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5 big questions for the Rockets’ final 25 games

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Here will be the top on-the-court storylines to watch down the stretch in Houston

NBA: Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

All-Star weekend is over, and the NBA is off until Friday night so the league can catch its breath before what is sure to be a thrilling stretch run.

The Rockets are the NBA’s best team at the break — still crazy to think about, especially considering it has never happened before — and have 25 games left before arguably the most pressure-packed postseason in franchise history. Hakeem Olajuwon’s teams were never expected to make the NBA’s final four to the degree that this year’s Rockets are. Houston is home to the NBA’s greatest hope of unseating the Warriors. For once, most of the NBA world without a dog in the fight will be pulling for the boys in red and yellow.

Before the playoffs begin, the Rockets have to rejigger their rotation, manage minutes and manage to stave off the Warriors for crucial home court advantage in a potential Western Conference Finals. Here’s what I’ll be looking for:

1. Which wings get minutes?

With the post-trade-deadline addition of Joe Johnson and the pre-trade-deadline addition of Gerald Green, the Rockets find themselves with a minutes logjam at the spots in between the James Harden-Chris Paul-Eric Gordon three-headed monster at the guard spots and Clint Capela and Nene at center?

For the purposes of this conversation, Ryan Anderson is a wing. He and Trevor Ariza have been the starters for a season and a half when they are healthy, but that is likely about to change. With Ariza out with a hamstring injury, Mike D’Antoni has slotted in P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute in the starting wing spots, and the Rockets have won every game with them in the lineup. Expect Ariza to retake his starting role when he comes back, which is likely by the time the team suits back up on Friday. Expect Ryno to find a permanent home coming off the bench.

The move makes a ton of sense: Anderson has played, and shot, much better alongside Paul than he has Harden, and coming off the bench will likely mean a few minutes with Harden in the middle of the first quarter, then sharing the floor with CP3 when he takes the offense over around the 10-minute mark.

Ariza is averaging 35 minutes per game, Ryno is at 27.8, LMAM is at 27.1, Tucker is at 27.8, Gerald Green is at 24.2 and Johnson played 31 minutes in his first Rockets game. The math does not add up when they all are healthy.

LMAM is the best of this group right now. It sounds crazy to say considering he’s the lowest paid (not counting JJ, who’s not doing this for the money right now), but his combination of defense, decisive driving, shooting and finishing at the rim is a better toolkit than any of his wing compatriots provide. He’s also younger, somehow, than Ariza, Tucker, Green and Johnson (Ryno, at 29, is the youngest of the group). I’d vote for him to lead it in minutes from here on out.

After him, it gets dicey. Ariza will probably dip from 35 down to around 30 minutes per game, but it would be shocking, to me at least, if he’s far below that considering his history with this group. Tucker and Ryno should settle around 20-25 minutes per game, each likely playing some small-ball center, depending on the matchup. It’s too early to tell how D’Antoni sees it, but my hunch is Joe Johnson gets any spare minutes before Green does, and he finds himself leading this group in DNP-CDs. Regardless of how it shakes out, the Rockets have an embarrassment of riches at maybe the shallowest position in the league.

2. How will Clint Capela hold up?

Ah, Swiss Roll. The apple of my eye, center of my dreams. His growth would be the story of the season in any other year, and it’s still been impressive enough to take some attention away from the CP3-Harden pairing. He’s at 14.4 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 27 minutes per game, all career highs.

In eight February games, he’s averaging 30 minutes per, a mammoth jump over October, when he was playing fewer than 25 in those eight games. His stamina has improved as the season has gone on, and with it he’s gained confidence. He has blossomed into one of the league’s elite rim protectors and rebounders, and he’s still leading the NBA in field goal percentage.

But can it last? He’s 23 years old, so he’s not dealing with old, tired legs, but legs don’t have to be old to be tired. He played 1,551 regular season minutes last year, and he’s already at 1,414 now. He’ll easily surpass last season’s total before April. His stamina has improved, but there were concerns about it for two full years, and I’m not convinced he won’t hit a conditioning wall at some point.

The NBA is a different league than it once was, and Capela doesn’t take the same pounding that Olajuwon once did. But he still has to match up with guys like Steven Adams, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, all guys to whom Capela gives up inches and more than 10 pounds. He’s shown no signs of slowing down yet, but keep an eye on his production and minutes.

3. Will Eric Gordon finally heat up?

Gordon was the Rockets’ best sharpshooter last year, is shooting 33 percent on his three-pointers this year, below the commonly accepted Mendoza line of decent shooting, 35 percent.

