Photo by Troy Taormina/USA Today

Rockets Enter 2018-19 Season With Questions

Carmelo Anthony headlines five questions we have about this season's team

October 17, 2018 - 11:55 am

By Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane)

After getting within 24 minutes of winning the Western Conference last May, the Rockets will open their 2018-19 season tonight at Toyota Center against the New Orleans Pelicans. A lot has changed since the Rockets last took the floor, and with those changes come questions. Here are my five biggest heading into the season.

Can Carmelo Anthony fit in?

I was bearish about this move when it was (finally) made, but Anthony has said all the right things so far, and he looked fine in four preseason games, for whatever that’s worth, but let’s be honest, nobody knows how this will work or if it will work. Even though he’s mostly come off the bench in his two seasons with the Rockets, Mike D’Antoni has referred to Eric Gordon as the Rockets sixth starter. Anthony will likely be the Rockets seventh starter. Whether he starts games or not is unlikely to be an issue, for now, but what if he doesn’t finish games, what if he’s only playing 15 minutes a game? His role is one question, but there are others. Can he hold up in the Rockets switchy defensive scheme? Can he be an effective roll man in the pick and roll? Can he make enough of his open looks from three? Can he avoid the inefficient long 2-pointers he feasted on his entire career? Most importantly, can someone who has been a star and been treated like a star his entire life handle being a role player? 

Can their defense survive offseason changes?

Last season, the Rockets allowed 105.6 points per 100 possessions, 7th best in the NBA, almost a 3-point improvement on the season before when they were 18th, but this season’s team is missing three huge cogs: Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Jeff Bzdelik. Ariza signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Suns, while Mbah a Moute returned to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Rockets signed James Ennis to fill some of that void, but then Bzdelik, the Rockets associate head coach, retired right before the start of training camp. D’Antoni gave Bzdelik autonomy on the defensive end of the floor, so not only do the Rockets lose his voice in practice and in meetings, they also lose it on the bench during games. The Rockets staff with Roy Rogers, Brett Gunning, and Matt Brase is more than capable of stepping in, but lack his experience in game situation, so it's impossible to expect them to see the floor the same way Bzdelik could. Ennis is a solid, versatile defender, but Anthony is not. The Rockets defense will be able to survive when he’s on the floor against most teams, but remember what the Warriors did to Ryan Anderson in the third quarter of game seven? Anthony will have that same bull’s-eye on him.

Can Chris Paul hold up?

After playing in 61 games in his final season with the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul played in just 58-of-82 regular season games with the Rockets before missing the final two games of the Western Conference Finals with an injured right hamstring. Paul played at an elite level when he was on the floor, but that’s the key, keeping him on the floor. Nobody expects the 33-year old to play all 82 games regular season games, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever play 70 ever again, but Paul played in more than 16 straight games once last season and that’s after averaging less than 32 minutes. He hit the 40-minute mark once during the regular season a year ago (December 31 overtime win that Harden left with an injury). He did it once in the playoffs: game four against the Warriors, and he couldn’t make it through the following game. Harden takes a lot of pressure off him, as does Eric Gordon, but I think the Rockets would love it if a fourth ball handler can emerge to help keep him fresh and healthy.

Can another guard emerge?

Harden, Paul, and Gordon were the Rockets primary ball handlers last season. That worked when all three were healthy, but if one went down, the Rockets were in a little trouble, and we saw that when Paul missed a bunch of time early in the season. There were times when Demetrius Jackson, Bobby Brown or Briante Weber were running the Rockets offense, and as you'd expect, it didn't go well. Things got so desperate that Isaiah Canaan was brought back for a game. The Rockets looked to address the lack of depth at that spot with veterans, albeit, very flawed veterans. First they signed former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, who they had been linked to in the past. The Rockets are his fifth team in six NBA seasons and his fourth team in the last four. At 6’6, Carter-Williams does some things that have drawn the interest of teams around the league, shooting is not one of those things. He’s a 25 percent shooter from deep over his career, and that number has gone down over the years. To go with Carter-Williams, the Rockets acquired Brandon Knight from Phoenix as part of the return for Ryan Anderson. He missed all of last season with a torn ACL, and has yet to practice with the Rockets, but when healthy he had stretches of being an above average shooter from behind the 3-point line. He also has the ability to create his own shot and get to the free throw line. He just doesn’t defend. The Rockets need one these two to step up and take some of the heat off Harden, Paul, and Gordon.

Does Harden have another level?

Harden led the NBA in scoring last season and finally won the MVP after two-second place finishes. A big reason why was that he became a more effiecient player with his PER jumping over two points. He went from a 34.7 percent 3-point shooter in 2016-17 to a 36.7 percent shooter a season ago and turned the “dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, step-back 3” prayer into an efficient canning 40.6 percent of his threes off of seven or more dribbles after shooting 34.8 percent on those possessions the season before. Now as Harden gets ready for the last season of his 20s and his tenth in the NBA is there another part of his game he can improve? He brought his turnovers down significantly last season, but it helped having Paul on the floor with him. Can he become a better shooter? Can he get to the free throw line even more? Can he get back over league average on shots in the restricted area? Obviously, defense will be the first thing brought up, but he’s better on that end of the floor than he’s given credit for.