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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Yordan Alvarez provided the offense to back up more stellar pitching by the Astros as they took ALCS game 6 to advance to the 2021 World Series. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games of this series in Houston then falling behind in the series 2-1 by dropping the first of three games in Boston, the Astros took over the ALCS in Games 4 and 5, sending them back to their home crowd with a chance to finish things off in Game 6 at Minute Maid Park. After another stellar performance by their pitching staff and more timely hitting, they would accomplish that mission, winning the series and moving on to the 2021 World Series.

Final Score: Astros 5, Red Sox 0

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): Houston wins 4-2

Winning Pitcher: Luis Garcia

Losing Pitcher: Nathan Eovaldi

Houston strikes first to start tightly-contested Game 6

After a scoreless top of the first inning by Boston's offense, the Astros capitalized on a chance to be first to score in the bottom of the frame. Alex Bregman started the two-out rally, reaching base on a single against Nathan Eovaldi for the first hit of the night. Yordan Alvarez followed, delivering his sixth RBI of the series with a double to put Houston on top 1-0.

That did not spark further immediate scoring, as the one-run score held while both starting pitchers provided solid outings for their team. For Eovaldi, he was able to limit Houston to just that single run through four frames. He returned in the bottom of the fifth, facing two batters, allowing a single, and getting a strikeout to end his night.

Garcia impresses in big start

For the home team, they were recipients of another expectation-exceeding performance from one of their young arms. Only anticipated to go a handful of innings, Luis Garcia worked efficiently and effectively against Boston, keeping them scoreless and hitless through five innings. He continued in the sixth, getting two more outs before allowing a two-out triple, ending his night as Phil Maton would enter to strand the tying run. Garcia's final line: 5.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K, 76 P.

With both teams dipping into their bullpens, the Astros took advantage of Boston's as Yordan Alvarez's dominance went on display once again. He led the inning off with a triple, then scored on a double-play ball to extend Houston's lead to 2-0. Kendall Graveman took over on the mound in the top of the seventh and worked himself into a big moment. He gave up a one-out walk, followed by a single, which put runners on the corners for Boston. He continued to struggle with the zone, falling behind the next batter 3-1, but was able to battle back to get the strikeout paired with a terrific throw by Martin Maldonado to cut down the runner from first trying to steal second, ending the inning and maintaining the two-run advantage.

Astros headed to the World Series

Ryne Stake was Houston's next reliever, and he put Houston three outs away by getting a 1-2-3 eighth. With Ryan Pressly warming, he watched and hoped that his offense could give him some more insurance to work with when he went to the mound in the top of the ninth. His wish would be granted, as after getting two on base, Kyle Tucker would put a major exclamation point on the night's offense, hitting a three-run opposite-field homer to the Crawford Boxes to push the lead to 5-0.

Pressly, now with the five-run lead, came on to try and start the celebration by getting the final three outs. Against the tougher part of Boston's order, he would get a 1-2-3 inning, giving the Astros the American League pennant, which along with those won in 2017 and 2019, puts them back in the World Series for the third time in five years.

Up Next: The Astros will have three days off before The Fall Classic kicks off. While Game 1 will be on Tuesday, October 26th, nothing else has yet been determined as Houston awaits to see which of the Dodgers and Braves will advance out of the NL, which will also dictate if the Astros will host or travel to World Series Game 1.

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