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.

Play Style

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.

Continuity

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

'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.

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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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