The Rockets went 4-3 in James Harden’s absence, but since his return from his hamstring strain, the Rockets have strung together three consecutive wins against playoff opponents, including the Golden State Warriors.
In this three-game stretch, Houston has put themselves in the contender category and teams are starting to take notice. The team has been all over the press in the last week with Tunnelgate and the Warriors, but we are here to look at the future. The suspensions are behind the Rockets, and hopefully the injuries are too.
Our panel, consisting of Jeremy Brener (JB), Ethan Rothstein (ER), Xian E (XE), and Darren Yuvan (DY), is joined by former TDS contributor and founder of The 94 Feet Report, Eric Spyropoulos (ES). Thank you for joining us in this panel, Eric.
Continue the conversation in the comments below.
1. Was Saturday night’s win the best win of the season?
Jeremy Brener (@JeremyBrener): I would say that it was. The Warriors are a tier above the rest in terms of competition in the NBA and the Rockets played extremely well throughout the whole game. Sure, they surrendered a 17-point lead, but the team was able to weather the storm, especially down the stretch. I think this win rivals the opening night win but I think the Rockets shot better in this game and were able to match what the Warriors were doing on offense in order to win the game.
Ethan Rothstein (@ethanrothstein): I still think opening night on the road was better — especially because Chris Paul was hobbled and no one was expecting the Rockets to be so good so fast — but this was great. No Trevor Ariza, no Gerald Green and a clearly less-than-100% James Harden. The Warriors played really sloppily, but they did that on opening night, too. The Rockets’ length gives them problems.
Xian E (@xiane1): It probably was the best win, as it may have cemented the idea that the Rockets with Harden, Paul and (don’t forget) Capela are a team with a real chance of beating Golden State.
Darren Yuvan (@DarrenYuvan): I think so. Beating a mostly healthy Warriors with two main rotation members not present is a big deal. Opening night was a big win, but at the time, we had no idea if that actually meant anything or if it was just simply one of those games. Now that each team has a half-season of identity established, the Rockets win again to take the season series. That’s got to be a bigger win than the one on opening night.
Eric Spyropoulos (@EricSpyrosNBA): The Rockets have had some very impressive wins this season, but Saturday’s win over the Warriors is the best one so far this season. Yes the Warriors were without Andre Iguodala and Jordan Bell and were playing the last game of a tough 5 game road trip. However, the Rockets were missing Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green, and had a less than 100% James Harden. The most impressive aspect of the win was that the Rockets out-executed the Warriors in crunch time, highlighted by Harden’s huge step-back three and block on Steph Curry. The Rockets wanted this win, and they went out and out-executed the best team in the league to get the key win at home.
2. With the team fully healthy, how will Mike D’Antoni create his rotations? Will someone be left out?
JB: Last night saw MDA leave out Gerald Green, which was unfortunate, because he was playing very well prior to the suspension. I hope that D’Antoni can find a way to balance Harden’s minutes with his because having a guy like Green in the fold is important. If the Warriors can go ten or eleven deep, I don’t understand why the Rockets can’t either. Green can be a bona fide scorer that can help take some attention off of the other guard on the floor.
ER: I think the most likely scenario is fewer Ariza minutes. He’s leading the team in minutes, but with LMAM and Gerald Green in tow, the Rockets don’t need him for 36 minutes a night. The three guards are set, Clint Capela and Nene are set, it basically all comes down to the wings. Tarik Black figures to be the lone man out many nights, but that will change when Nene sits. If Ryno keeps shooting this poorly, I wouldn’t be shocked to see his minutes dip to around 20 per game. Although he was an animal on the boards against GS, he doesn’t go after them like that against other teams. If he does, this is a much better defensive team.
XE: I think there’s a sensible ten man rotation here and D’Antoni will probably deploy it. Green gives him another offensive option, and we’ve seen what the rotation of Ariza, Mbah a Moute and Tucker can accomplish. Black is left out, except for his days spelling Nene.
DY: We know he’s going 10-man, but somebody’s going to have to take a hit, and at least for now, that’s likely Gerald Green. He’ll get the chance to prove if he’s hot, and if so, he’ll likely get some extra time, but if he’s not hitting, the Rockets will lean more on their other guys. Ryan Anderson is another candidate to see reduced minutes. He’s just been so erratic. Possibly Trevor Ariza too. We’ve been begging for less minutes for Ariza for three seasons now. The Rockets finally have enough depth to make that a reality.
ES: I think Gerald Green will quickly fall into the Tarik Black role of playing when the match-up is right and/or when players are out injured (or hopefully resting down the stretch of the regular season). The rotation will likely be Paul, Harden, Ariza, Anderson and Capela starting with Gordon, Tucker, Mbah a Moute and Nene the four off the bench. When Nene rests or is injured, Black will take his place, which is what I envision for Green if/when Ariza, Tucker or Mbah a Moute miss games.
3. Does Daryl Morey need to make a move at this trade deadline?
JB: Yes. He needs to go out and sign a veteran that is going to be waived. Maybe if Tyson Chandler is traded and waived, he could be a guy the team could sign for the vet’s minimum. I think the big men are the one spot where the Rockets have a clear advantage over the Warriors and that would be a great place to add depth. If Nene goes down, Tarik Black steps up, but would you rather have Tarik Black or Tyson Chandler manning the middle in a deep playoff run?
