Rockets 112, Pelicans 131 - Hit the Ground Stumbling

By Forrest Walker on October 17, 2018

The Houston Rockets didn't look like they had anything to prove tonight. They also didn't look like they had a game plan, or chemistry, or NBA-level talent. After waiting months to see these Rockets play in a real regulation game, the collective NBA world was treated not to the 65-win juggernaut they were last season, but something more like the Worst Defense In The League many people expect them to be every season. Now, instead of analyzing how the pieces fit, the only thing left to do is to try to judge whether there's cause for real concern.

Three Bold Predictions for the 2018-2019 Houston Rockets

By Jorge Flores on July 11, 2018
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The NBA season is finally upon us and that means that it’s time to wildly speculate about the happenings around the league. The Houston Rockets are poised to have another good year, but it feels as though most expect them to take a significant step back. I don’t think that will be the case at all. In fact, I have some bold predictions about just how good the Rockets will be.

Let’s start with a fun one.

1) Carmelo Anthony will hit 200 threes

There’s been much said about Houston’s offseason, primarily surrounding the long overdue signing of Carmelo Anthony. For the 2018-2019 campaign, Melo finds himself on his third team in as many years; all with questions about how he’d be willing (if at all) to sacrifice his game for the betterment of the team. Joining a championship-contending team that houses the reigning MVP and his All-NBA friend, it seems like the ideal of Olympic Melo has a chance to become reality in Houston.

The short sample size and doesn’t-tell-us-anything nature of the NBA preseason makes this a little tenuous, but Anthony appears to fit right in to Mike D’Antoni’s offense. He’s taking (and making) open spot-up baskets and figures to be a favorite target on the receiving end of the high-volume assists James Harden and Chris Paul generate on a nightly basis. In the preseason, Melo shot 50% from beyond the arc. Surely, this is unsustainable, but what’s more intriguing is he took six attempts per game – making three. 

Last season, only James Harden and Eric Gordon managed to hit the 200 Threes Made mark for the Rockets. The next closest was Trevor Ariza with 170 threes made. Playing far less minutes for Oklahoma City last year, Melo hit 169 threes. Considering how disastrous Melo’s time in OKC seemed and how integral Trevor Ariza was to the Rockets success last season, making basically the same number of threes should tell you something about Melo’s scoring efficiency. 

The more I think about it, the less bold I think this prediction is.

2) Don’t rule out James Harden for MVP

Around this time last year I was going to write a column about how I thought James Harden had a legit shot at finally winning the MVP – and boy, do I regret not writing it! It wasn’t a very popular position to take at the time, and it’s definitely not going to be popular now but the MVP race is just so wide open this year that it kind of still makes sense.

Per the Bovada betting odds, James Harden currently has the fourth-best odds at winning the 2019 MVP Award. The reigning MVP was finally awarded the trophy last season and it’s not likely voters will want to reward him again, especially after last season felt like a make-up call for the 2017 award. 

However, there’s not a clear favorite in my mind to win the award. There’s no obvious narrative that triumphs over the narratives surrounding other players. The Warriors MVP duo of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are sure to cancel each other out again, Kyrie Irving will be sharing the wealth within Brad Stevens’ system that’s sure to lead Boston to a ton of wins, and not even Showtime LeBron can fully bring the Lakers back to championship contention this quickly. Will another season of averaging a triple-double matter for Russell Westbrook? Will the Pelicans or Bucks win enough games to warrant giving the trophy to Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo, respectively? Will Kawhi Leonard return to his former two-way dominance? 

James Harden will have to battle voter fatigue and perhaps the lack of a compelling narrative. However, his numbers are not likely to dip in any significant way while the Rockets continue to pile up wins on their way to another championship bid.

3) The Rockets will have a Top 10 Defense

There’s no doubt that the Rockets' defense has taken a few big hits this offseason. From the free agency departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute to the sudden retirement of defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, it seems many are quick to write off Houston’s defense as championship caliber and I'm not sure that's wise.

General Manager Daryl Morey has always stressed needing both a Top-10 Offense and a Top-10 Defense to win a championship. Historically, those are the teams that are perennial contenders (and winners) for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Obviously, the Rockets will have no issue putting the ball in the basket. Mike D’Antoni is an offensive mastermind, after all. But I’m confident that the Rockets will still have a good defensive foundation, built upon from the switch-everything principles “Coach Buzz” implemented.

