Paul Muth

What does the season hold for the Rockets? It all starts tonight

James Harden and the Rockets have big goals. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

If you blinked, you just missed the entire NBA off-season. But to be honest, if your only memories of the Rockets 2017-2018 campaign still center around their forgettable Western Conference Finals game seven exit, it's probably best that we push through to a brand new season and leave those 27 consecutive missed three-pointers in the past where they belong.

The Rockets’ new season kicks off tonight at the Toyota Center against the New Orleans Pelicans. Now there's probably a significant amount of people out there where that information is breaking news to. I get it. The Astros are probably your main focus at the moment, and rightfully so. Luckily for you, I've been thawed out from my basketball cryogenic stasis just in time to get your mind right for some sweet, sweet shooty hoops.

What happened last year?

The Rockets face-smushed the entire league, that's what. Led by the eventual league MVP James Harden and new running mate Chris Paul, Houston dismantled opposing teams with lights out shooting and improved focus on defense. They ripped off winning streaks of 10 or more games three separate times en route to the best regular season record in the NBA, the number one seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, and a franchise record for wins in a single season at 65. So yeah, they did ok.

The Rockets cruised past the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Utah Jazz in the first two rounds of the postseason, winning both series four games to one. Only then did they square off with the Golden State Warriors. Both teams traded wins in the first four games, but it was Houston who would come out on top in game five. It would come at a massive cost, as Paul would be lost to a hamstring injury for the remainder of the series. The depleted depth was too much for the Rockets to overcome and the Warriors came back to capture the series in game seven against an exhausted Houston team.

Key departures

As it turns out, the Rockets may have been too good for their own good. When you capture the best regular season record, other teams tend to look at who on the team helped you get there and wonder if they can help further their own interests.

Such was the case this off-season as long time Rocket Trevor Ariza was lured away by the Phoenix Suns with an offer Houston had no interest--or business for that matter--matching. Ariza's defense and ranged offense would be missed but it was assumed that backup small forward Luc Mbah a Moute would be able to step in and fill the role with minimal drop off.

That is, until Mbah a Moute bolted for the L.A. Clippers. Mbah a Moute had taken his one year minimum contract offered by General Manager Daryl Morey and successfully parlayed his 2017-2018 season’s performance into a bigger payday. Morey got great production for a bargain and Mbah a Moute earned a better contract. It was win-win. You can't argue with that, but now the Rockets were without a small forward.

Key additions

Morey quickly went to work to plug the suddenly gaping hole through a variety of moves. He started by initially signing defensive specialist James Ennis and followed that with an insanely low risk gamble by signing potential hall of famer, Carmelo Anthony, to a veteran's minimum deal. The two moves addressed the hole, and while it may not have brought back a perfectly identical return on talent compared to the previous season, it was certainly a savvy move in the right direction.

Then, just as everything had settled down, Morey waved his sabermetric wand and did what most deemed impossible: he found a trade partner willing to take on the $21 million dollar contract of Ryan Anderson, a three point shooting power forward who forgot how to shoot the ball from three point range. Not only that, but he received an above average backup point guard seeking a redemption season in Brandon Knight, and an uber athletic potential diamond in the rough with Marquese Chriss. In Morey we trust, ladies and gentlemen.

Three keys to look for

How will Carmelo Anthony be utilized?

Critics of the acquisition will cite his previous failure to work with head coach Mike D'Antoni in New York, as well as his on ball play style as reasons why the experiment won't work. These are probably the same people that said Chris Paul and James Harden wouldn't be able to productively share the court as well, and then the Rockets won 65 games. How Anthony is used remains the question. It's speculated that he will assume shooting guard Eric Gordon's sixth man spot, allowing him plenty of free reign on-ball to wreak havoc on opposing benches.

Which newcomer will stand out?

Brandon Knight has already proven to be a near all star caliber point guard when healthy, however that last part is a significant question mark. James Ennis will be a name to keep an eye on however as he frustrates opposing teams defensively. I'm most intrigued by the prospect of Marquese Chriss having a breakout year in part because of his ability to go up and get the ball, and Paul and Harden's ability to effectively find him cutting to the basket. Clint Capela made a living off of the alleyoop last season. It would be a lot of fun to watch another lob option develop.

Can the Rockets be competitive without pulling off a Jimmy Butler trade?

Yes, yes, a hundred times yes. The thought that the Rockets need Butler to win is a joke. Now acquiring another top 15 talent would obviously be welcome and improve their chances, but this is a well built, dangerous roster.

Predictions

This is going to be another fun season with one of the league's top offenses wreaking havoc on the league. The key will be health, but this a Rockets team that is built to throw offense at the opposition for 48 straight minutes until they crack.

I expect the Rockets to once again win the Southwest Division and vie for a top 3 seed in the Western Conference. Ultimately I anticipate a Western Conference Finals rematch with Golden State, provided everyone remains healthy.

Now comes what seems the perennial question every team asks: can they beat the Golden State Warriors? I'd like to say yes, but until I see it actually happen, you won't see me predicting anything otherwise. While it may get old watching the Warriors win title after title, keep in mind that you are witnessing quite possibly one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled. But if there's any consolation to be had, it can be found in the fact that if there is any team in the west capable of playing spoiler to Golden State, it's the Houston Rockets.

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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