The Houston Rockets have a history of disappointing playoff results, and recent moves at the trade deadline and free-agent market have seen late-season roster turnover bolstering the team’s rotation at the expense of accelerating the organization’s inventive offensive mission statement.
With 25 games left to play, here are the keys to the Rockets figuring it out after the regular season.
4. Piece together a playoff defense
The Rockets, by Feb. 25, own just the 15th defensive rating in the NBA—exactly the middle of the pack. Part of the reason the venerable head coach Mike D’Antoni has had mixed results historically in the playoffs (going to three conference finals between Phoenix and Houston) was his innovative offenses seizing up against great defenses.
Luckily, despite excising Capela, they acquired a very good wing defender in Robert Covington. The veteran forward will likely have to guard players like Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James in second or third-round playoff matchups while PJ Tuckers mans the “center” position.
It’s not going to be a one-player difference in the postseason, but D’Antoni’s team needs to play top-10 defense when inevitably the high-powered offense stalls.
3. Build a sustainable second unit
Part of the philosophy behind bringing in former NBA MVP point guard Russell Westbrook is the Rockets won’t have to rely on Harden, who still plays some the highest minutes per game in the league. D’Antoni can split Westbrook and Harden and find favorable players in the rotation to build off of their strengths—an underlying one being the same in isolation ball.
The loss of Capela and addition of Covington about equals out the scoring outputs from each respective player, but outside of former Sixth Man of the Year in guard Eric Gordon, the bench needs to perk up and find reliable scoring.
The Rockets would tremendously benefit from not having to burn Westbrook and Harden 35 minutes or more a night down the stretch of the season, especially if they’re going to win first-round home-field advantage.
2. Decide on the rest-of-the-season strategy
That being said, the Rockets need to decide how they want these final weeks to play out: go all out and try to capture probably at best the second seed in the Western Conference, or coast and feel comfortable with No. 3 or 4. Houston is only a game behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the third spot and two behind the Denver Nuggets.
With new pieces on the team like Covington and veteran forwards Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll, there needs to be an executive decision on either competing incredibly hard with little rest to better playoff positioning (possibly to secure a semi-finals home court) or not stressing on working the stars to the bone.
Perhaps somewhere in the middle makes sense to integrate the new players but not grinding the ex-MVP guards to exhaustion before the playoffs.
1. Keep the fire from 3-point land going
Part of the Rockets’ string of disappointing postseason finishes have been hauntingly terrible nights from long range, as D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey’s signature 3-point shooting ethos came up short when Houston couldn’t find the bottom of the net.
They say you live by the three and die by the three, and that will be partially true in the postseason again. Perhaps it’s too much to ask, but in order for Harden, Westbrook, and the Rockets to succeed in April, May, and beyond, it’s keeping a strong connection from behind the arc.