With the polarizing acquisition of Russell Westbrook, the Rockets figure to be a part of the national NBA conversation for the fourth straight season. There are tons of storylines and questions that demand to be resolved this season, but today is not the day to preview that serious stuff.
Today is the day we make five bold predictions about Houston and get laughed at when they’re inevitably wrong at the end of the season. Let’s get started.
The Rockets will finish as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference in the 2019-20 NBA season
If you asked me two weeks ago who the best team in the West would be next season, I would have said the Los Angeles Clippers without batting an eye. The Clippers have great top-end talent, quality depth, more continuity than one would think, and awesome defensive versatility on paper.
However, the health of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is just so up in the air right now. George is slated to miss up to the first six weeks of the season with a lingering shoulder injury and Leonard has played an average of 58 games a season for his career.
With James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the opposite is true. Both Harden and Westbrook have largely been iron men for the past four years, averaging 78.3 and 78.5 games per season respectively. Though there are a lot of question marks of fit, usage rate, and floor spacing with the acquisition of Westbrook, teams led by James Harden have such a high floor in the regular season, that it’s easy to overlook them.
By Kevin Pelton’s estimate, the Rockets are also bringing back over 80% of their minutes played last season. By re-signing Austin Rivers, Danuel House, and Gerald Green, Houston has a fair bit of continuity that should serve them well this season.
Fit concerns are fair, but James Harden and decent continuity should drive the Rockets to 50-55 wins, which could be enough to land them the coveted first seed in the Western Conference.
Russell Westbrook will shoot 34% from three-point range in the 2019-20 NBA season
Last month, I wrote that both James Harden and Russell Westbrook needed to make fundamental changes to their games to make this a fruitful partnership. One of the most important points made was that Westbrook needed to drastically cleanup his shot selection. This starts by completely cutting out the mid-range jumpers from his game. Even in Westbrook’s best most efficient season, he shot 39.8% from mid-range, which is good for only 0.796 points per possession. Westbrook’s career average on three-pointers is higher than that alone (0.924 points per possession).
Another important thing that Westbrook needs to do for this prediction to ring true is to significantly reduce the amount of pull up three-pointers he takes, as he is much more efficient as a catch-and-shoot player. Westbrook has shot at least five percent better on catch-and-shoot opportunities than pull-up three-pointers since 2014-15. With better floor spacing and Harden driving to the rim consistently, there will be much better catch and shoot opportunities for Westbrook in Houston than Oklahoma City.
For what it’s worth, the Rockets have been really successful at molding player’s shot selections over the past decade so if Westbrook were to ever make substantial changes to his shot selection, this would be the franchise to make him do it. Westbrook has only shot 34% from three once in his career (his 2017-18 MVP season) and is coming off a career-worst shooting season, so this is still very much going out on a limb.
Houston will sign Andre Iguodala on the buyout market in the 2019-20 NBA season
The Rockets have been interested in Iguodala for a couple of years now, dating back to their failed attempt to sign him away from the Golden State Warriors in 2017. As time passes, it doesn’t look like there is a trade to be had with the Memphis Grizzlies. The likely reason for this is the Grizzlies’ reluctance to take on salary without the addition of a first round draft pick. The most Houston would include in a deal is probably two second round picks. This opens up the possibility of Iguodala getting bought out later in the season.
Even at the advanced age of 35, Iguodala makes a ton of sense for this specific Rockets’ team. Houston has a need for another versatile forward who can defend multiple positions and Iguodala fills that hole. His IQ and veteran savvy on both ends of the floor has made up for everything he is not (a three-point shooter mainly). There’s a reason all of the Warriors best lineups over the years have included Iguodala. He’s simply been one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders over the past decade.
Iguodala will have a lot of interest on the market from other contenders, but Houston’s past interest may be enough to tip the scale in their favor.
The Rockets will have a Top 10 defense in the 2019-20 NBA season
While I don’t believe the Rockets did enough this summer to become defensive juggernauts, they did enough to feel much better about them defensively than last season. Danuel House and Austin Rivers aren’t world beaters defensively, but they’re solid and Houston ensured they would not depreciate defensively by retaining them. P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon are also good enough defensively to hold the fort defensively until the Rockets choose to call in reinforcements, which I suspect will happen.
By acquiring Russell Westbrook, the Rockets also addressed their most prevalent weakness defensively last season, rebounding. Even if you believe his rebounding numbers were inflated by some cheapies at the free throw line, the Thunder were 4.8% better as a defensive rebounding unit with Westbrook on the floor. His addition should go along way at Houston working towards the middle of the pack as a rebounding team.
James Harden will play less than 35 minutes per game in the 2019-20 NBA season
James Harden hasn’t played less than 35.4 minutes per game since 2011-12. However, there are indications that this may be the year James Harden finally takes a giant step back in minutes and usage. This obviously starts with the addition of Russell Westbrook. Throughout his time in Houston, Harden has never had anyone who could consistently take on the amount of usage and playing time that Westbrook can. When you factor in the amount of guard depth the Rockets have with Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers as reserves, there’s just not going to be as much time to go around.
Westbrook played 36.0 minutes per game last season, Gordon played 31.7 minutes, and Rivers played 28.6 minutes. Now obviously there will be reductions across the table, but the bottom line is there’s only 96 minutes to go around at the guard positions. Harden and Gordon will play some small forward, but the point stands that there’s just no way that Harden could play 36.8 minutes per game again (nor should he). This will be beneficial for all parties as the Rockets have depended far too much on Harden over the past several years and Houston’s ultimate goal next season should be championship or bust.