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Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets’ Biggest Problems



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The NBA season begins tomorrow, and this is arguably Houston’s last chance for a ring.

If the team flames out in the second round like last season, it is hard to see how things will get better. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will begin the downslope of their careers. Mike D’Antoni will likely be gone. The team is the oldest in the league and does not have any amazing prospects waiting to develop.

The good news is that the Rockets have a puncher’s chance of winning a title. The bad news is that it remains only a puncher’s chance, with only one of ESPN’s journalists predicting that this team will even make the Western Conference Finals. The obvious question is what is holding this team back?

The lazy answer is that Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James are better than James Harden, but there is much more to it than that. Ultimately, the question comes around two things: depth and defense of his countertops.

The Clippers have Montrezl Harrell, who looks like he will probably win the Sixth Man of the Year award. The Lakers have a wide range of guards and wings who all fulfill different roles as the situation demands.

The Rockets by contrast have about six useful players in Harden, Westbrook, House, Covington, Tucker and Gordon. Eric Gordon will reportedly miss up to two weeks with an ankle injury according to Tim Bontemps, and he does not have a great injury recovery history.

After that, the Rockets are stuck depending on players like Jeff Green, Austin Rivers, and Ben McLemore. Maybe new acquisition Luc Mbah a Moute can make a comeback and contribute like did in 2018, but that was two years ago.

None of those bench players aside from perhaps Mbah a Moute are defensive stalwarts either, and that continues to be the issue plaguing this team over the entire season. Basketball Reference observes that while Houston has the 2nd best offense in the league, it ranked 15th on defense. It improved for a little while when the team enacted its smallball scheme, but was falling apart when the season halted. Perhaps with a few months of rest, the team will be able to use it again.

But the reality is that the fundamental defensive problems rest with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Their tendency to ball watch and not pay attention is well documented at this point. Covering one weak point is doable, which was exactly what the Rockets did in that incredible 2018 season. But Westbrook is no Chris Paul on the defensive end.

If the Rockets are going to pull off the unexpected and win, those are the two fundamental questions. Can and will this team give a major defensive effort in the playoffs when they failed to do so in the regular season? And who will be the next Rocket to step up, especially with Eric Gordon out for two weeks? If there are no good reasons, then that puncher’s chance will become zero chance.