The coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season four months ago, the equivalent of an entire offseason. It is easy to forget where everyone left off, let alone what has changed since we last saw them play basketball. In order to get you up to speed before the July 30 season re-opening slate at Walt Disney World in Orlando, we will be reviewing and previewing each of the 22 teams scheduled to participate.
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Where were the Houston Rockets?
Place: Sixth in the West
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey pushed his chips all in on small ball at the trade deadline, swapping Clint Capela for Robert Covington and signing a few more veteran wings to bolster his center-less rotation. It was a mixed bag in the 14 games before the break. A six-game winning streak bookended by victories against the Boston Celtics showed signs the experiment just might work, but the four-game losing streak that followed exposed the flaws of relying almost entirely on the 3-point shot.
At the very least, surrounding Russell Westbrook with four shooters unlocked the former MVP. In 11 games following the deadline, he averaged 31.7 points (on 55/39/73 shooting splits), 8.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists in 35.9 minutes a night. Fellow former MVP James Harden was equally productive, and any tandem that can regularly drop 60 points has a puncher’s chance to unseat anyone in a given series.
Who’s in and who’s out?
Out: Thabo Sefolosha (opt-out)
Westbrook remains quarantined following a positive COVID-19 test, and Harden only joined the Rockets on Thursday, citing a family obligation. Both expect to be in uniform for the restart. In addition to dealing for Covington, Morey acquired Bruno Caboclo at the deadline before signing vets Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll shortly thereafter. Tripling down on wings, the Rockets also signed David Nwaba and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to replace Sefolosha and backup center Isaiah Hartenstein, who was waived.
NBA Finals odds: +800
Championship odds: +1200
There is a massive onus on P.J. Tucker to defend opposing centers as a 6-foot-5 35-year-old who was battling a shoulder injury when the season was suspended. He has been an ironman since returning to the NBA from overseas in 2012, missing only eight games over the past eight seasons, and he must continue to be in order for the Rockets to have any chance of advancing deep into the West playoffs.
The new small-ball starting lineup — Harden, Westbrook, Covington, Tucker and Danuel House — has outscored opponents at a blistering clip of 12.4 points per 100 possessions in a not-insignificant sample size. Remove Tucker from that equation, and things begin to fall apart. Nobody else on the roster has the strength and skill to raise Houston’s ceiling as a small-ball threat quite like Tucker. Houston has tried Covington and Green at the five, among others, to less success in smaller stints, and leaning more on a 37-year-old Tyson Chandler would be wishful thinking when he has played only 219 minutes this season.
One other player who could significantly improve Houston’s chances is Eric Gordon, whose knees have limited his impact once again. He is shooting at his worst clip since an injury-plagued 2011-12 campaign, and the athleticism he showed he still had in last year’s playoffs has been diminished as well. If the time off served both aspects of his game well, the Rockets have yet another flamethrower in their arsenal.
All times Eastern
July 31: Dallas Mavericks, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 2: Milwaukee Bucks, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Aug. 4: Portland Trail Blazers, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 6: Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 9: Sacramento Kings, 8 p.m.
Aug. 11: San Antonio Spurs, 2 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 12: Indiana Pacers, 4 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 14: Philadelphia 76ers, TBD
The Rockets realistically could face any one of the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder or Dallas Mavericks in the first round. The Clippers should put fear into the Rockets, because they can beat Houston at their own game. Harden and Co. are more likely to meet one of the other four teams, and they have the firepower to leverage mismatches against all of their best bigs, even if Nikola Jokic and Kristaps Porzingis pose similar mismatches on the other end. The Jazz and Mavs are both missing starters, especially limiting their ability to counter a Houston barrage.
OKC’s three-point-guard lineups would be an interesting matchup, especially since it would pit Harden and Westbrook against Chris Paul on their former team. Paul helped Harden to a Western Conference finals before their relationship soured to the point it necessitated Houston’s trade for Westbrook. But depth on the wing has long plagued the Thunder, and that can be a bigger problem against the Rockets.
Houston’s success will depend on how often it can pummel you with 3-pointers and avoiding a cold streak in a high-leverage game like the one that ended its 2018 playoff run. The Rockets can avoid that altogether in the first round, but it is ridiculous to think they can survive the Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks without their slim margin of error haunting them. In all likelihood, they will meet one of the two L.A. teams in the second round, and they should hope it is the Lakers, whose size creates a chess game the Rockets can win — their best chance of reaching a third conference finals in six years.
Yahoo Sports NBA prediction
Place: Fourth in the West
Finish: Western Conference semifinals loss
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