Championship Aspirations

5 reasons why the Houston Rockets can win the NBA Title

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images


The drama the NBA off season brings us every year leads fans to newfound optimism; some with a demented expectation because of fandom, others justified.

When the final buzzer sounded crowning the Toronto Raptors the NBA Champions, a few players such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were now being painted to different teams, while others like Kawhi Leonard had the keys to how things would play out in free agency and where the dominoes would fall.

After the blocks fell and the dust settled, the Houston Rockets jumped in the chaos and made a move that will change the direction of this franchise for the foreseeable future. The Rocket's acquisition of Russell Westbrook while being able to unload an aging Chris Paul and keeping most of their roster intact puts Daryl Morey's experiment as a top 5 contender.
Now we look for answers that can only be found once we see this team hits the court, Thursday brings us the first opportunity to take that look.


Here are 5 Reasons why the Houston Rockets can win the NBA Title.

1) The Obvious- Russell Westbrook joining the team

  • MVP- Check
  • 8x time All-Star-Check
  • 2x All-Star Game MVP-Check
  • 8x All-NBA selection-Check
  • 2× NBA scoring champion-Check
  • 2x NBA assists leader-Check

When you add a player with this type of resume, it automatically leads you to believe the roster is improved. The mystery now remains how can coach Mike D'Antoni make the puzzle fit. The familiarity of the two superstars going back to growing up and then playing at OKC and with team USA could lead to on-court success. The roster undoubtedly improved on paper, now housing two bonafide talents that finished top 10 in MVP voting in each of the past five seasons, and both placed in the top-five in the same season three times over that span.

2) Trust

Over the years rumors have come out about other NBA players aspiring to play with James Harden and whether it was becoming a problem with his style of play. Bringing in someone Harden has a close relationship with and someone the beard pressed for will do wonders for the locker room this season. We think back at the rumors of a feud between Chris Paul and James Harden during the playoffs last year, is that something you want to worry about coming into this season? Now I use the word rumor, because thats all it was, nothing was ever confirmed, but where there is smoke, there is fire.


Trust is essential here as we saw players like Austin Rivers and Clint Capela come out and back the Rockets statements saying things weren't true and how much they trust in Harden's game and style of play. Was the quarrel between Paul and Harden over the way the superstar played in closing quarters and in big moments in playoff games? That's something Harden has been noted for time after time. We all know that even the best of friends can argue, so how will this all play out in late-game situations or when the team struggles? The question going into this season is can Westbrook bring the best out of Harden in situations where some say he's checked out in the past.

3) Change of Pace

Last season the Rockets finished the regular season 27th in pace (98.39). During the playoffs, they were 10th (97.26) playing at an even slower pace. Rostering two players like Paul and Harden that slow the game down can sometimes work against you in situations or matchups where you need to speed up the game. Russell Westbrook plays a completely different game and when on the court the Thunder played at a pace of 104.34.

In Westbrook's 2016-17 MVP season, the Thunder were fifth in pace leading him to his career-high in PPG at 31.6. The downfall is it also was his career-high in turnovers per game at 5.4. The following season his points dipped to 25.4 PPG, as did the Thunder's pace, finishing 20th. Last season Westbrook's team once again moved into the top 10 in pace (9th) but he had his lowest points per game output since 2013-2014.

I see a change of pace as a good thing that the Rockets will perfect as the season progresses. At times last season the offense seemed stagnant, this will give Houston the ability to attack in a different fashion. Over the years we've seen plenty of Westbrook's ability to rebound turn and get up court resulting in fast break points and open shots.

4) Experience

When looking at this Rockets team you see a ton of experience and that will be focal to keeping this team improving.


Russell Westbrook-12th season

Eric Gordon-12th season

James Harden-11th season

PJ Tucker-9th season

Austin Rivers-8th Season

Clint Capela-6th season

Honorable mention- Nene-18th (although now on the court much, mentally in a locker room he helps not to mention the practice he gives the younger guys)


Notably, Houston went out and added a few more players who will add to the team's overall experience

Tyson Chandler-19th season

Thabo Sefolosha-14th season

Ryan Anderson-12th season (He's back)

Ben McLemore-7th season


Houston enters the season with the most experience with an average of 8.9 years. There is one issue with this as it also makes the Rockets the oldest team in the NBA with an average age of 29.7. The time is now for a team with a small window to experiment.

5) A New NBA era

We all know how much the Warriors have dominated the league the last couple of seasons, even without winning the Championship last year. But the powerhouse that was built in Golden State looks to be vulnerable with the departure of key players and a Klay Thompson injury that will put the weight on the shoulders of Steph Curry. Can he carry it? He has before but the shift of powers in the Western Conference points me to believe this will be a down season for the Warriors with Curry being less than 100% healthy over the past few seasons. One injury that causes Curry to miss extended time would plummet the Warriors season. Head Coach Steve Kerr said publicly this week that he didn't think Klay Thompson would be back this season, with that said if the team is struggling why would they risk it.


According to Vegas here are the top 5 favorites

Los Angeles Clippers 7/2

Los Angeles Lakers 4/1

Milwaukee Bucks 6-1

Philadelphia 76ers 8/1

Houston Rockets 8/1


The interesting thing here is how will these top teams deal with load management becoming somewhat of a ritual in the NBA?We know the Lakers will use it plenty with LeBron James, how many games with managing time and injuries will Anthony Davis be good for?In the last 3 years, Davis and James have missed a combined 75 games, and yes last season was somewhat of an outlier as the future of both players and their franchises had a lot to do with the games played but Davis has never played an 82 game season in his previous 7 years. LeBron had his eyes already set on this season, risking further injuries would have been pointless.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are another tandem the are known to miss games and as no surprise, we enter the season with George recovering from an injury. Last year Leonard only played 60 games and I look for the load management to continue as that was a big factor in him signing with LA.

Joel Embiid another Superstar on a top 5 contender that misses extended amounts of time often and is used with precaution at times during the season. In his first three seasons, Embiid has played 31, 63 and 64 games. That's not something that can be relied upon.

Now let's look at the Houston duo

Harden's games played last 4 seasons

82

81

72

78

Westbrook

80

81

80

73

Being on the court together will be essential in getting in-game adjustments right and will be crucial for seeding. Of the Western Conference favorites, I look for the Rockets to get the most on-court time out of their star players. Seeding and getting home court in an extremely competitive conference will be key for Houston's title aspirations.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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