In an extremely weird time, maybe the Houston Rockets are the team of the moment. For years Daryl Morey, their general manager, has talked about raising their "risk profile," and their acquisition of Robert Covington and full-on commitment to smallball has made them more radical than ever. Houston is built to make opponents unable to do what they normally do, with a combination of spacing and switching that a shock to the system even when you know exactly what's coming. Nobody shoots more 3s, and nobody else has a pair of perimeter playmakers like James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Assuming that the NBA goes through with its plan to restart the 2019-20 season despite the COVID-19 surge in Florida, some wild stuff will probably happen. In a high-variance environment, are the Rockets fringe contenders? What did we learn about them in the 14 games Covington played? Brad Botkin and James Herbert discuss:
James Herbert: You called the Rockets "the ultimate wild card," and you named Westbrook one of the most pivotal players going to Disney World. I feel like they're a trendy team to talk about now because, unlike anyone else who could conceivably go deep in the playoffs, we haven't seen that much of them. The first few games with Covington seemed to bode well, but then their defense slipped and they lost to a bunch of blah teams.
I want to see Houston defend like it did in 2017-18, and maybe that's possible if it is healthy -- Eric Gordon should come back to life, and it's worth noting that P.J. Tucker was playing through nerve damage in his shoulder when we last saw him. I have no idea how everybody will hold up with this compressed schedule, though.
How confident do you feel that you actually have a handle on the Rockets? Do you have a particularly spicy take about their awful defensive rebounding? Is Morey crazy for saying they should win the whole thing?
Brad Botkin: I'm not confident at all that I know anything about the Rockets. I don't have a spicy take, or any kind of take, on their rebounding issue; they are what they are. And, yes, Morey is crazy to say the Rockets "should" win the whole thing.
The question is: Could they win the whole thing?
And to that I say probably not. But there's enough of a puncher's-chance element to this team, and, as you said, enough variance baked into this entire Orlando setup, that I can't completely dismiss them. I would say the same for other second-tier contenders like the Celtics, Nuggets, 76ers, Raptors and even the Heat.
What makes the Rockets different from -- and scarier than -- those teams is the top-end talent. No other fringe contender has even a single former MVP on the roster. Houston has two. We know Harden can carry a team, and, when the season was suspended, Westbrook was arguably playing the best basketball of his career.
Indeed, I think this whole Rockets experiment swings on Westbrook. I know some people are talking about collective versatility and a more rested Harden as things that make Houston an interesting contender case, but if Westbrook lays an egg, if he reverts to jacking up 3-pointers and settling for contested pull-ups rather than attacking the rim, drawing fouls and kicking out to better shooters when appropriate, Houston is done.
That is one thing in which I am quite confident.
Herbert: Is it weird that I'm not the least bit worried about Westbrook? I get the concerns about him taking ill-advised jumpers, but why would he revert to that now? The whole system is set up for him to attack the basket over and over, and I've never felt more confident when the ball is in his hands. To me, his improvement in the middle of the season was more about the environment changing than him changing, even though he had started to cut down on the 3s before the Rockets went centerless.
I think Gordon's the guy to watch. When he's on the floor with the two stars, he'll be able to attack the opponent's third-best perimeter defender (unless somebody like Rudy Gobert is guarding Westbrook). When he's on the floor with only one of them, he'll be a much bigger threat than any of Houston's other wing options, provided that he is healthy. I want to see this guy again:
At his best, Gordon just bulldozes people. He can pull up from deep at any time, and perhaps his presence as a playmaker will prevent Harden and Westbrook from wearing down. But he has been a perfect fit in Houston (until this injury-riddled season) because he is also a tough, switchable defender. Mike D'Antoni told The Athletic's Kelly Iko that he plans to use a nine-man rotation in the playoffs -- a big adjustment! -- and, similar to how Gordon will help the offense keep rolling when one of the stars is resting, Gordon should help the defense stay solid when either Tucker or Covington is off the court.
It's not a perfect analogy, though, because the 6-foot-3 Gordon doesn't have the same defensive range as those guys. He's long, but he's not going to get the help-side blocks that Covington does. He's strong, but he's not going to be effective against true bigs the way Tucker is. My fear with the Rockets is not that the smallball won't work, but that I can easily imagine both Tucker and Covington having to log 45 minutes in an elimination game. And they can't be asked to do that before then.
Botkin: You read my mind. House, I suspect, could be something of a barometer for the Rockets in these playoffs. He's the perfect Trevor Ariza replica in my book, and we all remember the impact Ariza had when Houston was probably on its way to eliminating the Warriors in the 2018 postseason before Chris Paul got hurt. He can shoot. He can defend with versatility. A true X-factor candidate if he really shows up.
Gordon is another X-factor, only with higher upside. I don't expect great production from Gordon, but he can clearly provide exactly that on any given night. If he plays at or near his high-water mark, that's another win for a Rockets team that realistically needs everyone to be at the very top of their game if we're talking about knocking off one of the L.A. teams.
I'm actually with you on the Westbrook thing, too. For a player I've never fully trusted, I actually do trust that he's going to pick up where he left off in terms of shot selection and flat-out production. I don't know what it is about this particular two-month stretch of great basketball that feels different than all the other great stretches of basketball Westbrook has authored during his career. It just feels more dependable.
It's the reason I truly believe the Rockets are a threat, though in the end I just can't see them completely overcoming their collective rebounding deficiencies. They're going to give up too many extra possessions, and those wear a defense out and ultimately kill upset bids unless you're absolutely shooting the lights out for an entire series. Do you see the Rockets being able to overcome this size gap?
Herbert: I knew you'd be in on House! I wrote about him in November, aka eons ago, and he told me he is determined to not go out the way he did in last year's playoffs. I had high hopes for him then, but a toe injury made him a non-factor against the Warriors. (He didn't want to use that as an excuse, but I can.)
Anyway, the size gap: My reflexive answer is that other teams should be worried about the skill gap. We see centers get played off the floor in the playoffs every season; maybe the Rockets just got it out of the way early, while simultaneously adding a player who fits their system perfectly.
I hear you about the extra possessions, though, and I wonder about the cumulative effect of their style of play. In theory, all the standing around the role players do on offense means that they'll have more energy on defense. In theory, all the switching means they will be able to avoid getting into rotation. But then you watch them and you see Covington flying around all over the place, Tucker fighting 7-footers for position and Westbrook pushing the pace like a madman. To get to the Finals, Houston will need to play this way for almost three months, just about every other day. This sounds exhausting.
I'm not quite ready to pick the Rockets over the teams based in Los Angeles -- I'll take skill over size any day, but the Western Conference front-runners aren't short on skill. At the same time, how many Lakers and Clippers role players are you absolutely sure will be able to stay on the court against them? I love that their front office is looking at where the league is going rather than what has worked in the past, and I think it'd be incredible if everybody who laughed at them at the deadline had to eat their words in the playoffs. Let's see them play some more games together before we put a ceiling on them.