THE ROCKETS REPORT
Rockets show what they can be with a healthy lineup, but depth remains a concern
Week seven of the Houston Rockets season taught us two things. It taught us just how bad the Rockets can be when they are missing Chris Paul, and just how devastating they can be with a healthy squad. Houston split their four games this past week, losing in overtime to the Wizards on Monday and dropping what should have been a bounce back game against the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday. Chris Paul returned to the lineup Friday after missing the previous three games and the Rockets shelled the San Antonio Spurs by 31. The momentum carried into the following night, and Houston dispatched the lowly Chicago Bulls by 16.
Houston is now 11-11, fourth in the Southwest Division, and tenth in the Western Conference.
This past week was essentially a microcosm of the Rockets season as a whole so far. When healthy, they’ve proven that they can compete with any team in the league. The difference between this year and last is that when they weren’t completely healthy last year, they were still fully capable of competing at a championship caliber level. The Rockets have nowhere near that level of depth at the moment this year, and when a guy like Chris Paul or James Harden is out, Houston’s bench simply isn’t good enough to pick up the slack.
To put how much of a liability their bench is at the moment, consider this: when it was discovered that Gerald Green and Chris Paul would miss multiple games, the Rockets elected to promote journeyman Danuel House Jr. from the G-league rather than distribute those minutes to Michael Carter-Williams (who has all but replaced Bobby Brown as this year’s human victory cigar/white flag). House Jr. was fed 28 minutes in his first game as a Rocket on Monday and has since averaged 23.3.
Fortunately, the Rockets are as healthy as they’ve been all season, as not only did Green and Paul return, but Saturday marked the season debut of Nene, who’s return helps boost a woefully thin front court lineup outside of Clint Capela. Guard Brandon Knight also saw some action with a Rio Grande Valley assignment during the week, so there’s progression towards his debut as a Rocket as well.
Chris Paul’s Impact
Dropping Wednesday’s game to the Mavericks was an absolute heartbreaker. The loss dropped Houston to two games below .500 and left many wondering if the Rockets just simply weren’t a good team this year. When Paul’s return was announced on Friday, it was generally expected that the Rockets would play better, but hardly anyone predicted the absolute blowout that was handed out in San Antonio. Saturday’s game was more of the same, as Houston led by 10 or more throughout the contest.
We could do a deep dive into the numbers behind what the Rockets look like with Paul versus without, but the bottom line is that when Paul isn’t in the lineup, Houston is winless. When Paul plays, the Rockets are 11-6, and that win percentage (.647) would be good for 5th in the Western Conference.
Harden’s doing Harden things
So far the early season MVP discussions have centered around Stephen Curry and my basketball man crush, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Meanwhile, James Harden continues to play out of his mind, with or without a headband. Despite missing three games early in the season, Harden is sixth in the league in points with 582, and leads the league in points per game at 30.6. This past week saw Harden add a 50-point game and a triple-double to this season’s resume. For the week, Harden averaged 33 points, 11.8 assists, 8 rebounds, and 2.5 steals. Just another day in the office.
The Rockets begin a winnable three-game road trip on Monday against the now Jimmy Butler-less Minnesota Timberwolves before travelling to Utah Thursday and Dallas Saturday. Houston will take on Minnesota for the first time since last year’s first round playoff matchup, and while the Timberwolves have won 4 out of their last 5, the competition has been poor, and Minnesota is still 11-12. Utah is in the midst of their own woes as well. So much so that Kyle Korver was dusted off and traded for in an attempt to jumpstart an offense that ranks 27th in the league. Saturday’s tilt against Dallas is the only game this week featuring a team that currently owns a winning record, even if they are only a game above .500.
The healthy Rockets are a night and day team compared to the injured Rockets, and right now they’re healthy. I’ll double-down on last week’s whiff of a prediction and call wins in each game as Houston slowly climbs back into contention.