Instead, new GM Rafael Stone and new Head Coach Stephen Silas were immediately thrust into the fire, quickly having to make the most of a disjointed, expensive roster with rumored chemistry issues. As it stands now, the Rockets – filled with some familiar faces as well as many new additions – have an exciting and more youthful team, but one with many questions.
To help answer those questions, a group of our contributors here at Clutch City Control Room offered some of their thoughts on the preseason and what to expect from this Rockets team moving forward.
1. Should the Rockets trade Harden now or ride it out?
Itamar: It depends on the package. If they get the Godfather offer they’re looking for from the 76ers, then trade him. But if you’re not getting a trade offer you deem worthy for a player of James Harden‘s caliber, especially if he’s willing to give this team a chance, keep him.
Chris: Unless the Rockets receive some sort of godfather-esque offer, it makes the most sense to wait. Not to spite Harden (or Morey potentially), but because factually speaking, the potential asset pool increases once everyone who signed a free-agent deal this offseason becomes eligible to trade. With more players available to acquire, Houston’s leverage only increases. Plus, if teams like Philadelphia or Brooklyn get off to bad starts, they may get desperate and offer more than they’d be originally willing to otherwise.
Hayden: If the value is there, yes. We’ve seen in recent days that, seemingly, trade talks have expanded. This is great for the Rockets’ leverage as they try to get a package revolving a Ben Simmons-caliber type of player. Throughout this process, I think I’ve been a little more eager to move him now as opposed to holding on to him for the deadline or into next summer, simply because I’m ready for the franchise to move on. But with that being said, you absolutely have to wait for the right package to come along.
Michael: Ride it out. There’s so many unknown quantities on this roster, including James with a revamped style of play, that its worth seeing how the situation plays out. Whatever teams are willing to trade now, those offers will look similar in February.
Zach: At the end of the day, trading away a top-3 player is not going to net you equal value, no matter how good the return package is. With that being said, it really comes down to whether or not the Rockets want to give it one more go for a championship, or start to stockpile assets and younger players a year earlier. Me personally? I vote give it a go with Harden.
2. What impressed you the most from the preseason?
Itamar: Christian Wood‘s 27 Point, 10 Rebound performance. Yes, it was just 1 game, but Wood showcased the type of skillset that could make him an offensive star as a big. His ball-handling, finishing and shooting ability was highly impressive, and could make him the perfect counterpart to James Harden from the center position.
Chris: Imagine turning on a preseason game in 2020 and seeing John Wall and Demarcus Cousins look like the 2016/17 versions of themselves after such extended layoffs. It’s an extremely small sample size of course, but it appears as though Stephen Silas has gotten (almost) everyone to buy in. It’s been impressive watching a first-year head coach get a team to start to gel within such an outlier of an offseason. That bodes well for this franchise moving forward.
Hayden: I was going to say Wall and Boogie’s strong returns from their achilles injuries, but then Christian Wood dropped 27 and 10 in his preseason debut. Oh, and he did it in just 24 minutes. This man seems like everything we were praying he’d be and more.
Michael: Ben McLemore Midrange Game. Last year, McLemore was mostly a spot up shooter and didn’t attempt a single midrange shot until the bubble; but in the preseason, he showed a new level of comfort attacking off the dribble, coming off screens, and converting an impressive 4/5 of his midrange jump shot attempts. The new levels of versatility adds yet another dimension to the Rockets’ offense.
Zach: Stephen Silas. From the first preseason game, this entire Rockets team has looked engaged and energized. Leading a roster filled with new faces while surrounded by trade rumor drama is no easy task – especially for a first year Head Coach – but Silas seems to be building team chemistry while also adding new dimensions to the offense.
3. What do the Rockets need to work on most coming into the start of the season?
Itamar: Their on-court chemistry. It’s to be expected at this stage of the season, but the Rockets are suffering from a staggering lack of continuity, replacing their coach and 2 of their top 3 players from last season. It will take time to develop chemistry between the newcomers and the longer tenured Rockets, especially when John Wall and Christian Wood, the 2 biggest acquisitions of the off-season, have yet to play a single game together.
Chris: Learning each other’s tendencies and how to play with or around them. What made those Warriors (yes, I know we hate them) teams so great is that they were truly a cohesive unit. Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Iguadola and Green knew what the others would do at all times. It allowed some players to cover up defensive holes or be ready to help in certain sets. If this team can continue to develop real chemistry, they could be dangerous.
Hayden: If you’re looking for a question mark (outside of James Harden) on this team, it has to be defense. The Rockets have a few very solid individual defensive pieces, but other than that, we have quite a few unknowns at the top of the lineup. Wall has made an all-defense team before, but what defensive value does he bring currently? I don’t think Boogie is a negative on defense, but likely isn’t the anchor you need. And Christian Wood has shown signs of switch ability and rim protection, but we need to see those things play out over the course of a full season.
