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.

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