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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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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans loss rests squarely on this decision

Another tough loss for the Texans. Photo by Getty Images.

There are times in which you gamble and it pays off. Then there are times in which you gamble and lose badly. Today was definitely the latter. The Texans fell to the Titans 42-36 in an overtime thriller. The loss rests squarely on the head of interim head coach Romeo Crennel and his ill-timed gambling at the end of the game.

It started with the gamble to go for it on 4th&1 on the Titans' 35-yard line with 4:37 left in the game. That move said two things: A) we're on the road at 1-4 against the 4-0 division leader up by one point so let's try to end this, or B) I don't trust our kicker to make a 53-yard field goal. They converted because David Johnson is good for slamming into the backs of the offensive line for at least a yard or three. The next gamble came eight plays later. It was 4th & Goal from the 1-yard line. The play call was a pass. Deshaun Watson found Randall Cobb after scrambling to extend the play and putting the ball in a tight window on the sideline where only Cobb could catch it. Here's where I started to have a problem with the gambling.

That touchdown made it 36-29 in favor of the Texans. Up by seven with less than two minutes left in the game, the "right" call would be to kick the extra point to potentially go up by eight. That forces the opposition to have to score a touchdown and convert a two point conversion in order to tie the game. Alas...Crennel gambled by trying to force things, went for two, and came up short. Kenny Rogers once said: You've got to know when to hold 'em. Know when to fold 'em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.

The porous defense, however, gave up the game tying touchdown and extra point with four seconds left to send the game into overtime. From there, the Titans got the ball in overtime and drove down the field for the game winning score. A team that played a game on Tuesday evening bullied a team on Sunday at noon. Let that sink in. Sure, Derrick Henry is a linebacker playing running back, but the amount of yards you gave up to him was unacceptable.

Not kicking that extra point to go up by eight with less than two minutes left (1:50 to be exact) was the key coaching move that I feel cost them the game. There's no coming back from blunders like that when you're now 1-5 and would need to go at least 8-2 with tons of help down the stretch to have an outside shot at the newly created seventh spot in the playoffs. You had the division leader down and were in position to get a division win to go to 2-4. Instead, you're now in position to help the Dolphins continue to improve their franchise from the boneheaded decisions Bill O'Brien made before his exit. Crennel and staff coached a good game, until the end when it mattered most. With an extra playoff spot available, they still have an outside shot to make it, but it'll be difficult.

This city and fanbase deserve better. One day, they'll get it and get a winner. Until then unfortunately, they'll have to settle for purgatory, disappointment, and mediocrity. Hold tight. I see good things coming one day Houston football fans.

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