By: Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane)
After a summer filled with rumors, trades, signings and sales, the Rockets finally begin their 2017-18 season tonight in Oakland. After a successful 55-win season followed by a disappointing playoff exit, the Rockets enter this campaign with a new owner, point guard, a bunch of new wings, and a fresh set of questions. Here’s what I think are the biggest:
Can James Harden and Chris Paul co-exist?
So far, things are off to a great start. The two have seemingly been connected at the hip since the June 28 trade that brought Paul to the Rockets, but the true test starts when the games begin. I think Paul will be good for Harden. He’ll hold Harden accountable the way no teammate has before because he’s the most accomplished player Harden has played with, but in a basketball sense, it won’t be easy. Paul is going to be asked to play off the ball more than he ever has before, how does he handle not having as much control as he’s used to? Paul likes to play at a slower pace and use up more of that shot clock. Will that work with Harden and Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni? When LeBron James and Dwyane Wade first joined up in Miami seven years ago, their offense devolved into “my turn, his turn”, can D’Antoni avoid that with his two stars and have them both involved in every possession? We all know Harden and Paul can run a team on their own, but can they be just as good, if not better when they share the floor?
Did D’Antoni learn from the Spurs series?
For years and years and years the Rockets have been all about layups and three-pointers with nothing in between. They have taken the league’s fewest mid-range shots each of the last five seasons, hoisting up just seven per game last season. Per NBA.com, that’s the fewest number of mid-range shots taken in a season that they have on record, which goes back to 1996-97, and it’s just the second time a team has taken less than 10 per game, and no surprise, that was the 2014-15 Rockets, but teams know this, and in the Western Conference semifinal loss to San Antonio, the Spurs took advantage. They defended the three-ball, and the rim. Gregg Popovich and company left everything else open, but the Rockets couldn’t/wouldn’t take advantage. They passed on good looks which just resulted in taking bad shots and turnovers. Paul is one of the best mid-range shooters in the league as noted below:
Will the Rockets be more willing to take these shots to counter the way the Spurs, and now other teams will try and guard them? If you go by the preseason, the answer is no. The Rockets took 1.8 mid-range shots per pretend game, but then again, those were pretend games.
Can Clint Capela take the next step?
After the Rockets playoff exit and before the Paul trade, general manager Daryl Morey was asked who, if anyone on his team could one day join Harden on the All Star team. Capela was his answer. “I’m not trying to say that he’s for sure going to be an all star, that’s too much pressure to put on him at age 22, or whatever he is, but he’s got a chance,” Morey said on May 12. Capela took a big leap last season in every statistical category, but the biggest area that D’Antoni wants to see him improve in his fourth NBA season isn’t points, rebounds, blocks, or even free throw percentage. It’s minutes. He played less than 24 minutes a game last season, and D’Antoni explained why last month. “I told him, I take him out because you look tired, you look laboring out there. You’re not running the floor, and he says well, I need to play, no you don’t until you get it up, so his next step is that, and I think he will.” The best case scenario would have Capela increase his workload to 30 minutes this season, but the more realistic goal is 28. However many minutes he plays this season, one things is for sure: this is a big season for the Swiss big-man. He will be a restricted free agent next summer.
What is D’Antoni’s crunch-time lineup?
You can guarantee that three of the spots will be occupied by Harden, Paul, and Trevor Ariza, but what about the other two? The Rockets coach has plenty of options. Does he go with Capela or Nene at center? What about power forward? Does he go with Ryan Anderson, Luc Bah a Moute, or P.J. Tucker? Could he downsize and play Tucker at center? What about Eric Gordon? The Rockets only played six preseason games, and they were missing at least one important player for all of them, so we really don’t have much of a read on how D’Antoni plans to hand out his minutes yet, so you have to figure with all the changes the Rockets made during the offseason, all of his lineup combinations are going to be a work in progress.
How will things change in the Tillman Fertitta era?
For over two decades, the Rockets had an owner who spent money but stayed behind the scenes. Leslie Alexander is gone, and in his place is a billionaire with his own television show. Fertitta likes to be seen, he likes to talk. How does that fit into the NBA landscape? He built his empire in the hospitality business, and he said in his introductory press conference last week that “there’s not such thing as a spare customer”, so you can expect the Rockets to be a little more fan friendly than in the past, but what else can we expect? Fertitta has said all the right things, but words are different from actions. Will he and his three sons get in the way of Morey’s basketball operations staff? It’s one thing to say you’re willing to spend a lot of money, but what happens when Fertitta sees the first luxury tax bill, and looks at the penalties at being a repeat offender? Will he be patient if they start slow or will he want to start making changes? With Alexander we knew, with Fertitta, we think we know, but right now, we really don’t.