By: Zack Lambert
Russell Westbrook, Austin Rivers, James Harden, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, PJ Tucker, Danuel House, Gary Clark, Clint Capela, Tyson Chandler, Ben McLemoreThabo Sefolosha, Ryan Anderson, Nenê
One of the biggest transactions of the summer involved Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul in the infamous swap. Tyson Chandler was the only large acquisition outside of the trade as most of the signings were retentions. Rivers, House, Green, Nenê, and Gordon all returned with Eric Gordon getting a nice extension as well.
If you’re paying the most in the world to field your team, you best win. That’s the scenario for the Rockets right now. With Westbrook and Harden both on the supermax and Capela, Gordon, and Nenê all at or over $10 million, this team is swamped. The Rockets are paying its players over $151 million in salary which is well over the $109 million cap. There is very little wiggle room and the roster will likely look very similar at the end of the season.
Team Breakdown and Play Style
Russell Westbrook is normally a fly up and down the court and take whatever shot you feel like type of player, but that might change this year. He’ll likely have to take a more traditional point guard role and find good shots or driving lanes off the ball, which is something he’s never done. Austin Rivers is a really bad shooter, but that doesn’t matter in James Harden’s offense. Rivers likes to push the pace when he can and does good work around the basket. If you convert his 3s taken into effective shooting percentage, all of a sudden that volume shooting he does becomes much more valuable in D’Antoni’s offensive scheme.
Eric Gordon is a good shooter that truly understands his role in the Harden first, check 3s second offense that Houston runs. He accepts that his job there is to get out of Harden’s way and bombard the basket, and he does it really well all things considered. Tucker was really good from range and even better near the basket, but his midrange was not good. Luckily, that isn’t a part of the system. Gerald Green will be the backup to Gordon and is a good complement in that he runs a bit more on the break while keeping the level of shooting consistent. He often replaces Capela in small ball lineups and will be a leader off the bench.
Harden is just Harden. He does everything except defend. He’s one of the best scorers to ever play the game and he has a good eye for finding his teammates for open shots. The way he draws both defenders and fouls is unparalleled. He should not change his playstyle just because Westbrook is on the team. In the rare occasions that Harden is off the floor, Danuel House Jr. will replace him. House is one of the most efficient shooters in the league and is absolutely terrific for the Rockets. He works hard on defense and makes a ton of shots. He’s the perfect replacement for Harden when Westbrook will be running the offense.
PJ Tucker isn’t the prototypical stretch 4 but he plays the role well. He isn’t a natural shooter but has turned himself into an efficient one during his tenure with the Rockets. He doesn’t run in the break well and finds his best work in half court sets playing off of Harden’s lead. A ridiculous 73% of his points come off the 3 so it’s safe to say he works well in the system. Gary Clark is a poor shooter but does well when he plays by just avoiding the ball. On defense, however, he is really efficient and does a good job at picking up whatever slack other players are leaving at that end of the court. He’s the defensive leader of the 2nd unit.
Clint Capela is one of the best pick and roll centers in the NBA and will have another partner in Westbrook. He’s a great roller and had a great eye for picking up rebounds while also being a good defender and rim protector on defense. Harden gets blown by a lot so being able to regularly influence shot is a huge asset on this team. Tyson Chandler may never retire. He doesn’t play a big role in the offense but is a good rebounder and rim protector in the stead of Capela. He sets good screens and that’s what matters to Harden.
This team is going to play a lot of 1 on 1. Harden is really good at it and Westbrook thinks he’s really good at it, so that’s what we’ll see a lot of. Either an extra defender will come off of another player to double or someone will be forced to help when the ball handler drives. Either way there will be a lot of kick and shoot options and kick and drive lanes, so there will be a ton of assisted shots if your name isn’t James Harden.
This team has to win now. The ownership wants a championship, the coaching staff needs a championship, and the players are dying to get there. The issue is that we have no idea how this team will mesh. Regardless, the West has never been more wide open and this team should be able to score better than nearly everyone else in the league. Their goal is to win a title and anything else should be a monumental, colossal, expensive failure in the eyes of everyone invested.
What to Watch for
How Harden and Westbrook can play together. This is the same situation as when Chris Paul came to the roster, but this time it’s an even more ball dominant player. Both players had a usage rate in the mid-30s so finding a balance that involves the rest of the team will be vital. There were reported rifts at the end of Paul’s tenure so the same thing happening with Westbrook isn’t that far fetched. Combine that with Westbrook’s recently terrible shot selection and you have a divide waiting to happen. Fingers crossed that they can work it out because it would be really fun to watch.
The Rockets are estimated to have 53.5 wins this year according to Vegas. That’s a lot for the West, but I actually think it might be too few for this team in particular. They’re going to fight hard for home court in the playoffs and should be in the top 4 seeds. I really see them as the 2 or 3 in the West with anywhere from 57-61 wins. They have to go all in this year and this is their opportunity.