Five Questions About the 2019-2020 Rockets

We ask our 5 biggest questions about the upcoming Rockets season

Adam Spolane
October 24, 2019 - 12:12 pm

Photo by Steve Mitchell/USA Today

After another wild offseason, the Rockets 2019-20 season begins Thursday night against the Milwaukee Bucks. Expectations are high once again, but questions exist, so I thought I’d explore the five biggest I have about the team heading into the season.

Can the James Harden/Russell Westbrook partnership work?

The childhood friends are back together after the Rockets shocked the basketball world by trading Chris Paul to Oklahoma City for the 2017 MVP. From a basketball standpoint the fit is odd because Westbrook’s biggest weakness, shooting, is probably the most important skill you can have in a Mike D’Antoni offense. A pair of offseason surgeries kept Westbrook off the floor for much of the summer, so as expected, with a short training camp that included a trip to Japan, things have looked a little clunky in the four preseason games Westbrook suited up for. Harden and Westbrook are in their 30s now and find themselves with maybe their last real chance to win a title, so there’s the obvious motivation to make it work, the question will be if it’s possible.

Will #HongKongGate ever blow over?

If you were at Toyota Center for the Rockets last preseason game October 16 you might’ve noticed covered up signs around the building. Those are from Chinese sponsors that want nothing to do with the Rockets. Aside the statement Morey tweeted two days after he sent a tweet promoting Hong Kong’s freedom movement, Morey normally a constant public presence has been silent. The Ringer reported the Rockets discussed the possibility of firing him in the aftermath of the tweet and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the Chinese wanted him fired. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta gave Morey a vote of confidence the day after the tweet, but that was before the story really blew up. He’s said nothing since, and it’s telling that no Rockets player has said anything in support of Morey. With the Rockets and its players persona non grata in China right now, does Morey become too much of a liability?

Will Fertitta allow Morey to add payroll?

The Rockets enter this season slightly under the luxury tax threshold after finishing the first two seasons of the Fertitta era under the number. The Rockets owner has said all the right things about paying the tax in the past, but the Rockets did all sorts of gymnastics to get under before the trade deadline last season. They gave away James Ennis, who finished the season in the Sixers rotation, and instead of simply waiving Carmelo Anthony, the team kept him on the roster as long as they could before finally finding a trade partner, which forced them to waive Danuel House when it was time to convert Gary Clark’s two-way contract. How much does the fallout from Morey’s tweet and the loss of money from China impact these decisions? 

Can they defend at a high level?

The Rockets have finished no worse than second in offensive efficiency during D’Antoni’s three seasons as head coach, and last season, the Rockets 114.9 points per 100 possession, up from 114.1 the season before. The reason why the Rockets went from a 65-win team with the best record in the NBA to a 53-win team that finished fourth in the West was defense. Two seasons ago, they finished 7th in defensive efficiency, holding teams to 105.7 points per 100 possessions. That number jumped to 110.1 last season, which was 17th best. Why the drop off? There are a lot of reasons, but a big one was rebounding. The Rockets went from the fourth best defensive rebounding team in the NBA to the second worst. That shouldn’t be a big surprise, the Rockets were one of the smallest teams in the NBA, starting four players that stood 6’5 and smaller, but it wasn’t just rebounding. Teams started to attack their switching scheme differently. Instead of looking to attack Harden, Paul, and Eric Gordon on post ups, teams started to spread the floor and let guards work 1-on-1 against Clint Capela. Not only did that take Capela away from the rim, hurting the Rockets ability to secure rebounds, Capela had trouble staying in front of those guards. The Rockets replaced associate head coach, and defacto defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik with Elston Turner. The Rockets will switch plenty on the defensive end under Turner, but it will be interesting to see if they switch every action.

Is D’Antoni’s job safe?

The last time the Rockets entered the season with a coach in the final year of his contract they got off to a great started and gave Kevin McHale a three-year extension. He lasted 11 games into that extension, but that’s beside the point. The Rockets have won at least 53 games in D’Antoni’s first three seasons as Rockets coach and his 4 playoff series wins are more than the team had in the 19 years prior to his arrival, but when given an opportunity to extend his contract over the summer, the Rockets lowballed him in a process that Fertitta admitted played out way too publicly. The players love D’Antoni and the freedom he gives them, and Fertitta has said multiple times “Mike is my coach”, but what happens if the team starts another season slowly? How much patience will a guy pushing a book called “Shutup and Listen” actually have?