Welcome. Let's talk Rockets.

State of the Rockets: Eric Gordon's back, signature victories, and more

Introduction:

Hello, my name is Salman Ali and I cover the Houston Rockets. Most people reading probably already know this, but I feel like a proper introduction is in order. Every week, I go to the Toyota Center several times to cover Rockets' practices, games, and other miscellaneous team events. I notice things about the team and then proceed write about it, tweet about it, and even podcast about it.

However, I always feel I can do more, and that's what this is. Starting today, I will be writing a weekly column on the Rockets including random observations, pressing questions, general thoughts, and some statistics I can sprinkle in. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to go about this or even if there's going to be a specific format, but I guess that's what's fun about it. What I do know is that every Sunday there will be an article here on SportsMap about the Rockets.

So without further adieu, welcome to the very first 'State of the Rockets'.


Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com):

Offensive RTG: 114.1 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 109.2 (17th)

Net RTG: +4.9 (7th)


Biggest developments:

1. Eric Gordon's return to the rotation

Eric Gordon has returned the the rotation for the Rockets after receiving arthroscopy on his right knee in mid-November. The Rockets were careful in bringing Gordon back and originally placed him on a minutes restriction of 25 minutes per game, but that's now since bumped up to 30 minutes. As a whole, Gordon's played well since his return, scoring 14.7 points per game on 40.9 percent from beyond the three-point line.

The bigger story here is that the Rockets are fully healthy for the first time since the beginning of the season. It's hard not to be cautiously skeptical of the team's status as a tier one title contender this season, but Gordon is significant enough of a player to hold off on grandiose declarations about the team until he's become acclimated. Offensively, the Rockets were going to be awesome this season either way, but it's really the defense where Gordon has the potential to be a real game-changer. Without Chris Paul this season, the Rockets have not had a strong point-of-attack defense and Gordon provides Houston with someone other than Austin Rivers who can defend well on-ball.

Rockets Defensive RTG (last two games):

With Eric Gordon: 100.0

Without Eric Gordon: 109.6

The Rockets can also lower the load on players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

2. Isaiah Hartenstein temporarily secures backup center spot

According to head coach Mike D'Antoni himself, 21-year-old center Isaiah Hartenstein has secured the backup center spot in Houston's rotation "for now". This has the potential to be a big development for Houston as they've struggled to find consistent play behind Clint Capela for months now, and Hartenstein has played well enough to warrant that spot (14.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks on 70.4% true shooting per 36 minutes). This also hopefully puts the bed the idea that Mike D'Antoni willfully ignores playing talented young players at every turn considering 3 of Houston's ten-man rotation is now under the age of 27 (House, Capela, and Hartenstein).

Of course, the caveat of all caveats here is "for now". The Rockets may try and acquire a big man at the trade deadline or the buyout market and if he's good enough, it may thwart Hartenstein out of the rotation again. Hartenstein could also struggle and therefore, lose his backup center spot to the veteran combo of Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker. Things are fluid here.


3. Rockets climb to third seed in Western Conference and tie for the second

With the Rockets winning five out of their last ten games and the Clippers going .500 in their last ten, Houston has jumped Los Angeles to obtain the third seed seed in the Western Conference. Denver also lost to Washington Saturday night which means the Rockets are also tied with them for the second seed. The Nuggets currently hold the conference tiebreaker over the Rockets, meaning they will keep the second seed for now.

While this isn't a major development as seeding is still very fluid in the West (the Rockets are also two games away from falling to the sixth seed), it's still noteworthy. The Rockets will likely battle with Los Angeles and Denver for seeding until the bitter end of the season, so the fact that they're already within striking distance of the second seed means they won't have to make a dramatic surge like they did last season. It also hammers home how must-win every game for the rest of the season will be considering how tightly bunched the conference is.

Week of games in review:

It's hard to hold the Pelicans loss against the Rockets, considering they were without the services of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Clint Capela. However, Houston did a pretty good job bouncing back by convincingly beating two title contenders in the Nuggets and 76ers in consecutive games. It's not so much that they beat the Nuggets and 76ers that's impressive, but more how they won them. The Rockets had a defensive rating of 106.0 in both games combined, which would be good for a top ten defense in the league.

This is really the origin of a lot of people's skepticism with the Rockets. Everybody knows the Rockets will have a top three offense when it's all said in done, but it's their defense that will elevate them to a level formidable enough to actually win a title. Thus far, they've been mediocre which only gets you a hard-fought, second round exit. If they can carry this good momentum into the rest of the season, it'll be a lot easier to buy more Rockets stock.

Something the Rockets can cling to is that they haven't been healthy enough to show their true colors. Eric Gordon missed 23 games, Danuel House missed 6 games, Clint Capela missed 6 games, Russell Westbrook missed 4 games, and even James Harden missed a game. One could reasonably argue that the injuries to Gordon, House, and Capela specifically have prevented them from reaching their heights as a defense. For now, we can only judge the Rockets on what they've been so far.

Questions for the coming week:

1. Can the Rockets sufficiently blowout the Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves buzzer-to-buzzer?

The truest of contenders blow teams like the Atlanta and Minnesota out of the water by halftime. The Rockets this season have been the model of inconsistency against below .500 teams. Sure, they've had some blowouts, but they've also let some truly bad teams hang around and even beat them in the month of December (Warriors, Kings, Cavaliers, and Suns). These games may not seem important, but they're resume builders and can help build good habits to carry over against good teams. They're also important fourth quarter rest opportunities for Houston's starters.

