NBA Season Preview: Houston Rockets

2019-20 Regular Season Record: 44-28 (.611%), 4th in Western Conference, Lost in 2nd Rd.
Head Coach: Mike D'Antoni 

The small-ball experiment kicked into high gear during the 2019-20 season, and no team exemplified the new-age NBA more than the Houston Rockets. Leading the league in 3-point attempt rate (the percentage of FG attempts from 3-point range) at 50.1%, the Rockets upped the anti when they traded Clint Capela as part of a 4-team trade to acquire Robert Covington, who averaged 7.6 3-point attempts for the Rockets. That placed him 3rd on the team, next to Eric Gordon’s 8.4 and James Harden’s 12.4 attempts (leading the NBA). Russell Westbrook’s first season away from the Thunder was interesting – his scoring picked up from the previous seasons as he was a more accurate scorer, but it was his first season with less than 10 apg & rpg since the 2014-15 season. While the Rockets were 40-24 at the COVID-forced stoppage of play, they only went 4-4 in the pre-playoff bubble games and struggled to get past the OKC Thunder in 7 games of their 1st round series. Once past the Thunder, they were overmatched by LeBron James and the Lakers in 5 games. 

How will the Wall/Harden Partnership Work? 

James Harden is going to have a new running mate in the back court for the 3rd successive year. Chris Paul came and went. So did Russell Westbrook. Enter John Wall. One of the quickest players in the league with the ball, Wall is set to come back to NBA action after nearly two full years away while recovering from surgeries to his left heel and Achilles. After ten years in Washington, Wall leaves as the franchise’s all-time leader in assists and steals, averaging 19.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 9.2 apg & 1.7 spg during his tenure. Can he be the same John Wall that we saw five straight All-Star Games? Can he still be the fastest player on the court? If so, that’s one part of the equation. He will also need to adapt to a new team in a new city. In order to thrive he will have to co-exist with James Harden, which should be a reasonable transition for him to make – he’s worked in tandem with Bradley Beal for the last eight years. There’s no reason to doubt that the Harden/Wall combo will light up scoreboards around the country – Harden is on a 3-year run for the ages from a scoring standpoint, as he has scored 30.4 ppg, 36.1 ppg & 34.3 ppg in succession, while leading the league each of those years. Hopefully for the Rockets, the two players can develop the kind of chemistry that leads to the success they’re looking for – playoff success. 

Rookie Coach Stephen Silas

Stephen Silas is getting a chance that is reminiscent of Nick Nurse’s run with the Raptors. Having been an assistant coach for two decades, he is finally getting the chance to run the show with a perennial 50-win team that is loaded with talent. Having worked with the likes of Stephen Curry, Kemba Walker and Luka Doncic, Silas brings his creative flair to an offense that needs to reshape its identity. He’ll be able to add both Harden and Wall to the list of uber-talented guards he’s coached. Throw in a potentially rejuvenated DeMarcus Cousins and this offense will look like a different form of scary. Cousins hasn’t played a game since the NBA Finals in June, 2019 but should be able to adapt his game to suit not only the Rockets, but the new-age NBA. Silas should be able to tap the potential of Harden, Wall and Cousins to get the most out of them, and take this roster to playoff success. 

Tom’s Take: DeMarcus Cousins will win the NBA Comeback player of the year award.

Can Christian Wood Continue his Breakout?

Christian Wood was a revelation for the Detroit Pistons in the 9 games following the All-Star Game last year. The 6"10', 215 lb. power forward from UNLV averaged 24.0 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.0 spg & 1.0 bpg with very good percentages – a respectable 38.9% from 3-point land and 57.1% overall. While a small sample size, it was enough for the Rockets to sign him to a lucrative 3-year, $41M contract. Paired with James Harden and John Wall in the pick-and-roll, Wood should be devastating. He was one of the best in the league at scoring points as the roll man last season, and the Rockets were dead last. Something’s got to give. With Wood’s ability to play above the rim, his soft touch and outside range, expect big things from the former Runnin’ Rebel. Will he be able to post the type of numbers from his last 9 games in Detroit? More than likely not. However, with so much attention paid to willing distributors Wall & Harden, Wood will have his chances to have massive nights and lead the Rockets. 

Photo Credit: Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire