With 11 games into the Rockets season, Houston has come out victorious eight times. It’s a very impressive start and for this week’s TDS Tuesday 5-on-5 roundtable, we discuss the Rockets’ early success and dive into this week’s battle with the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday.
This week’s panelists are Jeremy Brener (JB), Adam Sweeney (AS), Ethan Rothstein (ER), Darren Yuvan (DY), and Xian E (XE).
Continue the conversation in the comments below.
1. Overall, has Houston surprised you this season?
Jeremy Brener (@Jeremy_Brener): They surprised me coming out of the gates as strong as they did with the win against Golden State, and so far, they have maintained their ground. Winning 8 of 11 to start the season is certainly a sign that this team is going in the right direction. 7-3 without Chris Paul is also nice to see and I feel like CP3 as a Rocket seems to be something in a dream and not reality yet. Paul and Harden have played more All-Star games together than regular season contests. Can’t wait to see them going.
Adam Sweeney (@ATXPoprocks): Houston's success hasn't surprised me but the way in which they have won has. Clint Capela is shooting 90% from the free throw line. I repeat, Capela is a lights out free throw shooter and has rounded into a perfect interior presence for the 3-happy Rockets, and the Rockets haven't missed a beat, save for against the blasted Memphis Grizzlies, without Chris Paul. Life is good.
Ethan Rothstein (@ethanrothstein): Not particularly. I knew they'd be good, not great, coming out of the gate. The fact that Chris Paul has a knee injury is also not a surprise. They're 8-3 now, which is probably around where I might have pegged them, although beating the Warriors and going 1-3 against the Grizzlies and Sixers is not how I expected it to go.
Darren Yuvan (@DarrenYuvan): They surprised me by coming out of the gate ice cold after shooting well in the preseason. They've picked it up these last few games, but are still shooting just 33 percent from deep for the year, which is up from a hair under 30 percent overall just last week. That was completely unexpected. They've also surprised me by still going 8-3 to start out the year despite that sub-par deep ball. The Rockets have been known as a team that lives and dies by the three, so the fact that they're still first in the West at the moment despite not playing their best basketball is also a surprise. It shows that they're starting to mature as a team.
Xian E (@xiane1): Yes and no. The Rockets performance hasn’t surprised me. I expected 60+ wins, or thereabouts. What HAS surprised me is one, doing it without Chris Paul, and two, just how great both Gordon and Anderson look compared to last year. It’s as if they heard every criticism and answered them.
2. Do the early season injuries concern you? Why or why not?
JB: No, because the team is getting hurt at the right time if that makes sense. Injuries are bound to happen. It’s the NBA, every time experiences the injury bug, but when the team hits it is something you hope for around this time of year as opposed to April. Houston hit the bug hard to start the year but are looking to normalize it. I feel like this is something we will be accustomed to the whole year but the team will find a way to get healthy when it counts the most in April, May, and hopefully June.
AS: Chris Paul's injury is definitely reason for concern. He isn't getting any younger and these things tend to linger. Hopefully he and Nene can bounce back but it's worth keeping a watchful eye on both of them. Mike D'Antoni might want to wrap them both in plastic wrap. That said, we got Trevor Ariza back earlier than expected, we all know the West is loaded so playoff seeding is a bit arbitrary, and what matters most is that all hands are on deck come playoff time.
ER: Not yet. Paul was always going to be lucky to hit 70 games, and the Rockets want him fresh for the playoffs above everything else. I'll reserve my concern for if he comes back far later than planned and he doesn't look great when he does. The Ariza and Nene injuries make sense with their age, and the playoffs are so far away, hopefully Keith Jones and his aces training staff have a plan to make sure everything is fully healed come April.
DY: Everyone is mostly back healthy, save CP3, so it's not a major concern. There will be an adjustment period when Paul comes back, and the Rockets have, at times, been a bit disappointing on offense without him, but it's very early, and the most important factor is having everyone healthy for the long haul, so if that means missing a little time early to be healthy late, that's a trade-off I'm willing to make.
