Six straight wins for the Rockets have made them one of the NBA’s strongest teams to start the year. This week on the roundtable, we discuss the streak, Capela’s development, the return of Chris Paul, and what the week ahead has in store.
This week, our guest panelist is former TDS contributor, friend of the blog and editor of The 94 Feet Report, Eric Spyropoulos. Thank you for participating in this week’s roundtable, Eric.
Eric (ES) joins Jeremy Brener (JB), Ethan Rothstein (ER), Adam Sweeney (AS), and Darren Yuvan (DY) as this week’s panelists.
Continue the debate in the comments below and if you would like to be a guest panelist on a future TDS Tuesday 5-on-5 roundtable, contact Ethan Rothstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. What has been the biggest surprise about the Rockets win streak?
Jeremy Brener (@Jeremy_Brener): The defense. That’s the biggest difference from this team as opposed to last year’s team. It isn’t even about the stats, in which they are eighth in defensive rating, but the attitude and intensity on that end of the floor. Those are things you cannot see on the stat sheet but watching these games has you thinking that this team has a different kind of swagger to it. Even if the Rockets have a bad night offensively, they still have a chance to win thanks to their defense. That may come up at some point later in the season where the offense is cold but the wins still come because of the defense.
Ethan Rothstein (@ethanrothstein): James Harden's shooting. He's had stretches of crazy stats before, but he's never been this consistently on-target from downtown as a Rocket. What's perhaps most jarring is his shots are every bit as difficult as the ones he's been taking since he came here. He looks stronger this year, and maybe the extra strength in his legs is what's made the difference — he always missed short, it seems like. If Harden's a 40 percent three-point shooter and keeps up his defensive stoutness this year, as some TDS commenters wrote under the game recap in Indianapolis, he's the best player in the league.
Adam Sweeney (@ATXPoprocks): The defensive effort from Ryan Anderson, which our resident writer Darren Yuvan so perfectly elaborated upon. I admire Ryno's 3-point prowess but I was ready for the Rockets to unload him for a throwback Yao Ming bobblehead. But Anderson's commitment to defensive improvement and knocking off pounds deserves a nod. We all know the Rockets will put up points and James Harden is going to bring the pain night in and night out, but we learned last year that the Rockets will live and die as a defensive unit. Ryno's response to last year's Playoff performance is on grand display.
Darren Yuvan (@DarrenYuvan): There's been several surprises so far, from Eric Gordon looking 5 years younger and staying hot, to Ryan Anderson and James Harden playing tough defense, to the growth of Clint Capela right before our eyes like a box of magic rocks. It's tough to pick just one, but I'll have to go with Anderson and Harden's defense. They've both been chastised about it endlessly on social media, and both guys have had their fair share of positive moments on that end of the court so far. Defense is an attitude, and the Rockets have it this year, across the board.
Eric Spyropoulos (@EricSpyrosNBA): There have been so many strong aspects of the win streak, from Capela’s development as a nightly double-double threat to Eric Gordon’s continued strong play as the second ball-handler/main creator for bench units. However, I think the biggest surprise is the defense. For the month of November (the duration of the win streak), the Rockets have the fifth best defense. I expected their defense to be above league average this season, but there’s a good chance that they can finish in the top ten this year. Tucker and Mbah a Moute have been crucial as expected, and Capela and Ariza are providing their usual solid defense. However, Ryan Anderson’s improved defense and Gordon’s capable play on that end has really lifted the team.
2. What is the team's biggest weakness so far?
JB: The fourth quarter. In most games, the team is able to win by enough to where the fourth quarter does not matter. However, in close games, the team struggles to get offense going because the game slows down. In the playoffs, full games are more like this and it could come back to bite the Rockets. Houston’s offense is built to dominate through three quarters, but if the team wants to win the championship, they need to learn how to play slow as well as playing fast.
