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Houston goes up 1-0 in the series

Altuve, Correa help lift Astros to ALCS Game 1 win over Red Sox

Carlos Correa's go-ahead homer in the seventh inning of ALCS Game 1 helped lift the Astros to a 1-0 series lead. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Despite one rough loss to the White Sox in the ALDS, the Astros looked like the dominant team they are capable of being, taking that series 3-1 to advance and taking ownership of home-field advantage in the ALCS against the Red Sox, who upset the Rays. In Game 1, despite trailing for the middle portions of the game, Houston would get more highlight moments from the faces of the franchise to start the series with a win.

Final Score: Astros 5, Red Sox 4

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): Houston leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: Ryne Stanek

Losing Pitcher: Hansel Robles

Houston strikes first, but Boston sends Valdez to an early exit

Both starting pitchers worked in and out of trouble in the early goings of ALCS Game 1, starting with Framber Valdez in the top of the first. After erasing a leadoff single by inducing a double play, he went on to load the bases on a single and two walks but would strand all three runners to keep Boston off the board. The Astros jumped in front in the bottom half, with Jose Altuve working a leadoff walk, moving to second on a one-out single by Alex Bregman, advancing to third on a wild pitch, then ultimately scoring on a sac fly by Yordan Alvarez to put Houston ahead 1-0 after one frame.

They had a chance to extend their lead in the bottom of the second, taking advantage of a shaky inning by Chris Sale, who loaded the bases with one out as Houston would get two singles and a hit-by-pitch. That flipped the order over to the top, but a great diving catch by former Astro Kiké Hernández would end the inning. Hernández led off the top of the third against Valdez, and he would tie things up with a solo homer.

Things went downhill from there for Valdez and the Astros, as a one-out walk followed by a single gave the Red Sox the go-ahead run in scoring position. On a groundball that likely should have been a double play to end the inning, it would get through Altuve's legs, scoring a run and keeping the inning alive for Boston. They took advantage, getting an RBI double to extend their new lead to 3-1. Valdez would get one more out before Dusty Baker would give him the early hook, bringing in Yimi Garcia, who finished the frame.

A battle of the bullpens, Altuve ties it up

Like Valdez, Sale would also not make it through three innings, getting two outs while putting two on base before Boston would start their bullpen's night as well. Both sets of relievers settled the game down, with the Red Sox stranding two of Houston's runners in the third as well as the fifth, maintaining their two-run lead. After Garcia finished the third, Cristian Javier entered to eat up a couple of innings, and he would do just that by getting through two frames with just one hit, four strikeouts, and no runs.

Next, Phil Maton took over in the top of the sixth and erased a leadoff walk to keep things in striking distance for the home team. In the bottom of the sixth, Houston put another runner on base, getting a one-out single by Chas McCormick. Two batters later, with two outs, Jose Altuve provided yet another career postseason highlight, tying the game 3-3 with a two-run home to re-energize the Minute Maid Park crowd.

Astros take ALCS Game 1

Now a brand new ballgame in the top of the seventh, Brooks Raley came in to face three batters, getting two strikeouts while allowing a single before Dusty Baker would move on to Ryne Stanek, who would get the third out. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Carlos Correa continued his march to a monster off-season contract, putting Houston back on top with a solo homer, making it 4-3.

Houston kept the script after Stanek with the new lead in hand, going to Kendall Graveman as the setup man in the top of the eighth. Despite a two-out single, he would get out of the inning with the lead intact, putting Houston three outs away from the victory. After a walk, single, and hit by pitch to start the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded, Altuve would drive in his third run of the game, getting a sac fly to extend the lead to two runs at 5-3.

That insurance run proved pivotal, as closer Ryan Pressly was met with a leadoff solo home run by Hernandez, his second of the night for Boston, to make it 5-4. Pressly refocused and was able to get the next three batters in order, though, wrapping up the win to start Houston off with a 1-0 series lead and putting them three wins away from advancing to the World Series.

Up Next: The two teams will have a moderately quick turnaround, with ALCS Game 2 scheduled to start at 3:20 PM Central on Saturday ahead of NLCS Game 1 between the Dodgers and Braves getting the night slot. The pitching matchup is expected to be Nathan Eovaldi for Boston, who is 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA in his two starts this postseason, going opposite Luis Garcia, who had a rough outing in the ALDS for Houston, giving up five runs without completing three innings in Chicago.

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