XE: Yes, the injuries do concern me. I hope the Paul injury reflects an overabundance of caution. But the problem with older teams, and the Rockets do rely on a number of age 30+ guys, is that they tend to accumulate injuries. Managing injuries, and minutes, is key. MDA hasn’t exactly inspired my confidence with that yet. I see little reason to play Harden in the 4th quarter of 25+ blowouts, and every reason to try to improve the back of the bench, which has the effect of either preventing, or preparing backups to adequately cover for, injuries. Everyone sees what the Spurs do with their bench, and how successful they are, and those players are, yet no one does it.
3. Where does the Gordon/Harden backcourt rank in terms of best in the NBA? Is this backcourt better than CP3/Harden?
JB: I’d put them in the conversation with the best of the best. Let’s sandwich them in between Portland and Washington. I think that they aren’t as good as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum but are a smidge better than Bradley Beal and John Wall. Harden/CP3 have the potential to be a better backcourt than all of the above but they are a different backcourt. Those guys could both get double-doubles in assists in a game and be able to do something no backcourt in the NBA can. And that puts them on another level. However, the Gordon/Harden scoring juggernaut backcourt is a treat to watch and definitely rank among the NBA’s best.
AS: Gordon/Harden is one of the top 3 backcourt combos in the NBA on any given night, especially with Gordon's newfound ability to attack the basket. Did anybody expect him to become a dunk machine this season? It's impossible to compare them to CP3 and Harden because we haven't seen the latter play together for more than a hot minute. The fact that we can even debate this should remind us how blessed we are at the positions when everyone is healthy.
ER: The best thing about the second part of that question is that the Rockets don't have to choose. Until Harden and Gordon win a ring, Curry/Klay will continue to reign supreme among the NBA's backcourt duos. But Harden and 2017 Eric Gordon are right there. If you're talking about the best three-guard rotations and CP3 is healthy, no one can touch the Rockets. Hopefully all of this rest will see him come back fresh.
DY: It's a good backcourt and Gordon is playing well, but it's not better than CP3/Harden. Gordon is a very good player. Chris Paul is an all-time great player. Once Paul gets healthy and gets moving, there will be no comparison. CP3 is a better defender, a better ball handler and a better fit for the first-team alongside Harden. Gordon is better served as the sixth man, giving the bench unit some punch. That being said, outside of his below average three-point percentage so far, Gordon has looked slim, fast, and explosive this season. He's just a short level below Paul however.
XE: I think right now they’re arguably the best backcourt, but there are so many contenders it’s hard to say definitively. Also, I really have no idea if its better than CP3 and Harden because we just haven’t seen any of that lineup.
4. What or who on the Rockets makes the team "scary good?"
JB: If James Harden is playing good, the Rockets have a good chance to win the game. If he’s playing great, there is no stopping this team at all. With Harden playing out of his mind, the team was up 30 on the second best defense in the league in the Utah Jazz after the third quarter. He dismantled one of the league’s best defenses mostly by himself and the team responded quite nicely.
AS: A focus on defense will elevate the Rockets this season. Even with Paul out Houston is top 10 defensively right now and it's important to remember that this team has a ton of new players. It will take time for everyone to gel, but one thing you can always rely on is defensive intensity. I can't think of the last time that the Rockets had defensive stoppers like P.J. Tucker. It will make Capela's job much easier and it will please me to no end to know we won't have to rely on Ryan Anderson to play D in the playoffs.
ER: The defense. Their offensive system has proven its worth. They were among history's greatest offenses last year, and they've improved their team's overall shooting ability while adding a 20% improvement in Gordon's off-the-dribble game and a 20% improvement in Capela's overall game. But the true revelation has been the defensive stinginess of groups with P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute and Gordon on the floor together. The Rockets are capable of multiple lineups that feature three or more elite defenders at multiple positions. They didn't have a single lineup like that last year. That's been how they've won so many comeback games: D'Antoni throw PJ, LMAM, Gordon, Harden and Capela at the same time and other teams basically stop scoring entirely.
