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The 2019-20 NBA season is finally here, and Hot Take SZN is in full effect, so at the end of another eventful summer we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
[Hot takes we might actually believe: The Lakers are wildly overrated • The 76ers are Eastern Conference locks • The Clippers are overwhelming title favorites • The Nets will be worse than last season • The Warriors are still legit contenders]
The Houston Rockets’ path to contention is pretty straightforward: Ride James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and bank on one of the NBA’s most talented five-man units to carry a Western Conference that no longer boasts an overwhelming favorite. Only thrice before Harden and Westbrook have two of the last three MVPs been paired on the same team — Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, Moses Malone and Julius Erving, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant — and all three won championships together.
But those tandems complemented each other in a way Harden and Westbrook do not, and that is just one of the ways another Rockets season could go south. By all accounts, the mood in Houston’s locker room is an upgrade over their last two playoff runs, which is no surprise, given the swap of Harden’s rift with Chris Paul for his longstanding relationship with Westbrook. But the on-court chemistry between the two ball-dominant stars is chief among the many questions still lingering over the Rockets.
The answer as their season opens on Thursday? "We don't know yet," Harden told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. "Just figure it out."
Harden and Westbrook own the two highest single-season usage rates in NBA history. The former is among the league’s most efficient high-usage players ever, and the latter is among its least efficient. The Rockets are banking on their historic production as half- and open-court scorers, respectively, forming a relentless attack. Just as likely, though, is that Westbrook’s effectiveness is lost playing off Harden in Houston’s Moreyball system, if not worse. Teams sagged off Westbrook as he camped out on the 3-point line in the preseason, and that strategy at least gives opposing defenses a fighter’s chance at helping on Harden.
The result through four preseason games together was a 2-2 record. Westbrook shot 26.9 percent from distance on 6.5 attempts per game, averaging 16.3 points and more turnovers than assists. This can be attributed to a small sample size, tinkering in training camp and/or a second right knee scope in as many offseasons, which prevented him from scrimmaging throughout the summer. It can also be attributed to Westbrook’s sub-30 percent 3-point shooting in four of his last five seasons — to say nothing of concerns that follow any 30-year-old with a growing list of knee issues whose stardom depends on his explosiveness.
None of this is to say the Rockets will not be good. They will win a lot of games in the regular season, staggering the minutes of their two star floor generals to ensure that one of them is on the floor at all times and both of them share the ball for less than half the game. But what happens in the playoffs, where Harden and Westbrook will be on the floor more often as they again try together to advance further than either could on his own? Will their playoff failures be mitigated or multiplied by this reunion? This is not the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder, with whom Harden deferred to both Westbrook and Kevin Durant as a sixth man.
In addition to the possibility that Westbrook could be a downgrade from Paul as a partner to Harden, there are questions about depth beyond Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela — a quintet as formidable as any other in the NBA, at least on paper.
A 37-year-old Tyson Chandler and G League stud Isaiah Hartenstein are the center options behind Capela, who has missed extensive time due to bone fractures in two of his last three seasons. A potential season-ending injury to Gerald Green limits their options to play Tucker as a small-ball center — lineups that have been remarkably effective in recent years. That means increased reliance on Danuel House, Thabo Sefolosha and Ben McLemore on the wings. Ryan Anderson and Austin Rivers have résumés that suggest they could be reliable front- and backcourt reserves, respectively, but each took a step back last season.
The trade for Westbrook, which sent out two future first-round picks and another pair of pick swaps, limits Houston’s ability to be active on the trade market. Morey will surely be active on the waiver wire and buyout market, but in all likelihood this is the core we see enter the playoffs in April. They may well be a home playoff seed, but they are one reliant on Harden and Westbrook succeeding together against a handful of teams that just make better sense from a top-down roster construction standpoint.
Much of the hype around Houston has to do with their historically productive offense, but what elevated them from playoff also-ran to true contender is a defense that operated at an elite level with Paul slotted in alongside Harden. Westbrook is a capable defender, but not nearly the perennial All-Defensive talent Paul was upon arriving in Houston, and the 2017 MVP has all too often taken possessions off on that end — an understandable criticism also levied at Harden, considering the offensive burden on them. Maybe sharing those responsibilities will allow them to give greater effort defensively, but old dogs, new tricks and all that.
What’s more, assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik — the architect of the switch-heavy defense that made Houston so successful — has parted ways with the Rockets for good this time. He left after helping Houston to a seventh-ranked defense in 2017-18, but was lured back after the Rockets began last season with the seventh-worst defense. They went on to own the second-best defensive rating after the All-Star break. Bzdelik was among those fired in a massive overhaul of head coach Mike D’Antoni’s staff in May.
The staff changes were made by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and not D’Antoni, whose own option for this season was reportedly picked up by owner Tilman Fertitta and not Morey. It all culminated in a bizarre public negotiation that left D’Antoni as a lame-duck coach in a crucial season for Houston. That makes corralling a pair of headstrong superstars all the more difficult.
If that were not enough of an off-the-court distraction, Morey became embroiled in an international incident between China and the NBA over anti-communist protests in Hong Kong and freedom of speech. This is a story that will continue to follow Houston so long as the franchise is severely impacted by Morey’s tweet. Neither Fertitta nor Harden endorsed Morey’s pro-Hong Kong stance. Quite the opposite. None of this may manifest itself on the court for the Rockets this season, but it is at least one more reason to think there is a potential for volatility if the owner, front office, coaching staff and players cannot get on the same page.
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