Rare is the NBA team that can narrow its focus down to just one target, its obstacles to just one hurdle. But that’s where the Houston Rockets are. After their dominant 65-17 season in 2017-18, in which the bearded marvel James Harden won the league’s Kia Most Valuable Player award and won over even more fans with his ability to blend seamlessly with fellow All-Star ball dominator Chris Paul, the mission is entirely streamlined: Capture the Larry O’Brien trophy that goes to NBA champions by getting past the rather formidable Golden State Warriors. Yeah, that’s all.
Leave it to Rockets GM Daryl Morey not to sleep on a top contender that had already improved its victory total by 10 from the year before. Some of the moves were driven by need this time, with the notable departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. Still, Morey managed to trade the $36 million left on Ryan Anderson’s contract in a deal with Phoenix for forward Marquese Chriss and guard Brandon Knight. He picked up what might prove to be an undervalued piece in James Ennis. And he added a big name long coveted by the Rockets – Carmelo Anthony – to add even more firepower to arguably the league’s most potent offense. Even as this preview was going to post, Morey was reported to be calculating ways Houston might acquire Minnesota All-Star Jimmy Butler.
1. Will the defense rest? People expect a roster of scorers and shooters coached by Mike D’Antoni to put up dazzling offensive numbers. But what separated the Rockets from their previous incarnations last season was the stinginess of their defense. In limiting foes to 103.9 points per game, a relative trifle next to its own production, Houston ranked sixth. But with Ariza and Mbah a Moute gone? A year after Patrick Beverley’s departure? That’s the challenge, to not have on-ball and team defense sag now that those vets have relocated.
2. Do it again, James Harden and Chris Paul. It’s not that we doubt the commitment to winning or the willingness to blend their talents that the two stellar guards showed so impressively last season. It’s the wear and tear on both of them, Harden from the workload he’s carried the past few seasons and Paul for the fact that he’s 33 and 13 years into this with more than a few breakdowns already under his belt. We saw what happened when Paul got hurt against the Warriors in the West finals.
3. Hope he knows there’s no Fifth Man Award. Eric Gordon, when healthy, has been a dangerous scorer off the bench and was the NBA’s Sixth Man winner in 2017. But early camp projections had him in the starting lineup this season as a way to maximize both the starters’ skills and free that bench role for Anthony.
MAN ON THE SPOT
Carmelo Anthony. Whenever the prospect of coming off the bench has come up in Anthony’s career, it has been met with direct, headstrong resistance. The only time it worked – beautifully, by the way – was in his stints with Team USA in the Olympics. If his view of the talented Houston roster allows him to see this role similarly, while accepting the state of his game at age 34, then this shift could do wonders for Melo and his new team. If not?
Chris Paul | 18.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 7.9 apg
Not unlike LeBron, Paul has aged like fine wine.
James Harden | 30.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 8.8 apg
Keeps defenders and fans guessing at what’s next.
Clint Capela | 13.9 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 1.9 bpg
Got paid for his running, finishing, boards and blocks.
Eric Gordon | 18.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.2 apg
A net rating of plus-10.3 topped Houston regulars.
P.J. Tucker | 6.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 0.9 apg
Grit and defense more vital on changing roster.
Carmelo Anthony | 16.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.3 apg
Seeing himself as X-factor may make it so.
James Ennis | 7.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.0 apg
Energy and floor-burn guy brings SF spark.
Gerald Green | 12.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 0.6 apg
‘Little things’ key to deep-career revival.
Grinding through an entire NBA preseason, regular season and preliminary playoff rounds, all just to make it to another clinching game in the Western Conference finals, could be a grueling way to slog through the year. Then again, it might help to stay fixated on one identifiable goal. This is all about reaching (and then winning) the Finals. Having Chris Paul available for a Game 7 against Golden State and shooting better than 7-of-44 from the arc would be advisable, but the Rockets can address that in May. Expected W-L record: 61-21.