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 Title www.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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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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