ER: Nope. I think Gerald Green was really the last thing this team truly needed: a bench gunner who can score in bunches and shoot forever without losing confidence. I don’t see any reason to give up an asset for anything on the trade market. Anyone who tells you DeAndre Jordan is an upgrade over Clint Capela hasn’t been watching this season. Capela has a higher field goal percentage after five straight years of DAJ leading the NBA. Capela is scoring 8 more points and blocking 1.3 more shots per 36 minutes than Jordan. They’re tied in win shares, but Capela leads in most other advanced metrics. The only person who it makes sense to trade away is Ryan Anderson, but no one is taking that salary without the Rockets giving up an essential piece to their present and/or future.
XE: Morey doesn’t need to make a move, and it’s hard to see what on the roster can generate a move. All of the players that could reasonably be packaged in a trade are now part of Rockets JV in Los Angeles. There’s no real salary room. That said, I think the Rockets might well sign someone who is bought out.
DY: I think the Rockets are good as is. I like the team as constructed, and they’ve built up some nice chemistry, which is important. I wouldn’t want to see it broken up until this group gets a chance to prove what they can do. That being said, the Rockets do have a slight need for another ball-handling guard, and don’t count Daryl Morey out (because he can never be truly counted out in these matters) from making a smaller deal for a third point guard.
ES: Need to? No. Should he try and explore the possibility of picking up another capable ball-handler to provide minutes down the stretch of the regular season? Yes. Hopefully the Rockets begin implementing a resting strategy in late March/early April that leads to Harden, Paul and Gordon taking a game or two off here or there. When one of them misses a game, there isn’t a true third option in the backcourt, making the need for another capable ball-handler the biggest need for the Rockets down the stretch of the regular season.
4. Can James Harden work his way back into the MVP race? If so, how?
JB: I don’t see why not. If LeBron’s Cavs are going south, who is going to win it? He missed seven games, so if he plays the rest of the games this season, he will still have played more than 90 percent of the time. The only person I could see taking this award away from him is Chris Paul. Not for CP3 to win it but because he’s so important to the offense that it takes away from Harden’s value.
ER: He’s still at the front of the MVP race after Saturday night. LeBron took the belt away from him for a while, but the Cavs are falling behind in the East race. The Celtics just lost at home to the Magic. Durant, Curry and Giannis are, at this point, Harden’s chief competition. The rest of the way will obviously determine the winner — Harden was leading the race at this point last year, too. But saying the NBA’s leader in scoring, win shares, PER, box plus-minus, usage rate and third-leading assist man needs to do more to burnish his MVP case is the height of lunacy.
XE: I think Harden did make his way back into the forefront of the MVP race, as this week’s chatter will probably show. The clutch three followed by the rejection of Curry are the kind of moments that push today’s narrative-driven MVP races.
DY: He’s already there. No one really took control while he was out. The Cavs are struggling, the Celtics are slumping. The Milwaukee Bucks are barely .500. I love the Greek Freak as much as the next guy, but please don’t tell me that Russell Westbrook winning last year with a six-seeded squad has now opened up the door for all kinds of MVPs from mediocre teams. I love what DeMar DeRozan is doing in Toronto and would like to see him included in the overall discussion, but his numbers pale in comparison to The Beard. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are kind of cannibalizing each other in Golden State. As of right now today, I still think Harden is your MVP.
ES: I don’t think Harden has fallen out of the race, due to LeBron and the Cavs struggling mightily while Harden was out. Giannis has the numbers, but the Bucks are barely in the playoff picture. And for the Warriors, Curry has missed 15 games and while Durant has been great this season, I doubt we see an MVP from the Warriors in the next couple of seasons. Other under the radar MVP candidates such as Jimmy Butler have stepped things up, but I still think it’ll come down to Harden and LeBron. Harden still doesn’t look 100%, but in the next week or so he should be able to regain his peak performance levels, and if the Rockets take off and take advantage of an easy upcoming schedule, he should maintain (or reclaim, in some people’s minds) the top spot.
JB: 3-1. The team struggled against New Orleans in their opening meeting this year and the team always has a hard time trying to find wins in the Big Easy. Other than that, the team faces three lottery-bound teams. The team must take advantage of the easy portion in their schedule.
ER: 4-0. The Rockets are 18-0 with CP3, Capela and Harden all in the lineup. I’m not betting against a streak with those opponents.
XE: 4-0, with Dallas being the closest and most annoying.
DY: I want to say 4-0, but I do think they lose focus and drop one of these games. I’d keep an eye out on the Mavs game and the Pelicans game for potential upsets losses. 3-1 to close out the month.
ES: Playing the Mavericks in Dallas can always be a challenge, and the Pelicans almost beat the Rockets back in early December by hitting any and every shot from the floor, but overall, this is one of the easiest stretches of the schedule the Rockets will face this season. If they stay healthy and don’t get complacent by looking at the opponents’ record, they should go 4-0 to close out January on an extremely high note.