Rockets

Evaluating Week 1 of the New-Look Rockets

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After four games, the Rockets sit at 3-1. They have wins over the Thunder, Wizards, and Zion-less Pelicans, and took a loss to the Bucks in their opening game. Coming into this season, there was worry that the addition of all-star and triple-double specialist Russell Westbrook to the roster would be a difficult transition for the Rockets. While there have certainly been some issues thus far, the Westbrook experiment is ultimately off to a good start. What have the Rockets been doing well to start off the season? Is there any cause for worry moving forward?

Russell Westbrook Early Observations

Westbrook-Harden Pairing Looks Good

These two stars have battled it out for MVP awards in the past, but, this year they’ve joined forced to compete for a championship together. Despite the fact that the two led the league in usage rate last year, they have had no issue developing an immediate chemistry on the offensive end. Here’s Harden finding Westbrook for the backdoor alley-oop slam:

 

Westbrook is currently averaging a triple-double on a highly efficient 48.5% shooting from the field. Harden, for his part, has maintained his high scoring efforts from last year. He’s averaging 36.8 points through the first four games, including a 59 point outburst against the Wizards on Wednesday.

For years, Harden has looked for a partner in crime to shoulder some of the offensive burden. Even though Harden is incredibly adept at getting to the rim, he is often more comfortable in isolation on the perimeter. Former Rocket Chris Paul, too, older and less mobile, was less likely to consistently attack the rim. Enter Westbrook. Russ is an aggressor, and that is something that the Rockets have sorely lacked for many seasons. He compliments Harden nicely with his frantic, frenzied style, allowing for more opportunities at the rim. Although it’s early, Harden and Westbrook are shaping up to be the perfect 1-2 punch.

Fourth Quarter Scoring

The biggest positive from the addition of Westbrook has been his ability to take over games. Harden has really struggled from the field to start the season, and it has been up to the oxymoronically efficient Westbrook to carry the Rockets on offense throughout large stretches of the games. He has been extremely clutch in fourth quarters, shooting 62.5% from the field and 42.9% from three (!) during the final 12 minutes of the games.

In Wednesday’s high scoring game against the Wizards, Westbrook was instrumental in completing the fourth quarter comeback. If he stays even close to this level of efficiency, the Rockets will continue to be impossible to guard down the stretch.

Offense, Offense, and More Offense

Although it’s still early in the season, the Rockets currently have the number one offensive rating in the league at 117.7. Additionally, they are playing at the second-fastest pace in the league. Westbrook has brought life into the offense, allowing the Rockets to get out in the fast break a lot more than they had in year’s past. Additionally, Westbrook has brought a lot more life into the Rockets in half court sets. He is so adept at getting to the basket, allowing for greater spacing on the offensive end of the floor. Before, defenses could trap Harden at the top of the perimeter and limit any movement on offense; now, though, with Westbrook’s fast pace, the Rockets are far less likely to become stagnant.

Westbrook gets so much defensive attention when he goes to the basket that he can easily kick it out to open shooters in the corner. Take a look at how he ices the game against the Thunder:

While the Rockets are operating at an extremely high offensive rate and it is likely that this number will regress to the mean a bit, the new life that Westbrook has inducted into this team is something to be excited about.

Other New Additions

Coach Mike D’Antoni has been known to limit his postseason rotations more noticeably than most coaches do. It seems, though, that this approach has funneled into the regular season now. With only six players getting substantial minutes so far, D’Antoni has essentially phased out a large chunk of the roster.

Westbrook was not the only new addition to the Rockets over the summer. In addition to him, GM Daryl Morey also acquired veteran big man Tyson Chandler, and swingmen Ben McLemore and Thabo Sefolosha. McLemore, specifically, was an intriguing signing because he is really known as strictly a high-volume three point shooter. Early on, though, McLemore has been limited to 7.5 minutes a night, scoring a grand total of 9 points through four games. Sefolosha, a great perimeter defender, hasn’t fared much better. He is scoring a measly 0.8 points per game and is a shocking net -20 on the season so far.

Tyson Chandler has looked better than both players described above, but he is too old to be a consistent contributor. The best the Rockets can hope for from Chandler moving forward is quality spot minutes every few games. The Rockets also re-signed Ryan Anderson this offseason – the big man known for his spot up three point shooting. Anderson got his first minutes of the season on Wednesday, and looked fairly comfortable on offense. However, his defense is so ghastly that he is practically unplayable, especially in pick and roll situations.

Either someone on the roster needs to step up or Morey needs to make another acquisition soon; the Rockets cannot get complacent and expect their five starters and Eric Gordon to play 30+ minutes every single night.

Defense?

Well it’s a good thing the Rockets have been scoring themselves, because they certainly haven’t been stopping anyone else from doing so as well. Last game, the Rockets eeked out a win against the Wizards 159-158. I know what you’re thinking, but, no, this was not an overtime game. Yes, the Rockets allowed the Wizards to score 158 points in regulation. No, that’s not a typo.

Even though the Rockets did win the game, it’s hard to get excited about it considering they gave up that many points to the lowly Wizards (despite what Bradley Beal might have to say about it):

The Rockets are currently second to last in the league in defensive rating at a whopping 117.2. They’ve already given up career nights to Brandon Ingram, Bradley Beal, Dennis Schroder, and, you guessed it, Nicolo Melli.

Are They Doomed Defensively?

This season, a defensive regression was expected. Westbrook may be a better overall player than Paul, but he is a worse defender. Additionally, defensive guru coach Jeff Bzdelik switched teams in the offseason. The Rockets knew that there would be growing pains, but they have been way more severe than anticipated. However, there are some potentially encouraging signs. Here’s a look at the Rockets’ TPA Graph so far this season:

Ok, ok, I understand that at a first glance this doesn’t look great. But please bear with me. Harden and Gordon here are such huge outliers compared to the rest of the team. This, to me, does not feel sustainable. Gordon has proven to be a good defender in year’s past, and Harden has – despite the YouTube video from four years ago – improved his defense dramatically. In fact, he led the league in post-defense efficiency last year. They are not the liabilities on defense that they have been to start the year. Their positions on this graph will eventually normalize.

With that being said, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Firstly, Capela and Tucker both need to be more aggressive. Further, it would probably be useful for the Rockets to acquire one more big body on a team littered with wings. But, I don’t think there’s a reason to be too worried. Yet. With the addition of Westbrook, the team is still figuring a lot of things out on both sides of the ball. Offense was the first priority, and the defensive adjustments will come with time. As everyone becomes more comfortable in the new system, the Rockets should improve.

After allowing the terrific trio of Isaiah Thomas, Davis Bertans, and Mo Wagner to combine for 50 points, they can only go up from here. Right?

Looking Ahead

So far, the Rockets have had a relatively easy schedule. They lost to their toughest opponent – the Bucks – but did show encouraging signs in their loss. Right now, given their schedule and the many moving pieces they’ve had to quickly integrate, it is hard to gauge their position in the Western Conference.

Moving forward, the schedule really doesn’t get too difficult until mid-November. By then, hopefully the Rockets will have worked out their defensive woes and they’ll be able to give opposing offenses some trouble. Until that point, the Rockets will look to continue their winning ways with a road swing in Brooklyn, Miami, and Memphis coming up.

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About Zach Zola

Zach Zola is a student at Brown University studying English. He grew up in New York, but has been a die-hard Rockets fan since the days of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. He believes that James Harden is the only King James in the NBA.

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