Last season, the Houston Rockets surprised everyone, finishing second in the loaded Western Conference despite losing several key players in the offseason and dealing with significant injuries throughout the year.
James Harden was otherworldly on the offensive end, basically averaging 27/7/6 with two steals while playing 37 minutes a night. Plus, there were times where he was better on the defensive side of the ball too, which is meaningful, since Harden was a terribly lazy defender heading into last year.
The Rockets made it to the Western Conference Finals, rallying back from being down 3-1 and trailing by a significant margin to bounce the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round before getting beaten by the eventual champs, the Golden State Warriors, in five.
Yet despite reaching the NBA’s version of the Final Four in 2014-15 and improving their roster in the offseason (more on that shortly), the Rockets are still being somewhat overlooked in the Western Conference as the season prepares to tip off next week.
Obviously, the Warriors deserve to be considered the favourites. Oklahoma City should be better with Kevin Durant healthy and Russell Westbrook still being Russell Westbrook and San Antonio looks solid once again having added LaMarcus Aldridge and David West into the mix, but the Rockets return most of the key pieces from last year’s squad and the players that have departed were replaced by more functional options.
Here’s a quick look at the Houston depth chart before getting into why the team Daryl Morey built is the most interesting squad in the NBA this season:
PG: Patrick Beverley, Ty Lawson
SG: James Harden, Jason Terry, K.J. McDaniels
SF: Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Sam Dekker
PF: Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas (DoMo from here on out), Montrezl Harrell
C: Dwight Howard, Clint Capela
There isn’t a better 13-man group in the NBA. There may be better starting lineups, but one through 13, the Rockets have the deepest, most talented rotation in the NBA… on paper to start the season.
As much as Harden and Howard are the cornerstones, the key to everything in H-Town this year is Lawson, who was acquired for the NBA equivalent of a can of mixed nuts after he wore out his welcome in Denver as a result of issues with alcoholism. Now, he needs to prove those problems are a thing of the past, but if the former North Carolina standout is ready to go from Jump Street and can split the ball-handling responsibilities with Harden, look out.
The acquisition of Lawson shuffles former starter and defensive pit bull Patrick Beverley to the bench, where he can come in and frustrate the hell out of guys non-stop without having to worry too much about getting into foul trouble because he’s not being counted on for as many minutes.
Ariza, Brewer, Jones and DoMo are all solid secondary pieces who will contribute in different ways and Terry is a capable veteran who can give you 12 solid minutes a night with a couple clutch shots when called upon, but the really interesting additions to the depth chart are the youngsters.
Dekker should be a perfect fit with the Rockets – a guy that can spot up and knock down threes or slash to the rim that can defend his position and isn’t going to be forced to play big minutes because he’s behind Ariza and Brewer. Harrell could develop into a Poor Man’s Kenneth Faried, a rebounds-and-dunks energy guy off the bench, and McDaniels is a plus-athlete who played well in Philadelphia before getting glued to the bench in Houston last year.
And then there is Capela, a second-year big who didn’t get a lot of burn during the regular season, but showed flashes in the playoffs and has been one of the more talked about players in the league this preseason. Yes, it’s preseason, but it’s better than him still being one year away from being two years away.
Health is always an X-factor and Lawson needs to prove he’s capable of getting back to the All-Star level he played at earlier in his career, but if those things shake out in Houston’s favour, the Rockets could once again find themselves in the thick of the championship chase this season.