State of the Rockets: Winding back into form

Russell Westbrook has returned to practice. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

It's been quite a while since I've been able to do one of these so excuse the rust. The NBA season is grinding back into gear within the bowels of Disney World and with that, we finally have new things to talk about in regard to the Houston Rockets.

So let's not waste any time and get into it.

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com)

As of March 11th (day the season was suspended)

Offensive RTG:113.6 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 110.2 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.4

What was Houston before the pause?

Good question - you tell me. The Rockets have been like four different teams within a season and it's hard to judge which one is the real Rockets. Normally, you never want to judge a team off of only their recent play, but Houston had such a drastic identify shift once they shifted to playing P.J. Tucker at center full-time. So in the micro-ball era of Rockets' basketball, the team has a record of 12-6, roughly equivalent to a 54-win playoff team. Here are their advanced stats:

Offensive RTG: 114.1

Defensive RTG: 110.8

Net RTG: +3.3

A 54-win team and +3.3 net rating is about what you'd consider on the lower end of title contenders, but respectfully still a contender. To put that into context, that's a higher win-percentage than Nuggets, Heat, Jazz, and Mavericks, but still lower than five other teams in the NBA. The net rating (the more important number) is still higher than the Jazz, Nuggets, Heat, and Thunder, but lower than six other teams including the Mavericks.

In summation, the micro-ball Rockets profile as a top four team in their conference and a low-end title contender.

What effect will the four-month layoff and bubble environment have on Houston?

Nick Wright IMPRESSIVE Daryl Morey said Rockets 'Have as Good a Chance as Anybody' to Win NBA Titlewww.youtube.com

This is really the million dollar question and when you ask seven different league people, you're likely to get seven different answers. My educated guess is that the Rockets will benefit from not having to play road playoff series, but other than that, they aren't more uniquely situated in the bubble than any other title contender. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has been pretty vocal about how he believes the Rockets will benefit from the extra training camp more than any other team.

"We had one of our very top players switched out for another very top player in Covington," Morey said before Friday's Rockets practice. "I think that is very hard to do in the middle of the season. So this allows us to get extra coordination."

However, when you ask national media types, they tend to believe Houston and their up-and-down style of play is advantaged in this environment. For example, Matt Moore of The Action Network said on my podcast earlier this month that he believes Houston's variance and three-point shooting lends itself to being better-suited for the bubble. This isn't the first time this opinion has been spouted. People are buying high on a bubble-championship for the Rockets right now.

Bovada is giving the Rockets the fourth best odds to win the NBA title right now at +1200 which feels insane, but I guess not so much when you consider both Los Angeles teams are still ahead of them.

How does Eric Gordon look?

For obvious reasons, most of the national chatter around the Rockets will be their micro-ball approach, and while that's a significant story, the biggest story remaining in Houston's season has got to be the health of Eric Gordon. This was by for Gordon's worst season in a Rockets' uniform (shot 37% from the field and 31.9% from three). He was clearly dealing with a knee issue that's plagued him all season and forced him to get surgery, but for the Rockets to reach their peak potential as a team, they need Eric Gordon of old back. This team philosophy falls apart without Eric Gordon being a dynamic slasher who can space the floor adequately for Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

It doesn't even matter if the Rockets choose to start Danuel House at small forward. We know by now that Eric Gordon is one of Houston's five most important players. Gordon will play in all of the key fourth quarters for Houston, he will their main secondary ball-handler, and he will need to hit threes at at least a 37% clip for a deep playoff run. A good Eric Gordon game gives the Rockets a feeling of invincibility they don't otherwise have.

"Everything's been good," Gordon said when asked about the knee before Monday's practice. "The explosion's been there. It's only been a week or so, but I've been looking forward to getting back into the fold of things."

Gordon had returned the game before the stoppage and has now had significant time off to heal that knee. According to Mike D'Antoni, he's been a standout in practice.

"He hasn't missed a rep," D'Antoni said earlier this month. "He looks good, he's shooting the ball extremely well. If you had to make an assessment of everybody, this is a big bonus for us. He's ready to go."

James Harden and Russell Westbrook make late entrances to Orlando

James Harden and Russell Westbrook were absent at the Rockets' first few practices in Orlando due to a family emergency and a positive coronavirus test respectively. It's been suggested that James Harden's absence from the early part of Houston's Orlando camp could be detrimental, but I remain skeptical. Harden's kept himself in good shape over the quarantine period and was even working out in the Toyota Center when he wasn't in the bubble.

Westbrook's late arrival is a little more complicated for a couple of reasons. First, he arrived a few days later than Harden and will only get about two practices in with the team before they play their first exhibition game. The Rockets still have plenty of time to get him acclimated, but it could be a little bit of time before he's in rhythm with the team again.

Also, we still don't quite know the long-term health effects of coronavirus. According to John Hopkins, COVID-19 can cause lung damage and breathing problems that exist long after recovery. You can see why this could prove to be problematic for a professional athlete. Fortunately, by his own account, it seems Westbrook only experienced a mild case of the virus. According to the limited research we have, milder cases are less likely to cause scarring in the lungs.

WIth that being said, it's still something important to monitor because we know very little about this virus and I'm not going to pretend to be a doctor.

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With the end of the regular season in sight, the Houston Astros host the Kansas City Royals on Friday night, coming off a huge walk-off 2-1 win against the Orioles.

Two players from the finale against Baltimore really stood out for the 'Stros. Jeremy Pena, who had a clutch double late in the game, and Cristian Javier.

Javier struck out 11 batters over 5 innings surrendering only one run, which was exactly what the Astros needed in possibly the most important game of the regular season.

Both Pena and Javier were critical pieces to the Astros title in 2022, and it looks like they're rounding into form at just the right time.

Javier's struggles have caused many to question who would be the team's third starter in the postseason, behind Framber Valdez and Justin Verlander. Let's put this to bed right now, it's Javier.

This should be everything you need to know. Let's start with Hunter Brown. Brown has given up 5 earned runs or more in 4 of his last 7 starts.

How about JP France? France has surrendered 5 or more earned runs in 3 of his last 5 games.

However, Cristian Javier hasn't allowed 5 or more runs in a start since July 3. Javier may only give you 5 innings, but that's actually pretty common for starters in the playoffs. Teams typically remove their starters before the third time through the order.

Prime Time Pena

While the power hasn't been there for Pena this year, he is swinging the bat much better of late. Over his last 30 games, he's hitting .325 while slugging .453. Pena may only have 10 bombs on the year, but he's getting on base and hitting plenty of doubles.

If these two can contribute at a similar level to last postseason, the sky is the limit for the 2023 Astros.

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