Following a four-month hiatus as a result of COVID-19, the NBA is getting ready for a long-anticipated league restart. Beginning on July 31st, the top 22 teams will compete at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. Given that there will be a secured “bubble”, concerns over the spread of COVID-19, and no fans, it’s safe to say that this will be a season unlike any other. Taking the unique NBA landscape into consideration, the Last Word on Pro Basketball staff continues this contender or pretender series with the Houston Rockets.
NBA Disney Contender or Pretenders: Houston Rockets
Perhaps the most polarizing team entering the bubble, the Rockets aim to win its first NBA title since 1995. Armed with superstars Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Houston arrives at Disney with a 40-24 record, good enough for sixth in the Western Conference.
The Rockets underwent the biggest mid-season makeover in recent memory. Denver, Houston, Atlanta, and Minnesota all part took in a massive four-team trade that sent Clint Capela to the Hawks and brought Robert Covington to Houston. This caused a total schematic change and the small-ball Rockets were born.
Since turning to small-ball full-time, Houston has gone 11-6 recording wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah, Boston, and Memphis. During this span, the team ranks fifth in points per game (117.1), ninth in offensive rating (113.5) and 13th in defensive rating (111.1).
Houston are on a 50-win pace in the small-ball line-up. They jack up a lot of threes and with Eric Gordon healthy at last, they should be making a higher percentage from the perimeter. pic.twitter.com/JFnOpVRIRm
— NBA Buzz Feed (@NBAbuzz5) July 19, 2020
Westbrook has erupted during this stretch, averaging 31.7 points (54.6 percent shooting, 38.5 percent from three and 73 percent from the line), 8.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.7 steals.
Here, in typical Westbrook fashion, he throws down a nasty dunk to send Madison Square Garden into a frenzy.
Here's some morning ball pic.twitter.com/7mZBmgQlLS
— NBA Buzz Feed (@NBAbuzz5) June 1, 2020
Harden hasn’t been as impressive but is still putting up monster stats averaging 29.6 points (43.1 percent shooting, 32.5 percent from three and 83.8 percent from the line), 7.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.0 steals. For the season, Harden leads the way in scoring averaging a ludicrous 34.4 points per game.
Prior to the hiatus, the Rockets dropped four of their last five games which included losses to the New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets. While the Rockets were able to pummel Minnesota before the break, the team looked gassed. If there was a team that benefited from the hiatus, it’s Houston.
Houston Rockets News
Recently, it was revealed that Westbrook contracted COVID-19 prior to meeting with the team. The superstar took to Twitter and Instagram to send a message to the NBA community.
Russell Westbrook announced on Instagram that he has tested positive for COVID-19.
He says he is feeling well and will join the Rockets in Orlando when he is cleared. pic.twitter.com/YLhO8fXlEM
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 13, 2020
The star guard recently rejoined the team and is ready to make an impact. He is key to how far the Rockets will go this season so let’s hope the virus hasn’t affected his health at all.
James Harden arrived in Orlando late but is fully healthy. It appears he used the hiatus to drop some weight and looks terrific.
James harden Rhythm dribble step back is cold pic.twitter.com/S6GaCGYEMy
— Swish Cultures (@swishcultures_) July 17, 2020
In other activities, Houston also waived big man Isaiah Hartenstein and brought back Luc Mbah a Moute. Thabo Sefolosha opted out of the bubble citing COVID-19 concerns, electing to remain with his family.
Guard Play and Isolation Scoring
Houston’s obvious strength is their guard play. Since going small, Harden and Westbrook are combining for 61.8 points and 13.3 assists per game. The Rockets’ entire offense runs through its two stars.
Isolation scoring is an area the Rockets excel in. Of the 12 players who isolate at least 15 percent of their possessions, Westbrook ranks seventh in the NBA scoring 0.88 points per play. He sits just behind Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James who sits sixth overall, averaging 0.92 points per play.
