2017-18 Preview: Houston Rockets

By Darryl Howerton #21

Can James Harden and Chris Paul play together? Of course they can. Harden and Paul did pretty well as teammates for USA Basketball, winning gold at the 2012 Olympics. Think about how great these perennial All-NBA guards will be together…and apart. For 16 minutes every game, Paul can run the point guard position while Harden is resting. For another 16 minutes, while Paul rests, Harden is point guard. Then in the remaining 16 minutes—essentially the starts of first and third quarters and the ends of halftime and fourth quarters—the MVP candidates play as teammates, with Paul running his career-long quarterback position, while Harden assumes his career-long shooting guard. No team can match up with any of these situations on even ground. The Paul-Harden pairing is as unbeatable a combo as possible, replacing the Splash Brothers as the most dynamic in the game today. Can they play together?—what kind of question is that.

Rockets 2017-18 Ballhandlers Wings Bigs
Returners James Harden, Isaiah Taylor Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Troy Williams Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, Nene, Chinanu Onuaku
Newcomers Chris Paul P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, Tim Quarterman, Cameron Oliver Tarik Black, Zhou Qi
Gone Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Bobby Brown Sam Dekker Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer 
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Offense: In 2016-17, only the Golden State Warriors had a better offensive efficiency (113.2 points per 100 possessions) than the Houston Rockets (111.8), and remember those Warriors tied the 1986-87 Lakers from 30 years ago for best all-time efficiency. Now mix in Paul (led Clippers’ fourth-rated offense) with Harden’s playmaking/scoring skills—not to mention Houston’s record-breaking Rocket-launchers (1,181 three-pointers, breaking the NBA record by 103)—and one can easily see that we might be witnessing an offense that rivals the champion Warriors and Showtime Lakers. Eric Gordon (246 three-pointers at 37 percent), Ryan Anderson (204 at 40 percent) and Trevor Ariza (191 at 34 percent) are as complementary a set of shooters as any guard could play alongside. Uniting the fourth-best and seventh-best performers in offensive Real Plus-Minus should only speed things along for the NBA’s most intriguing team (Harden, +6.38; Paul, +5.16). Add in athletic rim divers Clint Capela and Chinanu Onuaku with strong-man Nene, and Houston certainly has plenty of centers who finish well and often at the basket (Capela shoots 79 percent of his shots within 0-3 feet of rim, making 72.5 percent; Nene, 64 percent of shots at rim, making 72.3 percent; Onuaku, 71 percent of shots at rim, making 80 percent).

Tim Warner/Getty Images

Defense: Last year’s Rockets ranked 18th in defense efficiency—allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions—which could be an indicator of how the 2017-18 Rockets fare on D. Granted, Beverley’s defensive ball-pressure skills will be missed, but the All-D guard is being replaced by a perennial All-Defense point guard in Paul. Caveat: At 32, Paul might be slowing down, especially on the defensive end. Adding tough-man forwards P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Mouse and Troy Williams only adds to the team’s resiliency. It’s not likely, but don’t be surprised if Houston actually becomes a top 10 D, thanks to all of these additions in depth (we’re looking at you, Onuaku, who averaged a combined 2.77 blocks/steals in the G-League). The Rockets may have their defensive weak links here and there—in Harden and Anderson—but nobody is an overall liability on this team, especially when you consider the scoring and spacing that Harden and Anderson give the Houston O. Plus, should Houston ever want to rest their stretch 4’s (Anderson or small forward Ariza) and go with traditional lineups, newcomers Tarik Black and Zhou Qi give head coach Mike D’Antoni a 6-9 rugged power forward and 7-1 shotblocking center who can really strengthen up the team’s D on a moment’s notice.

Upside: The team’s oldest player, 35-year-old Nene, is surrounded by young centers who still have not hit their full potential as defensive stoppers in this league. Capela, who had a +1.12 defensive RPM in 2016-17, is only 23 years old. Qi, who is making his NBA rookie debut, is 21. Onuaku, who has logged only 52 NBA minutes, is 20. Each one of these young men has All-Defense potential down the road, and as long as they aren’t complete liabilities on offense, will see plenty of action in 2017-18 as well.

Durability: Both longtime Rockets Harden and Ariza played 80-plus games the past three seasons, which pretty much sets the tone of what the Rockets are about. That said, the team slants slightly older now with the additions of Paul (32 years old), Tucker (32), Mbah a Moute (31) and Bobby Brown (33), so who knows if the old-heads may need an extra rest-and-recovery game here and there. Keith Jones, Rockets senior vice president of basketball operations and head athletic trainer, is one of the most respected men in the business and the miracles he works annually are so valuable to this team. Take last year for instance, when injury-prone, ex-Pelicans Gordon and Anderson were able to play 75 and 72 games for Houston, respectively.

Shane Beval/Getty Images

Synergy: Houston GM Daryl Morey broke up some of this team’s growing chemistry when he pulled a 4-for-1 trade with the Clippers to land Paul this summer. Harden and Ariza remain in the Rockets red as always, having logged 16,558 and 12,440 minutes respectively in Houston. Nobody else on this team has the corporate knowledge of this franchise. However, with a deep playoff run, it would not be surprising if five Rockets in total join the 5,000-Minute Club should Capela (3,569 minutes in Houston), Gordon (2,682) and Anderson (2,451) stay healthy throughout the 2017-18 season. Paul is a newcomer to the team, but he has logged minutes with Harden in international play so there shouldn’t be a steep learning curve.

Experience: Paul has been to the West Finals as a Clippers guard, while Harden has reached the 2012 Finals as a Thunder guard, but Ariza is the only Rocket who has been a part of an NBA championship team, starting at small forward for the 2009 Lakers. Consequently, those three vets—Paul, Harden and Ariza—rank 18th, 21st and 26th in NBA playoff experience among active players today. That may not stack up with the Warriors and Spurs of today, but it does give the Rockets the advantage over any other team’s trio out West.

Win Frame: 55-60 wins

2017-18 HOOP Season Preview

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