Before we proceed, I'd like to point everyone to SB Nation's Community Guidelines. You already know the gist of it, but a refresher is always good: don't be a jerk and you won't get banned. We allow swearing on the site (which puts us in the tiny minority of SBN blogs), but offensive language or personal attacks are a no-no. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments and I or another mod will try to respond quickly. We also have some regulars on the site that have warning and banning privileges and their decisions will be fully supported. One last time: don't be a jerk and we'll have a blast this season.
There have been tons of Rockets season previews. If that's what you're looking for, you can go here. If you hate reading and would rather listen to the silky smooth dulcet tones of Ethan Rothstein and proud new papa Ryan Dunsmore, you should click here and listen in your preferred method (Soundcloud, iTunes, etc.).
Tonight, we'll talk about the Rockets' game against the Los Angeles Lakers, who are finally into life without Kobe Bryant. I'm sure that it's tough for a young team to continue hearing about how the story of their season has nothing to do with them and everything to do with the absence of a player twice their age. But media narrative is king, so what can you do?
Well, if you're the Lakers you can shut them up. Armed with a new young head coach and tons of fun young players, the Lakers will look to develop this season and surprise as many as possible.
Luke Walton comes in with a lot of skepticism. Sure, he was the top coaching candidate on the carousel this offseason and going back to Los Angeles caused quite a splash. But he'll have to prove that his success in Golden State wasn't due to the roster or the system already in place. No one expects him to work miracles, but bringing in a young exciting head coach is usually a great way for a team to generate buzz and get some slack from fans while the team develops. Lakers fans will have to hope that Walton is more Brad Stevens than Derek Fisher, and due to the fact that he has a pulse their prospects look good on that front.
Opening night is always a bit of a mixed bag. There's no way that Mike D'Antoni or Walton have set their rotations and yet so we'll likely see a bit more usage tonight than we will in the coming weeks. The injury to Patrick Beverley further complicates matters in Houston, with the Wolverine sidelined until at least early January according to reports.
Expect a raucous Staples Center crowd that probably doesn't love D'Antoni to keep the young Lakers in the game. The young squad will be full of juice and looking to prove themselves. For Houston, they're a veteran team that will have to understand that seven of their first eight games will be on the road, including tilts at Dallas, Cleveland, New York, Atlanta, Washington, and San Antonio. The Rockets actually have three (THREE!) five-game road trips on their schedule this year. Oh, and both games in Denver this season are on the second night of a back-to-back. Screw you, NBA schedule makers.
Matchups and bench are tough going into the season because we don't know who's starting and in the rotation for other teams. Please bear with me until there's a bigger sample size. I'll try to update when we learn more, but remember that matchups aren't the same as starters. I try to pick the players who will get the most minutes at each position.
Tip off is at 9:30pm CT on ESPN.
Point Guard: James Harden vs. D'Angelo Russell
Offensively, Harden has been Houston's triggerman for years now. The Rockets' biggest issue moving forward will be defending opposing point guards since Harden isn't likely to do well on that side anytime soon. Beverley's return will be much appreciated in that regard.
The entire season rests on Harden's shoulders. He will almost certainly lead the NBA in minutes played. Rockets fans will lead the league in times holding their breath every time he drives since an injury to James means the season is almost assuredly lost.
For Russell, year two is expected to be his breakout campaign. He'll be trying to improve and hoping that everyone forgets about that time he secretly recorded a teammate during a private conversation.
Shooting Guard: Eric Gordon vs. Jordan Clarkson
Since Mike D'Antoni took over the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns, there's been a dynamic shift in the way basketball is played at the highest level. Rather than an inside-out, one-on-one, or motion strategy of old, teams depend so much more on dribble-drive to create opportunities.
As the name suggests, dribble-drive entails setting up driving opportunities for ballhandlers that force the defense to react. Once help comes, the ball can be moved to the open man and continued in that manner until someone gets a good look. Sometimes a dribble-drive is just a drive and lob to a big man. Other times, it leads to the harmonious poetry of the Spurs and their ability to spread the ball after scrambling a defense. I hear all the time that the NBA is a pick-and-roll league, and that's true. However, those actions usually are just set up to give the ballhandler an easier time driving. How many big men can consistently pop out and hit a 20-footer now? No, dribble-drive is the real goal there.
We've seen this style flow rather than trickle down the ranks. John Calipari uses it almost exclusively at Kentucky, while AAU squads have also morphed into a group of superathletes that drive and dish rather than developing other sets of skills. Next time you watch a top prospect's hype video, look at their team's offense. It's usually designed around that player driving and scoring or passing to a big man for a dunk/layup.