As much as Rockets fans love to downplay Trevor Ariza’s importance to the team (reacting to the exaggerations of Houston’s downfall with his departure), Ariza was the prototypical 3-and-D wing all great teams seem to want. However, his length and switching ability should be easily replaced with the additions of James Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams. Throwing Ennis into the starting lineup will round out an already exceptional first unit defense that includes PJ Tucker and Clint Capela – two guys who I think have a shot at All Team Defense this season.

Considering that Chris Paul – an absolute pest defensively – is sure to play a lot of minutes with a second unit group of MCW and Eric Gordon (an underrated defender in his own right), inserting Carmelo Anthony into the rotation shouldn’t hurt the overall team defense too much.

Houston will have a better defense than most people think, which leads to…

Bonus Prediction: The Houston Rockets will win the 2018-2019 NBA Championship

Okay, so this one is pretty bold, right?

I’m a firm believer that great teams with all-time great players always have a chance to win a championship – even when the Warriors exist. There are just too many variables over a very long season that affect the fate of the NBA.

Maybe Houston had a one-year window that slammed shut via a bum hamstring and unbelievable shooting debacle… but maybe it didn’t.

The Houston Rockets will win the 2018-2019 NBA Championship.

Speak it into existence. Why not?

Life after James Harden and Chris Paul

By Taylor Pate on October 14, 2018.

It’s no question that the aging roster for the Houston Rockets will eventually be a problem that general manager Daryl Morey will need to solve. Of the eight youngest players on the roster, only Marquese Chriss and Clint Capela have played significant minutes in the NBA. Chriss, entering his third season, was the 8th pick in the 2016 draft and was traded from Sacramento to Phoenix for a Kings (!) ransom. His short NBA career has been, speaking kindly, underwhelming so far. Clint Capela is an emerging young center, anchoring the Rockets’ defense on one end, catching lobs from Chris Paul and James Harden on the other. But neither of these players will carry a franchise which begs the question; where will the next generation of Rockets talent make its entrance?

Daryl Morey has a propensity for collecting role players in the second round of the NBA Draft who outperform their draft position. You can find Morey's fingerprints on numerous teams throughout the league. Robert Covington, Chandler Parsons, and Montrezl Harrell have all contributed to their respective teams in a big way and all were second round picks by Morey. The first round has not been so kind. Since Morey took the title of GM, his first round picks are as follows: Aaron Brooks, Nicolas Batum, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Nikola Mirotic, Jeremy Lamb, Royce White, Terrence Jones, Clint Capela, and Sam Dekker. There has certainly been more bust than boom in the first round for Morey, but it's important to realize how the Rockets came to their current position. Contention did not come overnight, nor did it come without a price.

The 2011-12 season marked the end of an era with beloved Rockets familiars like Yao Ming, Shane Battier, and Luis Scola all departing in this way or that. Houston had just signed Jeremy Lin, fresh out of New York on the heels of “Linsanity”. They were in full on rebuild mode. That is, until James Harden arrived. Daryl Morey took a risk trading for a sixth man, unproven as a leader and awaiting his chance at stardom, but Harden changed the landscape for the Rockets, and more importantly gave Morey the first puzzle piece that he'd had been searching for. But Morey wouldn’t stop there. His evergreen thirst for a championship, namely trying to catch the Golden State Warriors, led him to leverage future draft picks, younger players, and now over $40 million annually for superstar point guard Chris Paul. Morey’s venture has already proven fruitful, as James Harden won the MVP award, the Rockets obtained the first playoff seed and took the eventual champion Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. If not for an unfortunately timed injury and a poor shooting stretch, the Rockets may have paid back Morey’s vigilance in year one with a ring.

But Chris Paul is aging. Already 33, Paul signed a four-year, $160 million contract with the Rockets. Given that Chris Paul is able to play out this newly-signed contract at a moderately high level, the Rockets are probably looking at four years of definite contention. At the end of Paul’s contract, James Harden will be 33 years old and probably coming to the apex of his prime the way Paul is now. The question then becomes whether or not Daryl Morey chooses to get a return for the last years of Chris Paul or James Harden’s contracts, tanks for a lottery pick, or attempts to couple picks and players for a younger star.