ER: Fatigue. Harden is playing too many minutes, and so are Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. All three of those wings are on the wrong side of 30, while Troy Williams is just sitting there waiting to be used. Harden's minutes figure to come down when Chris Paul comes back, but who knows with CP3's history of nagging injuries how many games he'll actually get in this year. Demetrius Jackson and Bobby Brown are not really realistic options, and the more work is thrown on Eric Gordon's shoulders, the more nervous I get that his injury history will pop up again. Even if this team were deeper, I'm not sure D'Antoni would play everyone. This team needs to be fresh for a loooong playoff run and they're not tracking that way right now.
AS: Guard depth. I've said it before but I'd prefer Bobby Brown, the 80's pop icon, over the Rockets' version. (Don't sleep on the Don't Be Cruel album, by the way.) Until Chris Paul comes back we are expecting Harden to put up astronomical numbers, which he somehow has continued to do on a record level. Demetryius Jackson, meanwhile, has a -.57 PER rating. How is that even possible? We need Chris Paul back and we need him back fast.
DY: Definitely the short bench. I'm not the only one who's mentioned this, so I'm not going make this too long, but Mike D'Antoni needs to open up the rotation a bit. More minutes for Tarik Black and Troy Williams would help a lot, even after Chris Paul comes back. I want this team fresh to battle Golden State in the postseason, not limping just to keep up.
ES: Without a doubt it has to be the bench unit offense when Harden is off the floor. Now, this should only be a weakness for another game or two as Chris Paul is set to return this week. However, without Paul, the Rockets offense has essentially died without Harden on the floor. Per Cleaning The Glass, the Rockets score 13 points per 100 possession more with Harden on the floor than when he’s off. Gordon and Mbah a Moute are capable ball-handlers in a vacuum, but they aren’t suited for a primary role creating for others, which is what they’ve been forced to do without Harden on the floor and with Paul out with an injury. I guess it’s always a good thing if your team’s biggest weakness is easily fixed.
3. CP3 is rumored to return soon. How is he going to fit in the lineup and rotation?
JB: CP3 will become valuable in the fourth quarter where Houston’s fast-paced tempo does not work as much as it does in the other three quarters. The Cleveland game is a perfect example. Houston’s offense was flowing nicely until the fourth quarter when the game tightened up, the referees tightened up, and the game slowed down. Paul is a better point guard fit in the fourth quarter and will allow the team to be more effective in crunch time. Luckily, the Rockets defense squeaked out the win last Thursday, but adding CP3 to the rotation will improve their effectiveness in the fourth.
ER: Impossible to say, other than we think D'Antoni will stick to the original plan of he and Harden sharing the court for 18 minutes, and splitting up the rest of the time. The preseason and summer gave us reason to hope it would work beautifully, but this is a "seeing is believing" type situation.
AS: It will be a work in progress, much like how the 2010-2011 Miami Heat was. Mike D'Antoni should stagger the minutes and run two lines with Hall of Fame point guards, which is what he has stated he plans to do. The question is how much wear and tear can Harden continue to take, and how much strain do the Rockets want to put on Paul as he works his way back? At this point it's clear that the Rockets belong to Harden so I'd drop his minutes, even if it costs him an MVP Award, and see how Paul can lighten the load.
DY: There will be an adjustment period, especially considering how well the team is playing with Harden leading the show. But Paul's a future Hall of Famer for a reason, and I expect after getting his feet wet for a few games, things will look just fine. I can't wait to see the added dimension to the Houston attack and maybe a few less minutes for The Beard.
ES: This is a fascinating aspect of the upcoming weeks for the Rockets. Unlike last season when the Rockets were bringing Patrick Beverley back around this time, the Rockets are bringing back one of the best point guards of all time and a top ten player in the league to a team that is rolling. During the opening night game against the Warriors it was mentioned that D’Antoni’s plan is to have Harden and Paul play around 18 minutes per game together, so Paul should be subbed off early in the first and third quarters in order to come back and lead the second unit offense in the second and fourth quarters. This should quickly solve the weakness mentioned above and will go a long way in making the Rockets a complete offensive team for all 48 minutes each night. It will be interesting to see how the crunch time offense looks with both Paul and Harden on the floor. The offense tends to end up with Harden dribbling around before taking a contested shot, so it would be nice for D’Antoni to get more creative and involve both elite guards in various plays down the stretch of a game.
