Big year ahead
2019-20 Houston Rockets season preview and predictions
The NBA season is 48 days away and the Houston Rockets are among the handful of teams that figure to be a part of the national conversation this year. Not only did swapping out Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook dramatically shake up Houston's on-court dynamics, it also ensured that the Rockets would be a big story this year. This was all but confirmed when the NBA released their schedule in August, revealing that the Rockets had been given 38 nationally televised games.
While there's no doubt that Houston will have a lot of eyeballs on them this season, how they perform with this shaken up team is really all anyone cares about.
The Rockets with Chris Paul were slowly starting to form in James Harden's image as he took on more and more usage. This means Houston played at a slow, but deliberate pace that involved an unusually high amount of isolation. The fast-paced early Rockets teams with Mike D'Antoni were no longer and ushered in was this methodical, but effective play style that involved little ball or player movement.
For a Harden and Westbrook pairing to be successful, Houston can no longer play to these extremes. The reason those Rockets teams were so effective was because there were usually three or more shooters surrounding Harden at all times. They will no longer have this luxury, and will therefore have to tweak the offense.
To truly utilize Westbrook, the Rockets will have to up their pace a decent amount and run on every missed shot. They won't be as fast as the Warriors, but they should be at least middle of the pack as compared to dead last. They also have to do at least some player movement to create artificial floor spacing when there aren't multiple capable three-point shooters on the floor - which will happen.
It'll be interesting if Houston decides to change up their defense too, as half of the coaching staff was completely overhauled this summer. Former Rockets coach Elston Turner was brought in as an associate head coach and will now be taking over the defense. Although they tweaked their scheme when things got rough, the Rockets still did a ton of switching defensively last season. It led them to the 17th ranked defense after finishing 7th the year before and one of the poorer defensive rebounding teams.
Houston did a lot of their switching because the Warriors were their chief opponent in the Western Conference for the last several years. There's a possibility they adopt a more conservative defensive scheme under Turner and the Warriors potentially being a shell of themselves next season.
Westbrook should help clean things up for Houston on the rebounding side of the ball, but that will only go so far. The Rockets will have to recommit to whatever style they choose to adopt next season, because the West got better. Houston won't make it past the second round in this revamped conference playing the kind of defense they did last season.
Despite the major shakeup at starting point guard, the Rockets will be bringing back 77.1% of their total minutes from last season. Houston re-signed Danuel House, Austin Rivers, and Gerald Green in the first few days of free agency on nice value deals. Nene Hilario was also recently brought back. For some context, the Rockets won at a 60-win rate once Danuel House returned to the team from his contract dispute. Aside from obviously Chris Paul, Houston's roster at that point of the season is nearly identical to the one the one they will play next season.
This familiarity should serve them very well in the regular season as they get acclimated to Westbrook.
'Load management' became a popular (and mocked) term in the NBA last season, but for the Rockets, the concept of a system to keep players healthy and rested has a lot of value. Houston will have one of the NBA's oldest rosters going into training camp. For some context, aside from Clint Capela and Danuel House, every significant Rockets rotation player next year will be over the age of 30. To compound the matter, both James Harden and Russell Westbrook have logged significant minutes in their career as the lead horse on their respective teams.
In a recent interview on the Rich Eisen show, Daryl Morey brought up the idea of a flexible rest program for Houston's key players.
Resting Harden and Westbrook sporadically throughout the season makes a ton of sense and it's something the Rockets can do since they each have a counterpart that can shoulder some of the burden for a game or two. Seeding is obviously important and Houston has made it clear that it values homecourt advantage in the playoffs, but the long game has to be played if they want to reach their desired heights.
Possible midseason additions
The possibility for midseason improvement is always on the table for a team like the Rockets. GM Daryl Morey has shown time and time again that he's willing to put future assets on the table even if it means given the team a slightly better edge over the field. However, this year, it seems more likely that the Rockets add someone via the buyout market than the trade deadline.
With Houston leveraged several years out for draft picks because of the Westbrook trade, giving up even more picks doesn't sound like something they would do right now. The Rockets are also on the very edge of the luxury tax, so taking on any additional salary in a trade seems unlikely.
A name to watch on the buyout market is Andre Iguodala. Given his championship pedigree, several teams will be competing for Iguodala's services. However, the Rockets have tried to sign Iguodala in the past and should be considered as good a destination as any. For what it's worth, Iguodala was reportedly impressed with Houston's presentation in 2017 and nearly left the Warriors to sign with Houston.
How will they perform?
Record prediction: 54-28
James Harden sets the floor of this Rockets team so high year after year. Under Harden, the Rockets have had a top seven offense in 6 out of the 7 years he's been in Houston. With Harden and a decent amount of floor spacing, the Rockets are a virtual lock for a top five offense, which should be enough to guarantee 50 wins. Defensively, the Rockets should be a slight step better than they were last year (17th in the NBA) given that they have better personal to start the season than they did last year.
Where they finish defensively is what will ultimately dictate how accurate this prediction is. It's hard to see Houston being elite, but anywhere from a fifteenth to tenth place finish on that end of the floor is very much in play. If they exceed that, this number is admittedly too low. However, given how they performed last year and how much the rest of the Western Conference got better, this feels like a reasonable number for now.