Houston Rockets 2017-18 Season Preview

— October 17th 2017

In 2016, the Houston Rockets were not predicted to make any noise before the season began. They had just lost Dwight Howard to free agency, made a change at head coach, and barely made the playoffs the season before. Then, with one switch of position, James Harden not only elevated his own game, but seemingly everyone else’s game around him. Ryan Anderson’s empty production from years prior now became meaningful, injury prone Eric Gordon managed to stay healthy and win Sixth Man of the Year, and Clint Capela stepped into Dwight Howard’s former role and thrived in the pick and roll with Harden. On paper, this team wasn’t even seen as a playoff seed to many. But, Harden being used to his full potential at the point guard position elevated Houston to the three seed in the Western Conference.

Chris Paul Addition:

The Harden point guard experiment was supposed to continue this season, but on June 28, the Rockets acquired All-Star point guard Chris Paul in a trade with the Clippers. While it was definitely a move that was in the best interest of the organization, it created numerous questions about the new lineup. Would Harden forfeit his playmaking duties to play more off the ball? Was Chris Paul willing to play beside a high-usage guard? These were very fair questions being asked by those who follow the team closely, and this preseason gave us a feel for how those questions can be answered.

The answer to whether or not Harden will give up his ball handling and playmaking duties is that he won’t. Surprisingly, Harden was more often than not the player that brought the ball up court and initiated the offense. Paul found himself playing off the ball far more often than Harden, which came as a surprise to many, including myself. Harden had double-digit assists in all but one game this preseason, and in the lone game he didn’t he had nine. Coach Mike D’Antoni clearly wants to continue to improve upon the historical production that Harden had last season, and Chris Paul will be used as the secondary ball handler.  Paul’s defense is going to be very valuable to this Houston squad, and perhaps easing his offensive load is D’Antoni’s way of maximizing his efforts on the defensive end.

The answer to whether or not Chris Paul will be willing to step aside and play the sidekick role is yet to be determined, but the chemistry between the two appears to be there early on. While Harden has been putting up numbers similar to his production last season, Paul’s impressiveness has flown under the radar. He finished the preseason ranked third in assists per game, which is crazy as a secondary ball handler.

One luxury the Rockets utilized in preseason was the ability to stagger their two star guards’ minutes. Meaning there was always a top playmaker captaining the offense. Since both players are fantastic at creating at an elite level, opposing defenses will be on their heels for 48 minutes nightly. The only deterrent to these two happily fitting together is ego. However, if both players are willing to sacrifice parts of their game for the team, a top three Western Conference seed is easily attainable.

Other New Additions:

After the Chris Paul trade, the Rockets did not get complacent.  Rather, Houston sought to complement their All-Star backcourt.  To maximize D’Antoni’s fast paced perimeter heavy system. players possessing particular assets were recruited.  Partiality was afforded for multi-positional defenders with efficient catch and shoot perimeter arsenals.  Enter PJ Tucker (37.4 percent) and Luc Mbah A Moute (39 percent) – catch and shoot specialists who earned their reputations on the defensive end of the hardwood. The Rockets hope their addition will help push them to a top ten defensive rank after finishing 18th last season.

Offensively, the Rockets ranked second in the NBA in scoring last year, and trailed the Golden State Warriors by only 0.6 points per game. This season, the team should once again be top two in this category, and could give the Warriors a serious run for their money.

Team Expectations:

Combining all of these fantastic new additions with the existing core should position the squad to finish second in the Western Conference. They are a legit nine players deep with players that can contribute in this specific system. A year after successfully replacing Dwight Howard’s production Clint Capela is a favorite to win Most Improved Player this season. His athleticism and chemistry with Harden in the pick and roll opened up space on the wings for shooters. This chemistry should translate easily to Chris Paul, which could make this offense even more lethal.

This is a very important season for Ryan Anderson. He is a highly efficient three point shooting power forward. Unfortunately, his lack of defensive prowess makes it difficult to afford him significant minutes. Factor in an untimely playoff shooting slump (28.3 percent) and it became virtually impossible to play him.  This is why the additions of Mbah A Moute and Tucker were critical. Both can play power forward in small ball lineups, so if Anderson struggles again, this time D’Antoni has a response.

Overall, this team should be the odds-on favorite to finish as the second seed in the Western Conference behind the Golden State Warriors. Their offense was already ranked second before the additions of Paul, Mbah A Moute, and Tucker. Moreover, these three are major upgrades defensively.

For the season to be quantified a success the Rockets must reach the Western Conference Finals  Failure to do so will add to Paul’s already tarnished playoff reputation and increase the spotlight on his ability. However, if the Rockets reach these lofty expectations to meet the Warriors things could get interesting. In a battle for an NBA Finals bid, the Rockets have the firepower to take the Warriors to six games before eventually being eliminated.

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