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Questions Remain As Rockets Hit Midway Point

As the Rockets hit the halfway point we look back at our biggest questions heading into the season

January 10, 2019 - 11:39 am

By Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane)

Before the season started I identified my five biggest questions about the Rockets, so as they hit the halfway point of the season Friday against the Cavaliers, I decided to take a look at how they have answered questions thus far.

Can Carmelo Anthony fit in?

Though I softened my stance a little in the months after it happened, I didn’t think the Anthony signing would pan out, and it turned out my initial instincts were spot on. Despite doing everything the Rockets asked of him, Anthony simply wasn’t good, and the fit wasn’t there, so after 10 games, both parties agreed it was time to move on. Anthony averaged a career-low 13.4 points in 29 minutes while shooting below 41 percent from the field and 33 percent from behind the three-point line. To make things worse, the Rockets were -9 per 100 possessions with Anthony on the floor and +1.8 per 100 possessions when he was off. It also didn't help that the Rockets were 4-6 when he played. Though he’s been away from the team for over two months, Anthony remains on the Rockets roster as they look to find a team that will trade for him so they don’t have to eat the remainder of his salary plus luxury tax penalty.

Can the defense survive offseason changes?

After finishing last season seventh in defensive rating, the Rockets lost Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Jeff Bzdelik in the offseason the Rockets are feeling the pain at the defensive end of the floor, allowing six more points per 100 possessions this season, 111.6, which is 5th worst in the NBA. Bzdelik returned to the bench after Thanksgiving, but even before he came back, the Rockets defense started to improve:

A drop-off was to be expected. Defensive chemistry is a very underrated aspect of the Rockets switch everything defensive scheme, but the thing is, the team is actually allowing fewer open looks per game this season, the problem is that they aren’t defending the paint, and they aren't rebounding, dropping from 4th in defensive rebounding percentage last season to 29th this season, leading to way too many second chance opportunities. The Rockets almost beat the Warriors last May because of their defense, but right now this defense can’t hang with Golden State. 

Can Chris Paul hold up?

In the first year of a 4-year, $160 million contract, Paul has played in 26-of-40 games. He was suspended for two games following an early season fight with Rajon Rondo, missed three games over Thanksgiving because of a sore left leg, and he’s missed the last nine games due to a strained left hamstring after a right hamstring strain cost him the final two games of the Western Conference Finals. Before his latest hamstring injury, Paul’s minutes spiked to 33.2 per game after playing in just 31.8 last season, and this is a guy that managed to play 16 straight games once last season, so it isn't hard to imagine he could have trouble making it through a long playoff run. To pile on, Paul’s play has dipped. His 41.5 percent field goal percentage is a career-low, and his three turnovers per game match a career-high set back when he didn’t have James Harden sharing the point guard load. He’s still really good, and the shooting will even out, but it’s looking more and more like the back end of that contract could be as ugly as we feared.

Can another guard emerge?

Fortunately for the Rockets, another guard did emerge, thought he did so unexpectedly. Before the season I brought up Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Knight as the Rockets fourth guard to compliment Paul, James Harden, and Eric Gordon. Well, Carter-Williams and his -64 over 145 minutes was traded to Chicago earlier this week, and Knight isn’t close to the player he was before tearing his ACL almost two years ago. The good news is that another former Sun (sort of) saved the day. Austin Rivers was bought out by Phoenix after being acquired from Washington. He joined the Rockets on Christmas Eve and has been terrific ever since, which the Rockets have desperately needed as Paul and Gordon nurse injuries. He gives the team four true ball handlers, and look for Mike D’Antoni to try to use all four together at some point, but where Rivers will be invaluable will be for his ability absorb minutes from the Rockets other three guards. D’Antoni constantly says he’s playing guys too many minutes, well, having Rivers can help alleviate that issue.

Does James Harden have another level?

As it turns out, he does. Following three top two MVP finishes in four seasons, Harden is having the best season of his career. While breaking an NBA record with 10 straight 35+ scoring games, Harden is averaging a career-high 33.9 points per game. His 3-point shooting is up to 38.6 percent on over 12 attempts per game with half of those shots being step-backs on which he’s connecting on an absurd 43.6 percent. He’s carried the Rockets to wins over Golden State, Oklahoma City, Denver, and Boston over the past couple of weeks with Paul out of the lineup. His minutes are up, and that’s a concern, but if he can hold up there is no reason to think he can’t win a second MVP.