2. Will Russell Westbrook rest on the first or second night of the back-to-back?

The Rockets have a road back-to-back this week against the Hawks and Thunder. Mike D'Antoni has said that Houston's plan is to rest Russell Westbrook on one of the games during back-to-back sets and he's stuck to that plan. What's interesting is the Rockets have been opting to rest Westbrook on the second night, but this isn't a normal back-to-back. Russell Westbrook will be returning home against his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. This brings to question of whether or not they break the habit and allow Westbrook to play in Oklahoma City and properly say goodbye to the fans that have adored him for the past decade. The Thunder are also the clear, tougher matchup between the two, so it also makes sense from a basketball perspective to break the established norm.


Well, I hope you enjoyed the first one of these. See you next week.

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After a "qualifying round" of playoffs, the actual Stanley Cup playoffs are here. In a weird hockey world that saw two 12 seeds win in round one and the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference finish last in the round robin and get a four seed, things appear wide open. The lower seeds may actually have a bit of an advantage at the beginning of these series, as they have already gone through an actual elimination round, while the top four seeds played a less intense round robin. As teams still adjust to a long layoff, more upsets could be in order. It should be fun. Here is a look at the matchups:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Philadelphia Flyers (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8)

The Flyers were dominant in the round-robin phase and look very much like a team that can make a deep run. Montreal was the lowest seed in the qualifying tournament, but stunned Pittsburgh, and were the better team throughout the series. Philly, however, is playing much better hockey than their Pennsylvania counterparts. The Canadiens will need a big effort from goalie Carey Price, who is capable of stealing games. Young Flyers goalie Carter Hart was outstanding in the two round-robin games he played and is an emerging star. Philly has more talent, but a goalie like Price can win a series.

Prediction: Flyers in 5.

Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (7)

Tampa is as talented a group as you will find in the NHL. They have depth on all lines, terrific defensemen and an elite goalie. Yet they have a checkered playoff past. Last season, they were dominant in the regular season and looked like a Cup lock. They were promptly swept out of the first round by the Jackets. Columbus outplayed a similarly talented team in Toronto in round one and are a tough matchup. Can the Lightning be struck down twice? Absolutely.

Prediction: Jackets in 7.

Washington Capitals (3) vs. New York Islanders (6)

The Caps still have Alex Ovechkin and a recent Stanley Cup, and have to be considered a contender against whoever they play. But the Isles play terrific defense, grind you down and get just enough scoring to win games. Plus they have the coach who won the Cup with the Caps, Barry Trotz, which gives them another edge. The Isles are a long shot Cup contender and could pull off the upset.

Prediction: Islanders in 7.

Boston Bruins (4) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (5)

The Bruins were the best team in the league in the regular season, but played flat in the round robin, winding up with a fourth seed. It seems a little unfair that they dominated all year but three games determined their fate, but that's life. By now they should have figured things out again and should be able to advance. They are a tricky team, because if they play as poorly as they did last week, Carolina could knock them out. But the Bruins should get better the deeper they get in the playoffs. The Hurricanes have a rising star in Andrei Svechnikov, who had a hat trick in the first round against the Rangers. The Bruins, however, are deeper, more talented and have the more tested and reliable goalie in Tukka Rask.

Prediction: Bruins in 5.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Las Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (8)

The Golden Knights were impressive in the round-robin, and looked like they did not miss a beat from the break. They were on a 8-2 run before the Rona interruption and swept the three seeding games since. But the Blackhawks are a scary matchup. They dominated Edmonton in the play-in round, winning 3-1 despite being the last team to qualify. They are young and shaky on defense, but still have proven Cup winners like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford. It would be foolish to count them out, but the Oilers were a much better matchup for the Hawks. If Crawford dominates in net, they have a fighting chance. But the Knights are on a different level right now.

Prediction: Las Vegas in 6.

Colorado Avalanche (2) vs. Arizona Coyotes (7)

This might be one of the more intriguing matchups of this round. The Avs look like a Cup contender, and Nathan MacKinnon is an MVP candidate and might be one of the most underappreciated superstars in the league. The Coyotes, however, are going to be a tough out. Goalie Darcy Kempner faced a ton of shots against the Predators and held up well. He will have to do the same here. Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel provide top end forward play, and Arizona matches up OK here. The Avs should win, but don't be shocked if they are pushed hard.

Prediction: Avs in 6.

Dallas Stars (3) vs. Calgary Flames (6)

Dallas is an interesting team. The Stars have Stanley Cup-level talent, but they struggle to score at times, which could be a problem in a seven-game series. They play strong D and have great goaltending, but have issues with quicker teams, which bodes well for Calgary. The Flames are also a bit of an enigma, but they seem built for the playoffs. They have two young American-born stars in Johnny Gaudreu and Matthew Tkachuk, solid depth up front and on the back end and can hold their own with most teams. Cam Talbot is the key, however. If he can consistently man the goal the way he did in the series win over Winnipeg, they have a big shot. He finished off the series with a 31-save shutout.

Prediction: Flames in 7.

St. Louis Blues (4) vs. Vancouver Canucks (5)

The defending champs were not very good in the round-robin, hence the four seed. But it will probably work out; the Canucks are an easier matchup than what they would have faced with Calgary as a 3 seed. Vancouver is an interesting young team. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are two up and coming stars, but the rest of the lineup is bolstered by gritty vets. Defensemen Quinn Hughes is another young star in the making. Goalie Jacob Markstrom was solid against Minnesota, but he will need to be better in this round. The Canucks could have made a run against Dallas, but hard to see them beating the champs.

Prediction: Blues in 6.

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