DY: I have to say Clint Capela. He's having a breakout year, averaging 13 points, 11 boards, and 1.5 blocks per game. He's shooting 69 percent from the field and an incredible 78 percent from the charity stripe -- a phenomenal improvement for a previously poor free throw shooter. Once the Rockets start hitting their deep shots regularly and Chris Paul returns to the lineup, the growth of Capela into a legitimate threat down low could be what helps push this team over the top if they are to get there. It's been truly a ton of fun watching the young center from Switzerland, who's still just 23-years-old, develop into a force in the middle. He's only going to get better too.
XE: Depth. Shooting. Three quality wing defenders. Two quality centers. And what makes them terrifying is James Harden. He arguably just produced the best offensive game of ALL TIME against the (at game time) #3 defense in the NBA. I repeat, of ALL TIME. Harden is the best offensive player in the NBA. Not one of - the best. He could retire as the best offensive player of all time. Let that sink in.
5. Houston can't figure Memphis out, losing two games to them last week. Why is this the case? Can they get a win on Saturday?
JB: The Rockets put up the worst numbers in the D’Antoni era in their two games against Memphis this season. First, 90 points in a home loss and then 89 in their only road loss of the season (without Eric Gordon, if I may add.) Houston will be at home where they would not have had to travel for a week. If the shots are as hot as they have been over the last three games, Houston should have no problem against Memphis. I think they need to prove that the other two games this season were flukes.
AS: Bench depth, bench depth, bench depth. If both squads have their players healthy the Rockets win at least one of those games last week against Memphis. As it is, we are scrapping together a full squad with bubble gum and duct tape. Give me a Houston team that isn't relying on Bobby Brown for 20+ minutes a game and I think we're golden.
ER: It's hard to win games for the Rockets when their three-point attempts don't fall. Any game in which Paul doesn't play will be incredibly tough for Houston against the league's elite point guards like Mike Conley, because they don't have an ideal defender. Marc Gasol is a little too broad and strong and skilled for Capela to take advantage of, although that dynamic is shifting in the Swiss Roll's favor. I hope they get a win this week, but there are just always teams who do not match up well for the Rockets, and Memphis appears to be one of them. I don't know how anyone can match up with Simmons and Embiid though. My god.
DY: Memphis does such a great job closing out on the Houston shooters. The Rockets are also struggling shooting the ball against all defenses at the moment, and they've also failed to adjust when the shots aren't falling. James Harden is also not getting many calls this year. I get the Harden Rule, but the refs are missing some bad fouls in an effort to overcompensate as well. Combine all those items with the Grizzlies being a team that thrives on knocking teams off their normal rhythm, and you have a recipe for losses. Hopefully, the Rockets continue to improve their shooting, because Houston is about to play Memphis again here shortly, and going down 3-0 in the season series against a division mate is not where you want to be. It's times like these where Paul will be the most effective when he comes back. He can get some easy two-point buckets when the Rockets are struggling with their shot, and run a half-court set that allows the Rockets to match up with teams like Memphis who can take away Houston's first option.
XE: Eh, good for them. It could be that Memphis is just a bad matchup for the Rockets. But I also think based on watching them play that they’re exactly the sort of team Chris Paul wrecks. Memphis aggressively crowds shooters way out on the perimeter with big physical guys, and assumes the refs won’t call all their contact. Then they collapse on drivers to support Gasol. There’s a lot of real estate they can’t cover, and Paul operates very well in that space, not only with his own shooting, but by pulling the sort of defense Memphis (and San Antonio) play against Houston way out of shape. The Rockets are so well trained in Morey-ball they don’t exploit what Memphis gives them, but I think if we see Chris Paul, he will.