It’s highly unlikely that the Rockets would be willing to part with James Harden at any point, even in his final years. James Harden is poised to retire as a member of the Houston Rockets. Chris Paul, on the other hand, may find it appealing to spend his twilight years in Los Angeles with his pal, LeBron James. In a (strictly hypothetical) situation like that, the Rockets could receive one of the promising young prospects from the Lakers, perhaps even a budding star at that point, in exchange for future picks and Paul’s contract. Much like the James Harden trade, Daryl Morey would be banking on a player taking a huge leap from one team to the next.

Sure, it’s possible to obtain a younger star via trade, but in many cases there is a glaring reason teams are willing to rid themselves of a franchise-caliber player. In recent memory, there’s Kawhi Leonard’s relationship with the Spurs falling through and Toronto, with no guarantees, risking its future to attempt to retain him. There’s the current Jimmy Butler-Minnesota Thib-serwolves saga, though Butler’s attitude has been a question mark as of late. Blake Griffin, oft-injured and aging quickly, was shipped to Detroit. DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, the list goes on and on. Teams simply don't want to give up on a star player unless there's an obvious negative to keeping that player around.

Tanking is not an option for the Rockets. As long as James Harden and Daryl Morey are around, the Rockets won't tank. Morey prefers to have more control over situations than leaving something like the future of a franchise up to a draft lottery, with ever-shrinking odds for teams willing to tank.

The immediate future of the Houston Rockets is in no danger of uncertainty. They will continue to be a title contender as long as James Harden and Chris Paul are around. In the years beyond Paul’s contract, the road to a championship becomes more cloudy. The Rockets will be looking to Daryl Morey to strike the same magic he did in 2012 and in the ever-changing scape of the NBA, there are no guarantees.

Ep. 91: Early Rockets Preseason Takeaways

Salman Ali (@RedNationHoops) and Forrest Walker (@DUNOTS) break down early impressions from the first three games of Houston Rockets preseason.

Listen to The Red Nation Hoops Podcast on iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

What to watch for throughout the Houston Rockets preseason

By Matthew Cardenas on October 2, 2018
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This is not a drill. After a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors, a new Houston Rockets season is right around the corner. Their preseason opens up on Tuesday, October 2 against the Memphis Grizzlies. After a historic 65 win season that could have ended with the organization’s third championship, the Rockets have a sour taste in their mouth.

“Run It Back” seems to be the mantra for the Rockets this upcoming season, as key players in Chris Paul and Clint Capela both opted to remain in Houston with hefty new contracts. The core of Paul, Capela and James Harden will once again have the Rockets in contention to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy in June 2019. Even after winning last year's Most Valuable Player honors, Harden is far from satisfied and is more focused on team accomplishments rather than individual.

“We gotta win a chip,” Harden said at the Rockets’ media day session.

Role players such as Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute were key to the Rockets success last season but have found new homes. Carmelo Anthony has brought his talents to Houston after a “rushed” stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder. James Ennis, Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss were also brought in to bolster the bench.

With a few tweaks to the roster, here are areas to focus on for the Rockets throughout the preseason.

A Possible Three-Guard Starting Lineup

Eric Gordon has been one of the league's best sixth men since joining the Rockets in 2016, winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2017 and being a finalist for the award last season. But Gordon is capable of starting on most NBA teams. Health issues seem to be in the past, which was the biggest red flag when he signed two years ago.

Head coach Mike D'Antoni has given signs Gordon will be inserted into the starting lineup this season. D’Antoni loves guard play and this gives him an opportunity to go with a three guard lineup. It would not be a hard adjustment for Gordon as he was the go-to replacement in the lineup when Harden and Paul dealt with injuries last season. Gordon even hold his own when replacing Paul in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals.

The Rockets outscored opponents by 71 points in 148 minutes when Gordon was on the court with Harden and Paul, scoring 134.7 points per 100 possessions. This should have Rockets fans confident in D’Antoni’s possible decision going forward. Look to see the team test this lineup sometime during the four preseason games. One player in particular could benefit best from this lineup change.

Carmelo Anthony Likely Taking A Bench Role

After a lone season with the Thunder where he posted career-lows in many categories, Anthony has is finally a Houston Rocket. He is teaming up with Paul, who is one of his closest friends in the Association. Anthony is also reunited with D’Antoni, who had a rough stint with the New York Knicks. Both seem to have put the past behind them and focus on a new opportunity. Anthony said he felt wanted by the Rockets, which made it easier for him to sign. He wanted to sign early in order to adjust to his new teammates, especially during the Bahamas trip.

