Some important things to consider with the Rockets returning to action

Composite image by Jack Brame.

As the shortened season gets closer, more questions need to be answered. How will Russell Westbrook and James Harden overcome their postseason doubts? What type of defensive structure does Luc Mbah a Moute bring back to the Rockets?

In the last three years, Westbrook has struggled to get past the first round. His first season without Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City was understandable. Westbrook went against a similar built team in the 2017 postseason, the Houston Rockets. In his MVP season, Westbrook and the Thunder were booted out of the playoffs in five games. Later that offseason, Westbrook recruited Carmelo Anthony and Paul George to OKC. This tandem struggled against the Utah Jazz in the 2018 playoffs. As again, Westbrook was out the first round.

That caused Anthony to get traded to Atlanta after the season was over. When George decided to stay in OKC for another season, things looked different for the Thunder. They were able to grab decent seeding but had to face the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. People predicted Westbrook and George would overcome this Blazers team. But Damian Lillard said different in game six as he hit a buzzer beater to send the Thunder home in the first round.

This year's Rockets team averaged 118.1 points per game before the season was cut short because of COVID-19, Westbrook was averaging 27.5 points per game. Westbrook was on a tear before the season ended but will things be different for him in the playoffs?

Harden has heard all the criticism from previous playoffs series dating back to OKC. His biggest downfall in the playoffs was against the Golden State Warriors. Harden has lost to the Warriors four times. His last two playoff appearances against the Warriors were tough losses. In the 2018 playoffs, Chris Paul reinjured his hamstring in game five, but the Rockets went up 3-2 in the series. Harden and the Rockets missed 22 straight from behind the arc in game seven causing them to lose. The following year, the Rockets lost again to Warriors in six games. This time, without Kevin Durant because he got hurt in game five. Harden was just not able to get along with Paul in the most important series.

Before this season started, the last time Westbrook and Harden played together, was the 2011-2012 season. As that Thunder team blew through teams in the playoffs, and made it to the 2012 NBA finals. Harden and Westbrook both struggled in the finals. Westbrook averaged 27 points per game, while Harden averaged 12.4 points per game. While Harden struggled with turnovers, Westbrook struggled with shooting making only 3 shots from behind the arc on 22 attempts. As result, the Miami Heat beat the Thunder in five games.

How can things be different for Harden? Honestly, Westbrook gives Harden a slight push to become even better. Westbrook and Harden started off slow playing together in the beginning of the season. But towards the shutdown, Westbrook started to build chemistry with Harden. The Rockets went 9-2 in the month of February. Both players shared the ball amazingly well. Harden and Westbrook combined for five 40-point games in the month. Hopefully, we see this level of play in the playoffs.

During the press conference Saturday, Coach Mike D'Antoni expressed his optimism about Harden and Westbrook playing together. D'Antoni feels excited because they proved it by beating the tougher teams in the league.

"Defensively we've been good, offensively we're the second-best in the league this year," D'Antoni said. "We demonstrated that against the best teams in the league, which obliviously they're all here, we played really well. We are not going to take a backseat to anybody. We think we can win it."

Now that the Rockets re-signed Luc Mbah a Moute, this brings strong presence back on defense. The reason for bringing his back is that Thabo Sefolosha did not feel comfortable being in Orlando. Ever since the 2017-2018 season, the Rockets defense has not been the same. Trevor Ariza was on the Rockets as well that year, but bringing back Luc from that team, was huge. The Rockets will likely have to guard multiple players from the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers in the playoffs this year. The Rockets are currently ranked 9th in defensive this season. It could change now that Luc is back.

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The Rockets are collecting a lot of young talent. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Good parents are protective of their kids. Some helicopter parents are a little too protective and take it too far. Kenyon Martin Sr came out and wanted his son traded to a contender where he can flourish in a winning environment. He felt as if Jr wouldn’t be able to flourish as much as he thinks his son can in Houston. With the arrival of the number three overall pick, most likely being a frontcourt guy, they must’ve thought his playing time would decrease. Less time means less development means less money you can ask for on the next contract. I get it. I’m a parent. I understand. But there’s a point in which you have to be realistic.

Things like this are actually a good problem to have. It speaks to the Rockets having an abundance of talent, young talent at that. Whenever a team has a bevy of young talent in the NBA, they’ve been losing a lot and have stockpiled high draft picks. That, or they’ve developed a bunch of young guys that are now getting playing time and are on the verge of perhaps breaking out. Teams love it because crafting and shaping their future is easier when there’s a ton of options. They can choose to play and develop the guys they want to keep and trade the ones they don’t…provided they have any value.

Sr may think Jr is a future All NBA guy, and maybe he is, but he hasn’t been able to beat out Jae’Sean Tate for playing time in that tweener 3-4 combo position. One of the main things people point out is his ball handling. If he can’t handle the ball and make plays, he can’t play effectively enough in this system at that position. While he’s been able to give them valuable minutes, he’ll have to continue to improve and fight for those minutes. With the possibility of yet another player at that position with lofty draft status and expectations coming in (not to mention a unique skillset), the writing was on the wall.

When Sr came out recently and stated Jr is committed to staying here and getting better and Jr reiterated that at media availability this week, it helped quiet down the rumors. Would I be surprised if he’s traded? Not at all. He’s a good young athletic player who’s improved his shot. He could be a valuable rotation player for any team that has him. Do I want him to stay? Of course! I’d love nothing more than this team to grow together and stay together.

That’s in a perfect world and that’s somewhere we don’t live. Acquiring this much talent has paid off in the recent past. I wrote last week that this team can do what the Warriors and Celtics did if they continue to draft well, develop their talent, and surround their core with the right kind of role players. If playing time and meeting their potential for too many players becomes a problem (cap-wise, playing time, or any other reasons), they can always make deals and turn that talent into more draft picks. OKC did it with James Harden and flipped assets into about 3 million draft picks over the years. Blueprints are out there for the team to follow. Let’s keep hoping Rafael Stone can push the right buttons at the right times and continue to build this team back into a contender.

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