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Houston Rockets 2018-2019 Season Preview: The title window is now

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The Rockets have legit championship aspirations this season. Can they be fulfilled?

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Dream Shake’s season preview of the Houston Rockets. Here we will break down all the important questions for the team heading into the 2018-2019 season. This year’s season campaign for the Rockets, like previous years, will be #RunAsOne.

Team Name: Houston Rockets

Last Year’s Record: 65-17

Key Losses: Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, Ryan Anderson, and assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik

Key Additions: Carmelo Anthony, James Ennis III, Brandon Knight, Marquese Chriss, and Michael Carter-Williams

Significant Offseason Moves:

The Rockets took a lot of criticism when they let both Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute walk in the offseason. Both players were key cogs in Houston’s franchise-best 65-17 record last year, but both struggled in the playoffs. Ariza couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn for the second time in three postseasons, while Mbah a Moute struggled with a shoulder injury and couldn’t stay on the court. Both are now gone.

For now, they’ll be replaced by a committee that includes James Ennis, Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams. That could potentially change, as the Rockets are said to be working on a trade for All-Star Jimmy Butler, but as it stands, Houston appears to have gotten better offensively with the hyper-athletic Ennis, who is a wiz in transition, and Anthony, who should fit perfectly in Houston’s iso-heavy, three-point system. And at least on paper, they appear to have slipped a notch defensively.

The Rockets also finally dumped Ryan Anderson’s albatross contract, snagging guard Brandon Knight and raw big man Marquese Chriss in return, though it remains to be seen how much either one will contribute. Knight is currently on the shelf with a knee injury, while Chriss has underachieved thus far in his NBA career.

Perhaps the biggest change for the Rockets was losing assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik to retirement. Bzdelik was the architect of Houston’s switch-heavy scheme that turned the Rockets into a top defensive team to complement their elite offense. He’ll be replaced by assistant Roy Rogers, and it’ll be interesting to see if Houston can maintain the same effectiveness on the defensive side of the ball.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Houston Rockets
The loss of assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik to retirement may be the biggest change for the Rockets.
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Team Strengths:

Individual Shot Creation - When you consider the Rockets were the number-one team in isolation last year for both efficiency and volume, this one’s a no-brainer. In the playoffs, when the average pace slows down and the amount of possessions that become mono-a-mono begins to resemble a late ‘90s slugfest (the percentage of Rockets’ possessions that were isolation jumped 5% in the playoffs), individual shot creation becomes arguably the most important offensive skill.

When Cleveland upset Golden State in 2016, it was primarily due to Kyrie Irving and LeBron James going nuclear and being able to create a good shot for themselves every trip down. And honestly, the Rockets probably have a better 1-2 punch in that regard as both James Harden and Chris Paul finished in the top two for isolation points per possession (PPP) despite Kobe-esque 30-percent-plus volume.

What separates the Rockets this year, however, is the depth of secondary shot creators they’ll field. Besides the steady Eric Gordon (76th percentile for isolation efficiency last season) the Rockets now also bolster Melo, who, despite a down year, finished 21st in the league in isolation PPP, and Knight, who— when healthy— has as serviceable of a do-it-yourself-kit as any backup in the league. Save Golden State, there’s no team better equipped for the inevitable bogged-down playoff offense.

Switchability - While the losses of Ariza and Mbah a Moute will hurt, the additions of Carter-Williams, Chriss, and Ennis, alongside returning defensive studs P.J. Tucker, CP3, and Clint Capela, ensure that not much will change defensively for this team from a philosophical standpoint.

Even with the departure of defensive mastermind Jeff Bzdelik, the Rockets will still switch more often— and more successfully— than anyone in the league. With a younger roster and enough wingspan to make Jay Bilas sweat profusely, Houston has the physical tools to hold form this year defensively. Whether or not that actually happens with all the personnel and coaching changes remains to be seen.

Team Weaknesses:

Defense - The Rockets very well could wind up being very good here again, but for now, it’s a question mark. The team had several losses on the defensive side of the ball. Ariza secured the bag and ventured off into the desert. Mbah a Moute returned home to the Los Angeles Clippers. However, as mentioned earlier, the biggest loss for the Rockets on the defensive side of the ball came in Bdzelik, the team’s defense whisperer in a team that was formerly all about offense.

