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State of the Rockets: Robert Covington's IQ, Russell Westbrook shooting threes again, and more

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com)

As of last week:

Offensive RTG: 113.5 (5th)

Defensive RTG: 110.1 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.4 (10th)

As of this week:

Offensive RTG: 114.0 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 110.0 (15th)

Net RTG: +4.0 (7th)

Biggest developments:

1. Rockets sign DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green on the buyout market

Compared to the other players that were out there (namely Marvin Williams and Markieff Morris), DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green are probably on the middle end of the spectrum of buyout players. At this point, it's unclear if either of these players will secure a rotation spot come playoff time. One would think Carroll would be the obvious candidate for a spot considering he's probably been the better NBA player for his career, but it seems the Rockets really want to give Green a serious look at backup center. Green's athleticism makes him an obvious lob threat, but inconsistent offensive play and defensive liabilities have plagued him throughout his career.

I suppose if he were to become a productive player in the NBA, it would be at center. You don't have to be a knockdown shooter and if you're going to switch everything like the Rockets, you don't have to be a great rim protector. Still, selling yourself on Jeff Green is something you should do at your own risk. He is on a ten-day contract so there's no risk in Houston getting a look at him for a few games to see if they like the fit.

It will be interesting to see if Carroll can crack what has turned out to be a crowded wing rotation. Between Harden, Covington, Gordon, House, and, McLemore, there's just not a lot of minutes to go around. It's possible Carroll is on the roster to be break-in-case-of-emergency kind of guy considering injuries are unpredictable and the Rockets may need veterans to help fill a role in a pinch.

2. Holy crap, Robert Covington is good

There was never really a question whether Robert Covington would provide value to Houston when they traded for him at the deadline. The question was always whether or not that value would be worth moving on from Clint Capela and Houston's 2020 first round pick. So far, he's been brilliant.

Houston Rockets without Robert Covington:

Offensive RTG: 105.7

Defensive RTG: 122.3

Net RTG: -16.5

Houston Rockets with Robert Covington:

Offensive RTG: 118.2

Defensive RTG: 102.5

Net RTG: +15.7

Defensively, he's incredibly intelligent and it kind of feels like he's been in a box until he got to Houston. What I mean by that is the teams that had Covington played him primarily at small forward and didn't switch nearly as much as the Rockets like to. Don't get me wrong, this is a perfectly fine role for Covington as he's a very good on-ball defender, but you're blanketing one of his greatest strengths. Covington's ability to be a weak-side shot blocker on big men is an asset that's always been there, but it's highlighted with Houston because of the positions they put him in.

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It was tempting to just post one of the three blocks he had on Rudy Gobert on Saturday, but I felt the content was too graphic to post. I have a responsibility to my readers, so I had to make an executive decision. What Covington did to Gobert on Saturday night was just bullying. There's no other way to describe it.

There's also his offense, which, while understated, is still an asset. Covington's three-point shooting stroke is so natural and effortless, it's kind of insulting that he wasn't taking over seven threes a game until he returned to the Rockets. His percentage may be around league average (35.8%), but his willingness to any and all open looks is a something Houston was only getting previously with Ben McLemore.

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It's completely ridiculous that Covington took and made this shot considering how low he caught it and how close the defender was already.

3. Russell Westbrook is shooting threes again

Does anybody remember that five game stretch where Russell Westbrook only attempted two three-pointers and it seemed like he was going to stop shooting them? Well, there's a possibility that people may have jumped the gun there. Over his last six games, Westbrook has attempted 16 three-pointers, almost three times more than the amount he took in the six games prior to this stretch. Now, 16 three-pointers over six games isn't a lot (2.7 per game), but it's possible that he's starting to regain confidence in that shot and will begin taking them at high volume again. He took four against the Jazz, the most he's taken since February 2nd.

There's not a large enough sample size to suggest that Westbrook is just going to start chucking three-pointers again, but it's definitely something to monitor. The Rockets seem to be much more effective when Westbrook is driving in open space and opting for mid-range jumpers as opposed to the threes. He's also become a once-in-a-while lob threat for James Harden when defenders sag off of him in the corners.

