Five early observations from Rockets training camp and preseason
Media day has passed, training camps have opened up, and preseason basketball has started. All indications that the 2019-20 NBA season has officially left the tarmac, particularly in the case of the Houston Rockets who have already played two preseason games while most of the league has yet to play one. As things have come underway quickly for Houston, those in the media can finally stop speculating and predicting as there's actually interesting basketball stuff to talk about.
1. The Rockets intend to play faster - a lot faster
It seemed obvious that pace would be an emphasis for this particular Rockets team once they traded for Russell Westbrook in early July, but it still stands out as quite significant. Through two preseason games, the Rockets are averaging 107.25 possessions per game, good for second among the six NBA teams that have played so far. According to NBA.com/stats, Houston was the fourth slowest team in the league last season, averaging 98.39 possessions per game. To say this is a delineation from the norm is an understatement.
Throughout training camp, the Rockets ran much more offense you'd expect to see from some of Mike D'Antoni's old Phoenix Suns teams (ex: more of the 21 series) and older Rockets teams (particularly 2016-17 - when the Rockets were third in pace). This pace of play suits Russell Westbrook and Clint Capela, both talented at running the break and getting early transition offense, but the question was always James Harden's buy-in to playing this way again. If we can take anything from preseason, it seems Harden may have re-committed to this style.
2. Houston intends to switch less on defense
One of the biggest questions going into training camp would be how new associate head coach Elston Turner chose to run Houston's defense this season. The Rockets had already drifted away last season from some of the switching that made them so lethal defensively the year before, but it looks like they may be turning the corner completely. With the Warriors effectively decommissioned for this season, it makes sense to return to a traditional, conservative approach as it's quite effective against the majority of NBA teams.
"We're switching a little less than last year," confirmed Rockets center Isaiah Hartenstein on the first day of training camp. The Rockets simply don't have the personal to switch as much as they had in 2017-18, but if they stay true to this new conservative approach (likely a drop scheme similar to what the Utah Jazz play), there's no reason they have to be limited. Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela, and Danuel House will keep Houston respectable until the buyout market (if it comes to that).
3. Ryan Anderson may be a rotation player for Houston
The return of Ryan Anderson has been the ultimate feel good story coming out of training camp for the Rockets, but it would be foolish to simply call it a "cute story." The Rockets aren't known for making signings just for the sake of positive PR. Anderson's ability to space the floor and provide size to an otherwise small bench unit may earn him a nice bench role for the team. Though it wasn't likely to be a problem in the first place, a positive for Houston is that Anderson seems to have bought in to whatever role Houston has for him.
4. Ben McLemore has probably locked up a roster spot
At this point, it would be a surprise if 26-year-old swingman Ben McLemore isn't on the roster by the end of training camp. With only $50,000 of his contract guaranteed, McLemore signed with Houston knowing that his chances of making the roster were slim, but in just a few training camp practices and preseason games, he's proven that he could potentially bring a lot to the contending Rockets. In particular, McLemore's length (6'5" with a 6'8" wingspan) and shooting ability (37.3% from three-point range over the past five seasons) could serve him well in earning possible rotation minutes with the team.
When House missed Houston's second preseason game (minor leg injury), it was assumed a veteran like Gerald Green or Austin Rivers would take his spot. However, head coach Mike D'Antoni surprisingly went with McLemore, indicating that he has built up some trust with the coaching staff. It would be wise to not take away too much from preseason, but it's hard not to notice McLemore's play and ponder his possible utility with the team. Sometimes it takes the right team finding you before players find their role in the NBA and McLemore might have just found his.
5. Coaching staff replacements and promotions
There's a good chance 80% of Rockets fans won't care about the minutiae of Houston's coaching staff, but there's been some movement outside of new associate head coach Elston Turner. For one, former Sacramento Kings assistant coach Dan Hartfield has been added to the staff to help fill in for a lot of the openings that were created this summer. Also, it appears former Rio Grande Valley head coach Matt Brasse has been moved up to the front of the bench and will help coach defense this season (coached offense last season).
The Rockets are no strangers to making in-house promotions and it appears to be the route they went when filling out their coaching staff this season. Brasse has been with the Rockets for eight years and has worked in various capacities including as an intern, Director of Player Development, and being promoted to the Rockets coaching staff last season. Through his light-hearted demeanor and coaching prowess, he's developed a great reputation with players and coaches around the league dating back to his time with the Vipers so it's nice to see his work be rewarded.