1. How well does Ty Lawson mesh with James Harden?
This is one of the main questions facing the Rockets this season, and the answer will go a long way in deciding Houston's ultimate fortunes on the year.
We had a small glimpse of what these two can do together in the preseason, most notably in a 120-100 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans back on October 19th in which Harden put up 20 points 4 rebounds and 4 assists and Lawson dropped in 18 points, 5 assists and 2 steals.
It remains to be seen how the duo handle some of West's more accomplished backcourts on the defensive side, but don't expect those types of troubles tonight against Denver's Emmanual Mudiay, Randy Foye and Jameer Nelson.
Instead, keep an eye on spacing, who's acting as primary ball handler and how well they each play off of the other's premium driving ability.
Incorporating the biggest offseason move into the lineup starts tonight.
2. The minutes breakdown between Lawson and Patrick Beverley
One of the biggest benefits to having both Lawson and Beverley is the versatility to match up with a variety of looks by the opposition. Lawson's attacking style has the ability to wear down defenders with slick moves and fearless forays into the pant.
Beverley has the ability to wear the opponent down through tenacious defense and high energy levels. How much either one plays is sure to depend a lot on opponent and match up.
But what is the optimum minutes breakdown?
Beverley has always been a guy who's maximum efficiency has been around the 20-minute level. Anything higher, and his offensive deficiencies begin to rear their ugly head. The ideal split would be those 20 for Bev and 28 for Lawson, with minor fluctuations expected dependent on opponent and/or foul trouble.
Having two good point men is certainly a blessing, not a curse, but finding the perfect blend, night-in and night-out, is essential. Kevin McHale usually has his finger pretty solidly on the pulse of his players, and expect him to begin perfecting the Lawson/Bev mixture starting tonight.
3. Clint Capela in the starting lineup
With Dwight Howard on a one-game suspension stemming from last year's post season, Capela is slotted into the starting lineup for opening night. Don't it expect it to be the last time we see the second-year man from Switzerland starting, though.
Howard will sit during certain back-to-backs this year, and McHale will be closely monitoring his minutes and workload. How much relief McHale is able to provide the Rockets star center will depend on Capela's development.
Capela's gained size, strength and quickness in the offseason, and he looked good playing big minutes in the preseason. A 10-point, 12-rebound, 3-block performance in 34 minutes against the Pelicans showed he can produce beyond his previous small-minute sample size.
Capela still struggles at the line, and it remains to be seen if he bang for four quarters with Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Demarcus Cousins and the other Western Conference bigs, but with Dwight Howard's health always in question, the growth of Capela is an essential key to the Rockets season. Tonight's only one game, but it's important for Capela to instill the coaching staff's confidence with a solid performance in Dwight's stead.
4. The power forward position
With Donatas Motiejunas still on the shelf recovering from back surgery, Terrence Jones will start and be given every opportunity to play major minutes. What Jones does with them is another story.
Will we see the Jones who was on a steady upward trajectory before last season's nerve injury, or will we get the Jones that's folded under the pressure of the last two postseasons?
In a contract year, Jones is playing for his NBA future beyond this season (whether with the Rockets or someone else), and if there was ever a time for him to take a leap, it's definitely now.
The D-mo injury also leaves the door open for minutes for rookie Montrezl Harrell. Harrell came as advertised in the preseason, looking athletic and energetic, with an ability to do some fine work on the boards. His offensive game is still very rudimentary, with most of his looks coming off of offensive boards and put backs, but should he need to play significant minutes right away, either due to a Jones injury or ineffectiveness, the Rockets have enough firepower for him to be effective as a garbage man.
However, no true title contender wants a second-round rookie power forward playing more than limited minutes against the elite forwards in the west, and in a perfect world, we'll be seeing 34 - 36 minutes a night from Jones until Motiejunas returns, with Harrell contributing when possible. We may even see some Trevor Ariza at the four in a small ball lineup.
Jones' progression (and career future) and Harrell's readiness to contribute at the next level starts tonight.
5. The performance of the bench
The Rockets have been praised all offseason for their depth, with many calling them the deepest squad outside of San Antonio and having the ability to play the variety of different styles needed to compete in the murderous West.
We've already mentioned Beverley, Capela and Harrell, but Corey Brewer, K.J. McDaniels and Marcus Thornton will all need to contribute as well, and if the bench is as strong and versatile as many seem to think they are, a chance at a title should be within grasp. If the bench falters, the West is just too deep.
The second unit's ability to provide a spark was such a key for the Rockets down the stretch last season and into the playoffs, and whether or not they can provide that same spark-- you guessed it-- starts tonight.