I say all of this not to rant about AAU (that's for another time) or to go after Coach Cal or other college coaches (too easy), but to say that the dribble-drive has left behind a hole for NBA shooters. Every team needs them, but without a penetrators and bigs to allow those penetrations, most offenses can't even get off the ground. So shooters become less important when constructing a team from the ground up. "If we can get decent shooters open looks, then we'll be fine" is the philosophy of most NBA teams. As a GM, you have to ask yourself: on offense, would I rather have Matt Barnes taking an open three or Kyle Korver taking a contested one? Most statistics point to the open three, and thus the movement to the new style.
But what if you could run a dribble-drive offense that featured multiple elite shooters?
Shooters come at a premium, as the Rockets found out this offseason. They gave Gordon and Anderson a combined $750 million (all salaries approximate) to try and turn a decent offensive unit into an elite shooting one.
There are so few great shooters left and they're becoming an endangered species in today's NBA. It's ironic to me that perhaps the man who ushered the trend into the NBA for good is the one who doubled down on shooters in the offseason.
Small Forward: Trevor Ariza vs. Luol Deng
Pop quiz: how old is Luol Deng?
If you guessed 35+ like the rest of us, you're wrong. He's 31. It just seems like he's 38 because he's been in the league for 12 years and has played almost 30,000 minutes.
Meanwhile, Trevor Ariza is the same age and has played about 7,000 fewer minutes than Deng. And that's including last season where Ariza played the fourth-most minutes in the NBA. He's a huge part of what the Rockets do, even though he isn't an elite shooter. He can guard basically anyone in the league (except athletic bigs) and Houston will rely on him more than ever to do so.
Deng is a veteran on a team that needs them with all of their youth. Sure, Metta World Peace and Mozgov are around, but Deng will be asked to do so much more than just play small forward. On and off the court, his production will be vital. Last season, he averaged 12 points per game on 46% shooting (34% from deep) while defending most teams' best wing. Ariza averaged 13 points per game on 42% shooting (37% from deep) in the same role. This will be one of those matchups where we might not see these guys guard each other for more than a possession or two.
Power Forward: Ryan Anderson vs. Julius Randle
It's hard for me to think about Randle and not immediately remember that he broke his right tibia in his first NBA game of his career, which just happened to come against the Rockets on opening night at Staples.
He's bounced back though. Last season, only nine players averaged double-doubles with points and rebounds, and Randle was one of them. He also dropped a triple-double last season. Here's the hoping he has a good career, but that it starts after tonight.
For the Rockets, there's finally some odd semblance of consistency coming at the power forward spot. For the past few years, there's been an internal discussion about who should start that the 4 for the Rockets, with Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas having their fair share of supporters and detractors. Generally, the discussion was civil, so that's nice. And remember when J.B. Bickerstaff started Howard and Capela together for like 3 months? Good times!
With Jones gone to the Pelicans (take the Jones Corollary along with him) and D-Mo holding out or whatever he's doing, the Rockets are set at power forward with Ryan Anderson as the starter and Montrezl Harrell as the backup. There's no question about roles or responsibilities here. Ryno is here to shoot until he arms fall off and Harrell is here to work his butt off until his...butt falls off? You know what I mean. Either way, Houston is set at the 4 but I'm sure the calls for D-Mo will come if either guy gets off to a poor start.
Center: Nene vs. Timofey Mozgov
Edit: Sorry, I missed that Capela would start at center. Since D'Antoni said they would split the minutes 50-50, I'm keeping this here.
Ignore the money and you'll see that Mozgov fits well with this Lakers squad. He can defend the rim well enough for this young team and can play around the rim on offense and get some easy putback looks and dunks.
But you can't really ignore the money, can you?
Four years and $64 million is a lot of cash. Mozgov won an NBA title and has entered the deserved "I'mma get mine" phase of his career. He averaged 6 points and 4 rebounds per game with the Cavs but in just 17 minutes. The Lakers will call on him to play and contribute much more than that. I also think he's capable of producing more than he has and will be a solid acquisition on the court, but not necessarily against the salary cap.
I think every Rockets fan saw Clint Capela inheriting the starting center spot after Dwight Howard's departure. He had grown so much in his two years in Houston and the reviews were always great about the Swiss center. But a funny thing happened on the way to the starting lineup: Nene.
The Brazilian had a great Olympics in Rio and continued that stellar play into training camp and the preseason. We've seen before that NBA players who play for their national team during the summer usually follow that up with a good NBA season. Rockets fans are hoping that the two big men can both contribute a lot, but Capela probably doesn't find the whole situation Hilario-us (come on that's funny).
Rockets: Corey Brewer, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, K.J. McDaniels, Bobby Brown, Clint Capela
Lakers: Lou Williams, Nick Young, Jose Calderon, Larry Nance Jr., Brandon Ingram, Tarik Black
Advantage: Lakers, I guess?
Prediction: Rockets win 106-97
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