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James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Mike D'Antoni

Previewing the Houston Rockets’ 2019-20 NBA season

The Houston Rockets are coming off a 2018-19 NBA campaign in which they won 53 games and made it to the second round of the playoffs, where they were ultimately bounced by the Golden State Warriors.

The Rockets losing to the Warriors in the playoffs? We’ve never heard that one before.

But after losing to Golden State for the fourth time in five years, Daryl Morey decided to make a significant change, trading Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook in a blockbuster deal that we are all still trying to make sense of.

A big part of why Paul and James Harden did not succeed together in Houston was because of the fact that both are ball-dominant players, so how are Westbrook and Harden going to be any different?

If anything, Westbrook is one of the only players in this league who is every bit as ball-dominant as Harden, if not moreso. Unlike Paul, Westbrook doesn’t have the perimeter shot to compensate for it.

Obviously, Morey just wanted to make a major change to try to shake things up, but this feels like a last-ditch effort to save face after getting stomped by the Warriors for the last half-decade.

We should still give the Rockets a chance, because we have yet to see this team play together yet, but I am having a hard time believing this team is a legitimate contender. Not in a Western Conference that includes two vastly improved Los Angeles clubs, not to mention the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.

It’s not that Houston doesn’t have talent. Harden and Westbrook are All-Stars. Clint Capela has turned into an elite center. Eric Gordon is a very solid role player.

But the unorthodox fit (coupled with a lack of overall depth) leads me to believe this Rockets squad will, once again, end up bowing out in the second round of the playoffs, or possibly even earlier depending on their first-round matchup.

The Clippers, Lakers, Jazz and Nuggets all look like better teams than the Rockets, and the Portland Trail Blazers are that far behind.

As a result, expectations for Houston have to be tempered.

Morey can think the Rockets are legitimate title contenders all he wants, but they are probably no better than the fourth- or fifth-best team in the conference. Barring injuries to other teams or a stunning midseason trade, it’s difficult to envision Houston even being all that exciting.

The Rockets will be intriguing to watch, of course. Harden and Westbrook sharing the same backcourt? Of course that will make for interesting theater. But the rest of the roster is pretty bland, and at this point, Mike D’Antoni has run his course as an NBA head coach.

An offensive genius? Maybe, but his lack of a defensive mindset has dearly cost his teams in the past. Also, D’Antoni’s offense now basically consists of giving Harden the ball, letting him dribble out the shot clock and either hoist up a 3, draw a foul or desperately kick the ball out to a teammate on the perimeter.

While this has produced elite regular-season results, it hasn’t gotten the Rockets over the top in the postseason.

What made Morey think that bringing Westbrook into the picture would suddenly vault Houston past the upper-echelon teams in the West is still confusing to me.

The Rockets will probably win around 50 games again. That much is true.

Even if the fit is weird, there is too much talent here for Houston to not at least make the playoffs with a respectable regular season. Will the Rockets win 53 like this past year? Possibly, but let’s remember that the Westbrook-Paul George Thunder were not able to crack 50 wins either of the last two years, and this Rockets squad isn’t that much better than that team.

One thing is for sure: Houston certainly won’t be piling up 65 wins like it did two years ago, when the Rockets’ role players were having the best years of their lives and the Paul-Harden experiment was actually effective at the time.

Remember: Westbrook is not a perimeter shooter, and for a Harden-led team, that is a big deal.

Harden generally needs three shooters on the floor with him at all times. If Capela and Westbrook are both on the court with him, the Rockets’ spacing will be severely compromised.

Neither Harden nor Westbrook are accustomed to playing off the ball, and one of them will have to do so throughout the season.

The Rockets will be a key topic of discussion throughout most of the year, but don’t expect them to have the type of success they’re looking for.