4. Clint Capela made a name for himself last week against Cleveland. Where does he rank among the NBA's best centers?
JB: In terms of play right now, Capela is flirting in that second tier with Jokic and Gobert. The first tier consists of Gasol, Cousins, and Towns. However, there are not many centers I would want as a franchise starter right now. Capela has one of the brightest futures in the league and I would pick him as my starting center to begin a franchise over pretty much anyone except Towns and possibly Porzingis. If and when Capela becomes a three-point shooter, he will be one of the most dynamic players in the game. It’s great for the rest of the league to figure out what Red Nation has known for a while: Capela’s a special talent.
ER: He's below Marc Gasol, Joel Embiid (yes, already), Kristaps Porzingis, Rudy Gobert (currently hurt), Karl-Anthony Towns (but not by much), Nikola Jokic and DeMarcus Cousins. I'd put him above DeAndre Jordan, Myles Turner (barely) and Andre Drummond right now, who are think are his chief competition in his tier. He's a top 10 center, but after years of shallowness at the 5, the position is currently loaded in the NBA.
AS: Top 10 with one of the highest ceilings as a player at the position. It amazes me every time I see Capela that he continues to improve in so many facets of the game, and he's a big reason that the Rockets are one of the most entertaining teams in the Association.
DY: He's definitely top 10. It's quite a leap for the youngster from Switzerland, but he's put in the work, and he's earned the recognition. It'd be tough to put him top 5 quite yet until he sharpens up his shooting away from the bucket, but he's close, and I expect he'll be a top 5 guy within a season or two. I'm just kicking myself for missing out on him in my fantasy auction draft and settling on Deandre Jordan instead. Doh.
ES: Capela is certainly in the upper-half of centers due to his improved defensive play, especially his shot blocking and ability to control the boards. He still lacks the ability to consistently generate offense on his own, which puts him behind the top tier of centers (Gasol, Towns, Jokic, Cousins, etc.). Then there are players such as Rudy Gobert who are just so good defensively that they’re ahead of Capela. However, I don’t think it’s crazy to say that Capela is quickly (and quietly) sneaking in to the top 10 of centers, especially when you consider that as he has areas to improve and there’s room for him to play more.
JB: 2-1 seems like the most likeliest outcome. The hardest game out of these three is the road contest in Memphis. Facing a playoff team in their building is never easy, and the Rockets had their worst performance of the season on the road in Memphis a few weeks ago. It wouldn’t surprise me if they win, but if they don’t lose this week, it will be nine straight for the Rockets and they won’t be able to fly under the radar anymore.
ER: 3-0. The team has gotten stronger as the win streak has kept going. I'm not predicting a loss, even though they might drop one. They're better than every team in the league but one right now.
AS: 3-0. Normally I would say that the Rockets are going to slip up by taking their eye off the ball but what They have only lost 3 games all season and are as hot as any team outside of Golden State in the NBA. Let's play the role of optimist and say they run the table.
DY: 2-1. I'm actually worried they drop tonight's contest against Toronto. The Raptors are a good team and they can score, and it just feels like the Rockets are due for a letdown. I'd love to be wrong and see a 3-0 week, but should they get past Toronto, they might be working Chris Paul into the lineup for the Memphis game, and that could be a possible L as well.
ES: I’m inclined to say that they will go 3-0, but because Paul will (likely) be returning in the game against Phoenix, I think there’s a good chance it takes a couple of games for the team to integrate him into the lineup and rotation, which could lead to a disappointing loss on the road against Memphis. Plus, a bunch of the key rotational players have been playing some heavy minutes, which will likely catch up in one of the road games. So I’ll go with 2-1.