Michael: Spacing on offense. Non-participants off ball in the Lakers series were often just as detrimental as non-shooters, and having all five players engaged on every possession – with or without the basketball – is essential to the team’s success. Harden moved a lot more and took more spot up attempts with Christian Wood in their first game together, and this is a positive trend that has to continue.
Zach: Defining a rotation. It was recently reported that Eric Gordon would come off the bench (a sigh of relief for every Rockets fan), but outside of that, there’s been no indication as to how minutes will be distributed to what is a deeper team than we’ve seen in year’s past. Which of the young wing players will actually carve out a consistent role in the rotation? Additionally, there is still no real backup PG on the roster, and it’s unclear if someone like Sterling Brown will take over that role or if the Harden-Wall minutes will be heavily staggered.
4. Which player will be the biggest X factor this season?
Itamar: Eric Gordon. It’s been true in every season since his arrival, and this one is no different. Although his point of attack defense isn’t as needed, trading for John Wall – whose usage rate is lower than Westbrook’s – and the Rockets’ lack of a back up point guard will ensure a larger role for EG in the offense. His 3 point shooting, combined with his slashing ability, makes him a dangerous offensive threat who’s capable of being the 2nd leading scorer on any given night.
Chris: Rockets’ twitter fan favorite Christian Wood. Last season with the Pistons, Wood came on strong after Blake Griffin’s unfortunate knee injury. But, Wood had never played more than 21 games in a season during the prior 5 seasons. He’s got the size and skill to form an incredible duo with Boogie this season, but it comes with risk. If Detroit Wood shows up, Houston has a solid foundational piece, but if Wood regresses to his Milwaukee or Philly days, this could be a disastrous signing for Houston.
Hayden: Boogie Cousins. In the short preseason, we’ve seen how deadly Cousins can be from long range. If he can continue to shake off the rust, stay healthy and be the stretch-playmaking big that he’s capable of, he could be an absolute nightmare for other teams’ second units. Last year, the Rockets suffered from a lack of viable bench play. There’s a chance that Boogie can solve a lot of those problems.
Michael: David Nwaba. The Rockets were 15th in defensive rating prior to the Robert Covington trade, and going small + Covington allowed the team to reach new defensive heights (1st in the bubble in DFRTG, 3rd in the playoffs). Nwaba will have to replace the help/off ball defensive wizardry of Covington for the Rockets to reach their full potential.
Zach: I mean, James Harden? James Harden’s effort level (provided he is not traded) will be the defining aspect of the Rockets’ season. If his body language is bad and he’s not playing defense, this could be nothing more than a play-in team. But if he’s playing hard and willing to give this younger roster a chance, there’s really no telling how far this team can go.
5. What is the ideal closing lineup?
Itamar: Wall-Harden-Gordon-Tucker-Wood. The lineup which consists of your 5 best players is typically the one you’d rather have on the floor to close out a game, and this one offers great offensive versatility, as well as defenders who are capable of stringing good defensive possessions together when it counts.
Chris: In a perfect world where health and progress is a given, we’re getting a closing lineup of Wall-Harden-House-Wood-Cousins. The versatility of that lineup could go toe-to-toe with any other in the league on a nightly basis.
Hayden: Wall-Harden-Tucker-Wood-Cousins. Looking forward to the playoffs, the Rockets will have to contend against teams like the Lakers and Nuggets who beat you with size. This closing lineup keeps the scoring ability in tact while also putting as much size on the floor as possible.
Michael: Wall-Harden-EG-Tucker-Wood. I would change this lineup if Cousins is a plus defender or if one of the wings (Nwaba, House, Tate, Brown) has an outstanding start to the season. Otherwise, this is the most realistic closing 5.
Zach: Wall-Harden-Gordon-Tucker-Wood. I think that Tucker is a must here, as the Rockets will need some semblance of defense coming down the stretch. As for Gordon vs House, I went with Gordon because I feel that – at least right now – he is a more capable offensive player and can help pull defensive pressure away from Harden and Wood. I might need to revise if he starts chucking, though.
6. Record and playoff predictions? (Reminder: 72-game season)
Itamar: 42-30, 5 seed, 2nd round exit.
Chris: This is, of course, dependent on if Harden is there and engaged throughout the season, but this feels like a 47-25 record. Unfortunately, the playoffs will likely feature a similar story to last season – a second round out against a team like the Lakers. I’d love to be wrong here though.
Hayden: If Harden stays and if there aren’t any major injuries, 45-27. 2nd round exit to the Lakers.
Michael: 45-27, Exit in the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
Zach: If everyone’s healthy, I have a weird optimism about this team. 48-24, top-3 seed, push to at least a Conference Finals.
If you appreciate the consistent digital and podcast breakdowns, analysis, speculation, guest voices and camaraderie of our team, please consider one of our monthly Patreon subscription options available here.
While covering hoops is our collective passion, passion unfortunately doesn’t help keep the lights on.