Bdzelik’s leadership brought the team to new heights, as the Rockets were a Top-10 defense last season. Hopefully, the team can maintain the practices Bdzelik taught them, but this team has to adjust because it is a different group. Ennis and Carter-Williams will soften the blow on the defensive side on the court, but they won’t be able to fully replace what the team lost this summer.

The team won’t be bad on defense, considering CP3 is still here and Capela will be able to lock down the paint, but this is a top-three team in the league, and weaknesses are things that we see with microscopes. If the Rockets can’t find a way to maintain the tough D from last year, it could be what prevents the team from moving forward.

Team Goals:

The goal for the Rockets this season has not been hidden: Win a championship. That’s it.

It might seem even tougher now that Golden State has added another All-Star to its roster, but that’s not stopping Houston. Whether it’s with this exact lineup, or making additions down the road- I’m looking at you, Jimmy Butler- this team wants to put itself in the best position possible to win.

New additions like Carmelo have already bought in:

And players like Harden, who have been close plenty of times before, are tired of not getting it:

This isn’t an off-year or a waiting game until a key component leaves the Warriors. It’s time to win now.

How will Carmelo Anthony fit in?

The biggest player acquisition of the offseason, Melo’s arrival was nonetheless met with questions about his fit on the team, willingness to play a role, and prior history with Mike D’Antoni. Some of these answers are already coming in to focus.

Anthony has said all the right things about the possibility of coming off the bench and playing for MDA. He sounds bought-in for the hopes of a title. He’s also been running with the second team thus far in training camp, and with the preseason upon us, we’ll soon know if that’s D’Antoni’s plan in game action as well.

Regardless of what unit he plays with, it’s clear that the team sees him as a stretch four, and I don’t think anyone who’s watched Ryan Anderson play in H-town these last several seasons would say a stretch four isn’t a good fit in this Rockets system. Anderson himself may have been inconsistent, but in the times he was hot, we saw what this offense can look like with stretch four that can put the ball in the bucket.

Defensively, swapping out Melo and Anderson is practically a wash. But offensively, Melo is a clear upgrade, able to do all things Anderson could and then some. There’s absolutely a fit for that on the Rockets, and this move has a real shot at success.

What should we expect from Clint Capela?

It’s an annoying cliche that you hear with every rising star, but it’s absolutely the truth when you say that Capela gets better every year. Last season, he set career highs in minutes per game, field goal percentage, free-throw percentage, rebounds per game, blocks, and points. Every stat that matters to a big man, Capela has gotten better in.

Among qualified players, he led the league in field goal percentage, was second in blocks per game, and eighth in rebounds per game. During the playoffs, his scoring went down just a bit, but he showed he was a bonafide elite defender, increasing his blocks and rebounds per game over his regular season averages. He was also doing that against elite bigs like Karl Anthony-Towns and DPOY Rudy Gobert.

Don’t forget that his defense gave us this gem too:

So what should we expect from Capela?

His points and rebounds should definitely go up. Those numbers have improved every year, and now he’s at the stage in his career where he should be giving the team 15 and 12. With his new-found confidence in shot blocking, I would expect at least two blocks per game from him too.

He showed in the playoffs that he can be Houston’s most dependable player on defense. Capela isn’t afraid to pick up the little guy, and that’ll be key for the Rockets down the stretch. That means the team will have more confidence with him on switches and help defense.

Capela doesn’t have to be an unstoppable force on offense. If he can remain a dependable third or fourth scoring option, that’s what the team needs. All of his focus should be on what he can bring to the other side of the ball, and he’s completely aware of that.

Just like Rockets fans, he has big hopes for himself this season.

Season Prediction:

If they stay healthy, the Rockets are still one of the league’s elite squads, despite some much-publicized (and perhaps much-overblown losses). They’ve retooled and reloaded their roster after last year’s “not-quite”. What remains to be seen is if they’re able to match the lofty expectations graciously set by last year’s squad or if they’ll slip a notch from that franchise-best pace, but still be very good. Injuries aside, they should still be one of the NBA’s best teams, but what that ultimately means is still up for grabs. We’ll have an official season prediction from the staff later on this week.