With small-ball grand chancellors Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni gone, an air of uncertainty surrounds the Houston Rockets. Here lie their five biggest questions for 2020-21.
1. What are the odds James Harden is still on the roster past the 2021 trade deadline?
Very slim. Like, the opposite of how James Harden showed up to preseason. Players have more power than ever before and Harden — wielding a substantial amount as one of the NBA’s best — will get his ticket out sooner or later.
After preliminary talks with Harden-preferred landing spots Brooklyn and Philadelphia fizzled, Houston’s front office widened its scope of trade partners. More potential options give the Rockets leverage in both securing an optimal package and accelerating a deal.
Of course, there’s always a possibility nobody meets Houston’s demands and/or Harden changes his mind and both sides stay together for the kids. Let’s put it at a 21 percent chance he sticks around for all of 2021.
2. Over/under on number games John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins each play?
41, 32 and zero. 48, 30 and zero. Those are the respective regular-season games John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins played over the past three years. They both suffered major injuries and took the long road to recovery. Oft-injured, bloom-off-the-rose, remember-when players might be who they are now.
Or… JUST MAYBE… they needed time to get their battered bodies right. They both gave hope, looking like semi-facsimiles of their former selves in the preseason. Perhaps the Kentucky Wildcat reunion generates a symbiosis and the two fallen stars rejuvenate their careers, together.
Houston will likely exercise caution with the pair, giving them ample rest and maintenance games off. So that needs to be taken into account, even if they stay mostly healthy. Still, I prefer to see the glass half full: Over/under 65.5 games for Wall, 58.5 for Cousins.
3. Wait, will the Rockets actually surprise and be good this year?
For nearly the last decade, Houston established itself as a known concept. They were a postseason perennial with a shot at the title if everything clicked. The Rockets embodied the identity of small-ball exemplar, with Harden as its fulcrum and a cadre of catch-and-shooters in his orbit.
With system architects Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni in new places, Russell Westbrook shipped out and Harden likely joining them (probably shortly), it looks like a collapse and rebuild situation. However, despite appearances, this could merely be a renovation.
The sign-and-trade of #NBATwitter darling Christian Wood in the off-season gives them a cornerstone. Combined with the Wall/Cousins renaissance that may very well be underway and Houston suddenly has the makings of a darkhorse playoff contender.
Of course, a lot hinges on the Harden uncertainty and what comes back in a trade for him.
4. Speaking of Christian Wood, what’s the deal with him?
Specifically, three years and $41 million. Wood entered the league as an undrafted free agent and bounced from the 76ers, Hornets, Pelicans, and Bucks until finally finding a foothold with the Pistons last year.
His averages of 13.1 points and 6.3 boards in 21.4 minutes don’t scream foundational piece without accounting for his late-season explosion. Over the final 16 games, Wood stepped into a larger role and balled out to the tune of 21.6 points and 9.1 rebounds in 32.9 minutes a night while shooting 55 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3.
That production, coupled with his age and further diamond-in-the-rough potential, made him the big fish in this offseason’s free-agent pond. As long as that 2020 showcase proves to be a looking glass to the future and not a fool’s errand in small sample size, Houston has a true stretch-4 to build around.
5. How much will the Rockets miss Austin Rivers? No, seriously. That’s a serious question. Stop laughing.
Well, looks like we’ve reached the dark section of this preview piece.
Over the past two seasons with the Rockets, Austin Rivers averaged an unspectacular nine points, two rebounds and two assists, while providing league-average floor spacing in 26 minutes a game. While those numbers won’t raise any eyebrows, 26 minutes presents Houston with a significant hole to fill.
The backup point guard is actually a blind spot on this roster. If Wall stays healthy and Harden reverses course and sticks around — both major if’s at this stage — it won’t matter much. New head coach Stephen Silas could stagger minutes so that one of them is the alpha ballhandler at all times.
The return from any Harden trade (be it Ben Simmons, Spencer Dinwiddie, etc.) could also prove this all moot. However, if one or both current Rocket point guards get dinged up, the team might long for — and I can’t believe I’m typing this — the comforting consistency they had in Rivers. I guess you never know what you have until it’s gone.