For right now, it does not seem Anthony will be in the starting lineup. While Rockets fans could have some concerns of him being aggravated over his role, that is not the case. Anthony did not scoff at the thought of a bench role like he did during his time with the Thunder. Most of this is due to the fact D’Antoni prefers to have him at the power forward position in the lineup, which is taken by P.J. Tucker.

Having Gordon in the starting lineup could be a blessing in disguise for Anthony. It would open the floor for Anthony to work with the second unit, where he would receive more isolation opportunities. It is also important to note that D’Antoni would likely prefer to have one of Harden or Paul on the floor at all times. Because of that, defenses won’t be able to solely shift their defensive attention on Anthony, making it easier for him to post up or spot up.

It’s possible Anthony could see a lot of time with newly-signed Ennis. With his athleticism and defensive ability, Ennis could take defensive pressure off Anthony. Look to see what D’Antoni does with the trio of Anthony, Tucker and Ennis.

The Next Steps for Clint Capela

The 2017-18 campaign for Capela was his best. He was a finalist for Most Improved Player and had career-highs in nearly every category. He had 42 double doubles after finishing with just 15 the prior season, showing his improvement on both ends of the floor. Most remember his block party at the end of Game 4 versus the Utah Jazz, but his work in the pick-and-roll with Harden and Paul was nearly unguardable.

Capela was rewarded for his growth with a five-year, $90 million contract. The 24-year-old still has much room to grow as a player, though. A personal goal he set for himself is winning Defensive Player of the Year. He is an anchor of the Rockets’ defense and significantly improved as a rim protector. He seems far from satisfied even after the hefty contract.

Capela has showed the ability to shoot from the perimeter during training camp. It is extremely unlikely he will ever shoot a three mid-game, but having that in his arsenal doesn’t hurt. Today’s NBA is position-less and it’s always nice when your big man can shoot the three-ball. Capela has
also showed improvement in his passing. He is comfortable working from the top of the key or the elbow and finding the open man on a cut or spot up.

Rockets fans should have a lot to be excited about with Capela’s rapid improvement at such a young age. The argument could be made that he outplayed both Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert in the playoffs, two of the league’s better centers.

A Look at the New Acquisitions

Daryl Morey was active in recruiting talent for the Rockets this summer. Chriss, Knight and Carter-Williams will look to continue the bench success.

Chriss is only 21 and has showed encouraging flashes. The perimeter shot isn’t there yet, but there is a willingness to shoot and his form is fine. His athleticism is what has the Rockets are most excited about. He can run the floor in transition and get easy buckets. It is another pick-and-roll threat for Harden and Paul. If Chriss is able to show consistency, he could earn the backup center position behind Capela.

Knight is currently dealing with an infection and will miss the pre-season. He might be the best backup point guard Chris Paul has had since Darren Collison, which was about five years ago. He is another athletic player who can not only run an offense, but score on his own with his athleticism. It has been a while since Knight played meaningful basketball due to injury, but he looks ready for the upcoming season. He has four seasons of shooting above 36 percent from three, so we know what Knight is capable of.

Carter-Williams has been an interesting player. He hasn’t been able to find stability since winning Rookie of the Year, becoming a journeyman in the league. But with the Rockets there seems to be a breath of fresh air. Videos have surfaced of Carter-Williams’ shot form having a slight adjustment, doing wonders for him.

Carter-Williams is lengthy and will consistently produce on the defensive end. If the jumper continues to improve and he runs the offense well, the Rockets could be the deepest they’ve been with guards in a while.

There is a lot to look forward to with this Rockets team. A multitude of new faces are in and are eager for the opportunity to contribute on a contending team. The sour taste hasn't disappeared after being so close to an NBA Finals appearance. Buckle up, folks. Rockets basketball is back.

Ep. 90: Rockets Season Preview + Jimmy Butler Update

Salman Ali (@RedNationHoops) and Forrest Walker (@DUNOTS) discuss new Jimmy Butler rumors, the possibility of Eric Gordon starting, and preview the 2018-19 season for the Houston Rockets.

Listen to The Red Nation Hoops Podcast on iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Ep: 89: Breaking down the Ryan Anderson trade

Salman Ali (@RedNationHoops) and Forrest Walker (@DUNOTS) analyze the Rockets-Suns trade that sent Ryan Anderson to Phoenix.

Listen to The Red Nation Hoops Podcast on iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.