The last time the Houston Rockets took to the court, James Harden scored 37 points en route to a 117-111 victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The home win put an end to the Rockets’ shameful four-game losing streak that began with a road loss to the New York Knicks. Twenty-four hours later, Houston’s season came to an abrupt standstill due to the league’s decision to suspend play due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It did not seem like it at the time, but perhaps the win over the Timberwolves could have been the Rockets’ most pivotal victory of the season. Had Houston lost another winnable game against one of the league’s bottom feeders, the past 134 days would have been dreadful for an organization entering the hiatus as losers of five consecutive contests.
The suspension could not have come at a better time for the Rockets. It allowed the coaching staff to reconstruct their game plan and for the players to improve on their on-court shortcomings. When Houston restarts their season against the Mavericks on July 31, the Rockets will take the court as the team who appeared to have benefited the most from the four-month layoff.
The main storyline surrounding the Rockets’ restart is the amount of rest James Harden and Russell Westbrook will have as they enter the post-season. Since 2017, both players have led the league in usage percentage and ended with both looking gassed in each of the following three playoffs.
A well-rested Harden and Westbrook enhance the Rockets’ chances at a deep playoffs run, but it is not the only reason why Houston has a legitimate shot to capture that elusive NBA championship.
Training Camp 2.0 and Building Team Chemistry:
“I’ve been getting more accustomed to the offense and getting on one accord with my teammates. I was thrown into the fire, and I did not know too much — I was just out there playing. But now, I am actually getting into the routine. It has helped me become more fluent within the system.” — Robert Covington
Training camp is the most pivotal time in all of sports. Players and coaches depend on training camp to acclimate themselves to new teammates and systems while building chemistry among one another. When there is a mid-season shakeup, sometimes the recent acquisition can disrupt the establishment, forcing both sides to get accustomed to each other on the fly.
Prior to the suspension, no team in the league altered their philosophy more than the Rockets. In February, Houston traded their starting center in a four-team deal to execute their commitment to small-ball. By unloading Clint Capela, Nene, and a first-round pick, the Rockets acquired Robert Covington from the 76ers. A few weeks later, Houston signed free agents Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll — welcoming three prototypical three-and-D veterans to embed into their micro-ball system.
Although it is still unusual to see an NBA team compete without the presence of a 7-foot center, Houston has put their franchise in a position to succeed despite the unorthodox style of play. Carroll, Covington, and Green are versatile players who can defend positions one through five while providing the Rockets an additional scoring threat from the outside.
Although Covington has had a solid start to his second stint in Houston, the same cannot be said for Green and Carroll. Both players have only touched the floor a combined 15 times since their arrival — averaging 11.1 minutes per game. While they possess the capabilities to play an important role off the bench, their lack of play results from an insufficient amount of time to ingrain themselves into the Rockets’ system.
Now, a two-week training camp ahead of the NBA restart has given the Rockets’ newcomers a substantial amount of time to accommodate their play style. No longer compelled to learn on the run, Carroll and Green are more comfortable in the Rockets’ eccentric system — which will probably lead to more playing time in Mike D’Antoni’s rotation in Orlando.
As for Covington, the 6-foot-7 forward has already exceeded expectations, averaging 12.9 points (42.1% FG, 35.7% 3PT) and 2.5 blocks through his first 14 games. An additional training camp can only enhance his responsibility from role-player to Houston’s third star — as he continues to build chemistry among his new teammates.
“It’s great, especially for me. Coming into a team that’s already playing really good basketball, you just have to gel in. Now, giving me a training camp and letting me learn certain things — I think that can only help.” — DeMarre Carroll
A Healthy Eric Gordon and Danuel House Jr:
“I am fully healthy. I had enough time to rehabilitate my body, and this restart has given me a great opportunity to play at full health again.” — Danuel House Jr.
Before the pandemic, both Eric Gordon and Danuel House Jr. were battling lingering injuries. A reoccurring knee problem forced Gordon to miss 30 out of a possible 64 games — including two of the remaining five preceding the league’s suspension on March 11. House dealt with a wounded shoulder that ruined what could have been a career season for the Houston native.
Had the season continued as usual, the chances of Gordon and House returning to full health would have been unenviable given the constant bumps and bruises they take on the nightly basis. The sharpshooting tandem would have played through the injuries, but the profound impact they carry on the Rockets’ success would have disrupted Houston’s chances of winning the title. Instead of taking the court as wounded warriors, the restart has allowed Gordon and House a chance to obtain their health as the season resumes.
Since they arrived in Orlando, the play coming from their two x-factors has been the Rockets’ most impressive standouts during training camp. After nearly every practice, D’Antoni raves on the explosiveness of Gordon, while GM Daryl Morey describes the restart as a career-defining opportunity for House.
As NFL great Bill Parcells once said, “A player’s best ability is his availability.” And for the Rockets, Gordon’s and House’s availability is what’s best for the team.
“I thought Danuel House Jr. had a really good day yesterday. Played with super high energy, and clearly worked a lot over the break to be ready for this moment. I think he realizes that this is one of the key moments of his career.” — Morey