James Harden, on the other hand, is a beast. 45.8 percent of his possessions are in isolation and he scores 1.12 points per play. Harden leads the league scoring a scintillating 16.2 points per game and is number one of players who isolate at least 15 percent of the time (minimum 40 games played).
This is undoubtedly his play of the season.
HARDEN COOKS THE CLIPPERS EVER TIME BBQ CHICKEN 🍗 pic.twitter.com/Cr9ZiQ4KlI
— Bank 🎰 (@HARDEN2MVP) July 13, 2020
The Rockets need all the scoring they can get. If Harden and Westbrook can carry the load at a reasonable efficiency, Houston will be tough to roll.
Rebounding and Second-Chance Points
The biggest drawback of going super small is rebounding. P.J Tucker is now the designated “big man” and assigned to man the paint. Tucker is 6’5 and doesn’t nearly possess the height for a player at the center position.
Houston ranks 27th in rebounding and only sits 0.4 rebounds per game from being the worst rebounding team in the Association. Since going small, they are being out-rebounded by an average of 9.5 rebounds per game and have allowed 14.3 second-chance points.
The Rockets will need to gang rebound and try to limit second-chance opportunities. It is a huge ask for Houston to win the rebound battle but playing teams within five rebounds is paramount.
Houston Must Increase Three-Point Percentage
The Rockets hoist the most three-pointers per game, attempting 45.7 attempts per game but are only converting 34.8 percent of them. Surprisingly, Ben McLemore is the Houston Rockets’ best three-point shooter connecting on 39.5 percent of his triples on 6.2 attempts.
HOU best 3PT shooters are (min. 3.0 attempts, min 50 games):
Ben McLemore 39.5% (6.2)
PJ Tucker 37% (4.0)
Danuel House 36.3% (5.4)
Austin Rivers 35.8% (3.9)
Robert Covington 35.7% (8.0)
James Harden 35.2% (12.6)
Eric Gordon 31.9% (8.5) pic.twitter.com/6wqWGTyM64
— NBA Buzz Feed (@NBAbuzz5) July 19, 2020
On the surface, the Houston Rockets are in a decent spot but they really need to hit closer to 36 percent. With Westbrook lowering his three-point attempts to two triples per game, Houston’s percentages are set to increase.
X-Factor Alert – Eric Gordon
One player that can shift the Houston Rockets’ three-point shooting to the next level is Eric Gordon. After signing an extension last season, the veteran is averaging 14.5 points on 37 percent shooting and 31.9 percent from three. Injuries have plagued the 31-year-old this year inhibiting his ability to shoot the rock.
Despite this, Gordon managed to drop a 50-piece on the Utah Jazz. With Westbrook and Harden out, the guard scored 50 points on 14 shots to lead Houston to a 126-117 win over the Utah Jazz.
With James Harden and Russell Westbrook out, Eric Gordon stepped up with a career-high 50 points to lead the Rockets past the Jazz in Utah 😯🔥
— USA TODAY NBA (@usatodaynba) January 28, 2020
Since arriving at the bubble, Gordon is rumored to have lost 10-14 pounds and is looking much slimmer. Coach Mike D’Antoni says the guard hasn’t missed a beat and has returned to the team fully for the first time this season.
Houston Rockets Verdict: Contender
With Harden and Westbrook leading the way, the Houston Rockets are without a doubt, a contender. Sure, they sit sixth in the Western Conference on the back of an uneven season but they possess the highest ceiling of any team in the NBA. Couple that with the huge amount of variance Houston brings with small-ball and the Rockets become a dangerous proposition.
Harden and Westbrook will get their points but the biggest question is will Eric Gordon play well in the post-season. Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, and Danuel House have been consistent since going small and have shown a willingness to defend as a pack. It might sound crazy but Gordon’s contributions could be the difference between championship or bust.
If the Rockets play to their ceiling, they will make some serious noise this off-season. They are my sneaky pick to win it all.
Embed from Getty Images