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Week of games in review:

Going into the All-Star break, the biggest question for the Rockets was whether or not they'd be able to grab a top seed in the West by making a strong run to close the season. Houston has developed a reputation for closing seasons out much better than how they started them. Last season, the Rockets went 21-7 in their last 28 games with the second best Net Rating in the NBA (+10.4) and were able to grab the 4th seed after being as low as 14th during the season.

If they're going to make a run, this week was about as strong a start as you're going to get. The Golden State win was dominant buzzer to buzzer, which is something to the Rockets have struggled to do all season - bludgeon bad teams. They've beat bad teams, but a true sign of a title contender is having the ability to make it a no-contest by the fourth quarter, which this was. The Utah win was impressive in that it adds to the list of very good teams Houston has been able to beat since they went to micro-ball (Los Angeles, Boston, Utah, etc...). This win also hammered home what we've kind of known for years: Rudy Gobert and the Jazz still don't have any answer against the Rockets' offense in open space, making them close to non-threat to Houston in a competitive playoff series.

They currently sit at the fourth seed with roughly the same win percentage they had last season, so there's an opportunity to approach the high 50-win team mark if they're persistent.

Questions for the coming week:

1. Can Houston keep up this defensive intensity?

Defending at a high level without at least one traditional center is tough and it requires a lot of team effort and little margin for error. Houston's point-of-attack defense has to be strong as they're isn't a seven-footer at the rim to deter or alter shots if they screw up. There are points where the Rockets don't seem to have it and it becomes a layup drill for opposing teams - the first half against the Jazz being a great example of this. They can only have one bad quarter a game if they want to be a top-ten defense by season's end.

Over their last three games, the Rockets have a stellar defensive rating of 104.3, good for fourth in the NBA. Their ability to carry this momentum through the rest of the season is going to tell us a lot about their viability in the playoffs.

2. Is Jeff Green the full-time backup center?

As stated earlier, the Rockets are making a concerted effort to get a look at Jeff Green as the full-time backup to P.J. Tucker, but there may be competition at that spot, particularly from the person who last occupied that spot in Thabo Sefolosha. Sefolosha is older and not as athletic, but he's shown the ability to always be in the right positions defensively and make less mistakes than Jeff Green. It looked like he'd found a comfort level at the backup center spot too.

It's possible that Sefolosha's just fallen out of the lineup, but I would not be surprised if he made a return soon. Green has to play really well during this home stretch to secure a rest-of-the-season contract with Houston.

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PROBABLE STARTERS

Thurs, Sept. 24 - HOU: Cristian Javier (4-2, 3.33) vs. TEX: Lance Lynn (6-2, 2.53)

Fri, Sept. 25 - HOU: Jose Urquidy (1-1, 2.78) vs. TEX: Kyle Cody (1-1, 1.53)

Sat, Sept. 26 - HOU: TBD vs. TEX: Kyle Gibson (2-6, 5.87)

Sun, Sept. 27 - HOU: TBD vs. TEX: Jordan Lyles (1-5, 7.07)

STORYLINES

Season finale - The Astros will wrap up their regular season with their four game set in Arlington at the new Globe Life Field. Houston's magic number rests at two, as the Angels still have a puncher's chance. With Houston's miserable 8-20 road record, the postseason is anything but clinched.

Where's the offense? - The Astros offense has left a lot to be desired over the last few weeks, scoring more than three runs just twice in their last ten games. The bats really need to get going, especially if the team expects to do anything in the playoffs. George Springer has been the only reliable bat of late, with the performances of Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman, and, most of all, Jose Altuve, leaving a lot to be desired.

Playoff seeding - If the playoffs started today, the Astros would face off with their division rivals in Oakland. There's an infinite number of possibilities over the next four games, but the Astros can see themselves finish anywhere from the fifth seed to out of the playoffs entirely. Any of Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Oakland, Chicago, New York, and Cleveland could be first round foes depending on how the cards fall.

PREDICTION

Lance Lynn has been one of the better pitchers in the game for a few years now, Kyle Cody is an intriguing young arm with good stuff, and Jordan Lyles and Kyle Gibson gave the Astros fits in Houston just last week. It isn't a recipe for success for Houston. The Astros win 1 of 4, which combined with the Angels and Mariners failing to take care of business, is enough to get Houston into the playoffs.

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