The not-so-secret secret about Gordon’s shooting woes this season are that they haven’t mattered. The Rockets are in first place, and he’s one of the four most important guys on the team. Houston has stayed afloat with Paul and Harden missing a combined 22 games with injury, and Gordon sliding perfectly into the starting lineup in their place.

The Rockets do not get to a top 10 defense without Gordon, and he’s been fearless driving to the rim. He’s not packing it on fools like he was in November anymore, but he has consistently attacked closeouts (which are still coming at him) and finished at the rim, often through contact. His free throw rate is up from 17.2 percent to 26.6 percent, and he’s shooting 81.9 percent from the line. He has made up for his down shooting with effectiveness in other parts of his game. He’s scoring 2 points more per game this year than when he was Sixth Man of the Year last season.

Now the question: will he heat up? He hasn’t shot this poorly since 2013, and even though the three-point contest didn’t look much better than his season so far, he’s just not a 33 percent three-point shooter. He’s better than that.

Ryan Anderson has shot himself out of his dreadful slumps. Gordon has steadily declined since hitting 38.5 percent in December, hitting 31 percent since. I don’t know when the shot will turn around, I just know it will. How dangerous will this team be when its third guard starts dropping 5-of-10 nights next to the Beard?

4. Will Mike D’Antoni finally rest players?

This topic might be the only sore spot about this present team we fans have. I do not enjoy thinking about D’Antoni’s attitudes about player rest and rotations. But here goes.

While the Artist Formerly Known As Pringles might have been ahead of his time with his offensive system, he is now behind it with his attitude about rest. Last year, James Harden may have given him no choice, but there was no reason to ride Ariza as hard as he did.

Chris Paul’s minutes have been masterfully managed. He’s at 32 per game, just about as few as he’s ever played. Harden is playing his fewest minutes — barely — since coming to Houston. Ariza will likely see his minutes decline even when he’s healthy.

But what of the stretch run? Even with reduced workloads, 75 games is a lot for a human being to play before engaging in over a month of playoff battles. That’s how many Harden is on place for. Does it make sense for Chris Paul to play 64 games instead of 67?

There are places on the schedule you can already envision tempting a more modern coach: the Hawks, Bulls and Suns all come to town in a row between March 25 and 30 before closing games against the Spurs, Wizards, Blazers and Thunder. CP3 and Harden probably shouldn’t play in those games.

The Rockets will surely give their all to chase the West’s top seed. But they have also proven they do not collapse without a superstar in the lineup. Here’s hoping the early season wins-by-necessity can turn into good decisions with players’ bodies down the stretch.

5. Will Daryl Morey finally win Executive of the Year?

When Les Alexander and Tad Brown hired Morey in 2006, the decision was widely panned. Twelve years later, he has ushered in several of the pillars of modern basketball — reliance on data and advanced metrics, revolutionary forms of scouting and player evaluation, mastery of the salary cap and guru to the Prophet of the Process, Sam Hinkie.

Through rebuilding this roster from the capped out hell of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady’s injured final years without a pick any higher than 14th, through trading for one of the greatest shooting guards of all time for Kevin Martin and Steven Adams, through signing Dwight Howard, then thought to be the best center in the game, who helped lead the team to the Western Conference Finals — through all of that — Morey has never won this award.

I will save hundreds for a likely final plea in the last week of the season when Morey’s rival executives are surely agonizing over their votes. Morey has challengers, even if we don’t want to acknowledge them. Danny Ainge traded for Kyrie Irving, just as seismic a transaction as Morey’s Chris Paul deal, even if it didn’t cap mastery of Morey’s virtuoso performance in that deal. He did trade Markelle Fultz for Jayson Tatum and another first round pick, even though Morey signed Luc Mbah a Moute — better than Jayson Tatum this season, Celtics fans — for basically peanuts.

Ainge won this award in 2008 after pulling off the Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen 1-2 punch. Bob Myers and R.C. Buford have exchanged the award the past four years. Those two literally have done nothing of significance to their team’s roster makeup this year, so they should not be challengers.

The power of the Boston narrative is strong — there is no Houston version of Bill Simmons, talking about the Celtics even to the likes of Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig because he has that little self-control. The Dream Shake Podcast is cool and all, but we don’t have the same influence quite yet.

Maybe, just this once, the voters put aside the narrative and do the right thing. The Rockets are a substantially better team than the Celtics, and Morey pulled this team together through years of taking big swings while maintaining peak flexibility. Houston is blessed that he is the steward of this organization — shouts to Tilman Fertitta for recognizing it — and he deserves to be honored.