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State of the Rockets: Still hazy, but trending upward

State of the Rockets: Still hazy, but trending upward
Gary Clark has been a find for the Rockets. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Due to early season inconsistency, the 2018-19 Houston Rockets have been a difficult team to analyze. Injuries and suspensions have prevented the Rockets from having a consistent rotation and forming an identity. What are the Rockets really good at this year or really bad at this year? It sounds like a dumb question, but it’s a question nobody really knows the answers to yet.

What we do know is the Rockets have taken very deliberate and decisive steps these past few weeks in trying to form that identity. After much early speculation, the Rockets chose to not abandon their switching defense, which ended up being the correct long-term play. NBA players are creatures of habit and changing the entire defensive scheme midseason could’ve proved to be disastrous. Over the past nine games, Houston possesses the seventh best defense in the league.

General Daryl Morey talked about how the Rockets are comfortable with the looks they are giving up when Houston was 4-7 and he is correct in thinking so. Houston is third fewest in the league at opponents attempted 3-pointers per 100 possessions. This is a telltale sign of a good, modern-day defense that chases opponent off of the 3-point line and forces them into long twos. Take for example the Warriors game in which the Rockets only allowed the Warriors to shoot 18 3-pointers (they shoot 29.1 3s on average) while Houston attempted 47. It doesn’t get any better than that for 3-point defense.

Here is a great example.

The Rockets have also started to show glimpses of last year’s offensive juggernaut over the past few games, scoring 123.5 points per 100 possessions (good for first in that span). What’s changed? Literally nothing except getting James Harden healthy and the team making shots. Prior to Houston’s four-game winning streak, they were shooting 34.0% on threes, good for 24th in the league. During Houston’s streak, they are shooting 38.8% which is good for sixth in the league. The number of wide open and open attempts are still the same. Houston functionally looks like the same basketball team it did a month ago, but with made jumpers and healthy bodies.

Another major change Houston’s made to help establish its burgeoning identity is shortening the rotation and establishing clear roles. Of the nine players used (James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker, James Ennis, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, Gary Clark, and Isaiah Hartenstein), seven played a major part in last year’s basketball team and have very good ideas of where they stand within their roles. The other two - Gary Clark and Isaiah Hartenstein - have caught on quickly as to what it takes to be a role player for the Rockets.

The talk of the town has been Gary Clark and rightfully so. The 24-year-old rookie out of the University of Cincinnati has been nothing short of a revelation for Houston. Clark’s tenacity has allowed the Rockets to be a facsimile of what they were last year defensively. Although he’s still coming along as an offensive player, he’s been good enough on defense for Mike D’Antoni to play him major minutes despite his shortcomings (and his rookie status). It’s also no secret that Clark’s emergence made it much easier for Houston to part ways with forward Carmelo Anthony. He also seems to have a good head on his shoulders.

As for Isaiah Hartenstein, he may not be a very good offensive player right now but the man just hustles on both ends of the court. Offensively, he’s an active screen setter who loves to clobber the offensive glass and dive for loose balls. And defensively, he’s good enough laterally to not be a complete liability in Houston’s switching scheme. Even though he’s struggling to finish around the rim right now, he just understands his role.

So what are the Rockets? Are they a good team again or is this just a good stretch for them? The truth is it’s way too early to tell and they don’t have a fully-formed identity yet, but they’re certainly headed in the right direction.

 

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CJ Stroud and Will Anderson Jr both made the list. Composite Getty Image.

Coming off a surprising playoff run with a rookie quarterback in 2023, expectations couldn't be higher for the Houston Texans heading into 2024.

CBS Sports' Pete Prisco recently put his 2024 NFL Top 100 players list together, which includes six Texans players. Here's how Prisco has them ranked, and his outlook for the season.

No. 99 Edge Rusher Will Anderson Jr.

Just squeezing in the Top 100 is the Defensive Rookie of the Year, Will Anderson. “He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year after getting seven sacks. But he was much more than those sack numbers and his talent shows a player who can take a big jump to 12-15 sacks this season,” said Prisco.

No. 80 Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.

Next on the list is ballhawking corner Derek Stingley Jr. Prisco weighed in on Houston's standout defensive back. “After a disappointing 2022 rookie season, he flashed star potential last year for the Texans. He is a long corner who is capable of matching up in coverage with the game's best receivers.”

No. 77 Wide Receiver Nico Collins

This is where we see the first offensive player makes the list. Prisco shares his thoughts on Houston's top pass catcher. “After having 70 catches in his first two seasons, he had his breakout season in 2023 with 80 catches and a 16.2 yard-per-catch average. He is truly a big-play threat who should continue to grow with quarterback C.J. Stroud.”

No. 57 Left Tackle Laremy Tunsil

Prisco adds another offensive player to his list here. “He is one of the best in the league in pass protection, which is great news for C.J. Stroud. His ability to hold up in one-on-one situations is key to their offense,” said Prisco.

No. 38 Quarterback CJ Stroud

Can Stroud deliver an impressive sophomore season? “He was special as a rookie, leading the Texans to the playoffs. Now comes the hard part: Doing it again. I don't think that will be a problem because he has the look of being a star for a long time,” said Prisco.

No. 35 Danielle Hunter

The final player to make the list is the Texans' prized offseason addition. “He had 16 1/2 sacks for the Vikings last season, continuing to be a force off the edge. In Houston, he will team with Will Anderson Jr. to give the Texans a nice duo of pass rushers,” Prisco said.

One glaring omission is Texans superstar receiver Stefon Diggs. Diggs had a down year in 2023 based on his standards. But don't be surprised if Diggs makes this list next year after a bounce back season with Stroud pulling the trigger at QB. And he'll be highly motivated, with the possibility of another mega-contract in sight.


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