The Houston Rockets had plenty to discuss following their Western Conference semifinal loss to the Golden State Warriors. After the Dubs defeated Houston for the second consecutive season, it was clear that they needed something to get over the hump and emerge as the top contender in the Western Conference.
Unfortunately, general manager Daryl Morey had little to no cap space to work with, mostly due to the extension he had handed Chris Paul following the 2017-18 season.
Morey dangled the likes of Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker in separate deals in an effort to orchestrate a sign-and-trade for Jimmy Butler, but he was never able to attract much interest.
Finally, Morey pulled the trigger on a massive deal that sent Chris Paul and a host of future considerations to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook, pairing James Harden with his former backcourt mate.
The Western Conference will be as crowded and competitive as ever, but the Rockets are hoping that their new dynamic duo can lead them to championship glory
As Houston prepares for a “championship or bust” type of season, here are the three players on the roster that are under the most pressure.
3. Clint Capela
Is Capela really an elite center in the NBA? He upped his scoring and rebounding this past season, but seemed to lose a step or two on the defensive side of the ball.
To make matters worse, Capela was a disappointment in the playoffs. During the 2017-18 postseason run, he averaged 12.7 points and 11.6 boards and looked like the breakout star for Houston? But Capela really struggled in this most recent series against the Warriors, fouling out in Game 2 and posting three plus-minus values of -10 or worse (even though no single game was decided by more than six points).
Capela’s role on this Rockets team is pretty clear: protect the rim and be competent in the paint. He struggled with the latter aspect of that role especially in the playoffs, committing three turnovers in each of the final three games against the Warriors.
The Rockets need Capela to rediscover his natural defensive instincts and simply not try to do too much.
Houston already has playmakers, they need more stoppers.
2. James Harden
Harden is one of the best players in the NBA. There is no disputing that notion. He arguably could have won his second straight MVP after carrying a depleted Houston team while becoming the first player since Michael Jordan to average more than 36 points per game.
However, like Capela, Harden faltered in the playoffs. “The Beard” scored just five fourth-quarter points in a pivotal Game 5, and went nearly ten minutes without a field goal. In Game 6, Harden shot 7 of 12 from the free-throw line and committed six turnovers as the Rockets were bounced from the playoffs.
Nobody questions Harden’s talent. But can he become the kind of clutch performer that the Rockets so desperately need?
We may have to wait until next April to find out the answer to that question, but he will be under the microscope come playoff time.
1. Russell Westbrook
This is an easy one. Morey traded for Westbrook because he felt that “Brodie” gave the Rockets a better chance to win an NBA title.
Throughout his career, Westbrook has been a ball-dominant player that has struggled to shoot the three at an efficient clip. Not to mention, Westbrook has also seen his fair share of playoff failures and disappointments.
His energy and defensive playmaking skills will serve Houston well, but can Westbrook coexist with Harden? In his introductory press conference, Westbrook said that he can impact the game in a number of ways, and he does not need the ball to succeed.
Those words will be put to the test this season, as he is sure to be under the most pressure of any player on the roster.
Luckily for Houston, pressure has never seemed to phase Westbrook.