The Houston Rockets will head into the 2019-20 NBA season with a somewhat fresh look as a product of their on-brand “all in” trade to land Russell Westbrook this past summer. While of the roster will feature the same names it did last season, and their style of play isn’t expected to look much different either, the hope is that swapping out an older Chris Paul for Westbrook will provide an extra edge in a stacked Western Conference.
Not only will they be entering the season with an upgraded roster, but their path to the Finals looks a little clearer. An offseason full of player movement, including Kevin Durant heading to the East, removed the Golden State Warriors, who have eliminated the Rockets four of the last five postseasons, from being all but a sure lock to make it out of the West. In what is expected to be a more wide-open NBA season, these are the biggest questions facing the Houston Rockets starters in their hunt for the title.
James Harden – Can he be effective without the ball in his hands?
Since making the trade that would reunite Harden and Westbrook, the word that has surrounded the Houston backcourt the most has been “usage”. While these two players talent goes without saying, it is expected that their ability to coexist as two ball dominant players will dictate their success on the court. Over the past few seasons, both players have sported usage rates near, or at the very top, of the league.
This doesn’t mean that one or both players must have a dramatically lower usage rate in order to win, though. As seen with DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis in 2017-18, as well as Russ and Paul George last season, having two players who command the ball often can still be a recipe for success. What it does mean is that they will have to find ways to still impact the game when playing off ball- something James struggled with last season.
Despite being an elite creator for himself and others, it wasn’t unusual to see Harden move in slow motion, or even take an offensive possession off entirely when Chris Paul was orchestrating last season. The lack of movement made it that much harder for the Rockets to score on these possessions, and this will only tougher this season with Westbrook not being as effective of a jump shooter as Paul.
Taking Harden off the ball a little more in favor of Russ shouldering more of the point guard load should help keep Harden fresh and only makes sense given his skill over Westbrook’s as a spot up option. However, it is prudent that he finds some kind of way to be effective when he isn’t bringing the ball down or operating as the genesis for plays.
Russell Westbrook – Are his shooting woes from last season behind him?
The storyline for Russ the past few seasons has been his ability to put up triple-doubles like they are nothing. Last season provided a different discussion as well, though: his struggle to hit any kind of jump shot. Westbrook combined his abysmal 29 percent shooting from deep with a career low 65.6 percent on free throw attempts, as well as reductions in shooting percentage from everyone on the court except right at the rim.
While it shouldn’t be expected for Russ to suddenly find himself and become a knock down shooter from beyond the arc, he does need to bounce back and at least get closer to his career averages across the board. For instance, Russ only nailed 20.8 percent of his shots from 3-10 feet from the basket last season, compared to his career average of 31.6 percent. His troubles at the charity stripe may be the most worrisome, though. Among players who got to the line at least five times a game, only five players shot a worse percentage than Westbrook: Andre Drummond, Ben Simmons, Montrezl Harrell, Rudy Gobert, and Dwight Howard. For a team that prioritizes spacing the floor and getting to the basket, there is a case for concern if Westbrook’s shooting slump from last season continues.
Clint Capela – Will he be a reliable rim protector?
The Rockets big man entered last season with a brand new 5-year, $90 million contract and high hopes. Capela had a solid season, posting career highs in points and rebounds, however there was one aspect of his game that failed to have the impact he had shown in previous seasons: rim protection.
Last season, Capela not only finished with the lowest block percentage of his career, but it was the first time he put up a block percentage of under 50 percent. His 43.8 percent from 2018-19 isn’t horrible, but it sandwiches him between names like Alex Len and Karl-Anthony Towns. Meanwhile, his 58.1 block percentage in the season before places him behind only six players among those playing at least 50 games in a season and ahead of names like Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid.
Capela held opponents to roughly the same shooting efficiency near the basket, but his ability to contest a shot and help create turnovers took a dip that will hopefully be more of a fluke than a trend that is expected to continue. With his rim running and lob catching offensive game not quite being the most multi-dimensional, being able to help his team and effect the game on the defensive end of the court is a must for Clint if he is to be playing at his best this season.
Eric Gordon – Is there potential for a 40+ percent 3-pt shooting season?
It was recently reported that Eric Gordon will likely fill out the starting five for the Houston Rockets, even after retaining Danuel House. This won’t be anything new, as Gordon started 53 out of the 68 games he played in last season. This proved to be a successful adjustment and something that continued into the playoffs.
Playing Gordon alongside the newly acquired Westbrook could even prove to be a more fruitful lineup, as Russ’ ability to drive and kick out could create endless catch-and-shoot opportunities for the former 3-point contest champion. If this is true, it is worth wondering if we could see EG offering a heightened shooting efficiency this season compared to the past few.
A career average 37.4 percent shooter from deep, he has only shot over 40 percent on 3’s once in his career, and better than 38 percent four times. It could certainly be expected to see him improve on his 36 percent shooting from last season though, as Westbrook and Harden are both two of the best at creating looks for their teammates.
P.J. Tucker – Can he lead the team to a top 10 defense?
There are no questions about what Tucker brings to the court individually, but his impact this season would serve the team most by maximizing his role as a leader on defense and in the locker room. The biggest difference between the Rockets in 2017-18 and 2018-19 came down to one stat: team defensive rating.
Their ability to operate as a historically great offense is a given but coupling that with top notch defense is what can make them a legitimate and formidable title contender. Last season they finished with the 17th best defense in the league, but if Tucker can help carry and motivate the team to operate closer to the defensive level they played at in 2017-18 when they finished with the sixth best defense, they will be tough to stop.