Are the New-Look Houston Rockets a Title-Contender?
After essentially trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington at the deadline, the Rockets have put all of their chips in on a ‘small ball’ dominant approach. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown favoritism toward smaller lineups throughout his tenure in Houston, but the veteran coach’s fire has returned due to the organization’s buy-in on his system. Golden State won three titles in four seasons by incorporating similar tactics, but the roster construction was a lot different than what Houston is working with right now. The question is, can “rocket ball” make the Rockets a true title contender? Let’s break it down.
Starters: G James Harden, G Russell Westbrook, F Danuel House Jr, F Robert Covington, F PJ Tucker
Reserves: G Eric Gordon, F Thabo Sefolosha, G Ben McLemore, G Austin Rivers
Since acquiring Covington, Houston has sported a 2-2 record. The wins came against the Celtics and Lakers. The losses came against the Suns and Jazz.
Small ball has shown early signs of being highly successful, despite being unconventional. The major concern with being in the Western Conference is guarding opposing big men: Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, etc. Even with Capela gone, Houston has two tremendous defenders in Tucker and Covington.
Another concern is rebounding; throughout the four games since the new system was implemented, the Rockets are getting out-rebounded by approximately nine boards per game. To alleviate some of the damage, the team’s ability to cause turnovers has been key; Houston has caused just under 18 opponent turnovers during the stretch.
Playing to their strengths has been successful most of the time, therefore I am not alarmingly worried about rebounding due to turnovers caused, but fatigue is my concern. The Rockets have five key players currently averaging over 30 minutes per game, with Harden and Westbrook over 35. Small ball calls for a larger team effort due to lack of size, but Houston needs to take some of the wear off the top guys. We’ve seen in the recent postseasons that the two superstars have become gassed, and a rigorous minutes log in the regular season won’t help the cause.
Houston needs to be big players in the buyout market. The two remaining roster spots need to be given to proven contributors that can enhance the Rockets’ size and toughness while assuring the main guys some desired rest. Some options could include Evan Turner, Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe, and John Henson. Former Rocket Kenneth Faried and Jeff Green should get a look in the free agency market as well.
So, is Houston a title contender? The verdict is still out. The Harden-Westbrook duo has been effective since the beginning. The defensive tandem of PJ and RoCo will do wonders for the team’s defense. House Jr, Rivers, McLemore, and Sefolosha are all solid rotational pieces; Gordon is a luxury to have coming off the bench and can assist in scoring if healthy. Houston needs to reduce to the minutes of their top guys, either via buyout market or free agency. The underlying parameter will be effort; Space City will be forced to exert maximum effort and toughness night in and night out on both ends of the court, in order for Rocket ball to be successful.