Just a season ago, the Houston Rockets recorded a franchise-record 65 wins and fell one victory short of making their first NBA Finals appearance since 1994-95. This year, the reigning Western Conference regular season champions are facing certain obstacles; certain obstacles include a minor roster makeover, a stronger conference, and the annual pursuit of taking down the Golden State Warriors. For the Rockets to get to the promised land, certain things need to happen. Here are the three x-factors for the Rockets this season.
#3: Clint Capela’s Development
Although he has consistently improved each season that he has been in the league, the Rockets’ big man needs to continue to develop. In the offseason, Houston re-signed the former 2014 first-round pick to a 5 yr/ $90 million extension, locking in the Rockets’ core. During the 2017-18 campaign, Clint Capela averaged career-highs in a slew of categories: PPG (13.9), RPG (10.8), BPG (1.9), APG (0.9), FG% (65.2), FT% (56.0), and minutes played (27.5). His ability to run the floor and run the pick-and-roll game with both James Harden and Chris Paul effectively gives Houston a big advantage against opposing big men, but he is still finding his offensive identity.
Perhaps his biggest impact comes on the defensive end, as he has become one of the top rim protectors in the league. With that being said, Clint Capela is instrumental to Houston’s title hopes and his ongoing development is key. His presence in the post aids to the floor spacing that is necessary for the Rockets’ shooting tendencies.
#2: Carmelo Anthony’s Fit
Ever since he committed to playing for the Rockets, the million-dollar question has been: how does Carmelo Anthony fit with the current roster? Despite the signing of James Ennis III, the departures of 3-and-D wings Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute have created the emphasis on Melo’s fit. Carmelo signing a 1 yr/ $2.4 mil contract does not necessarily put a long-term restriction on Houston, but the focus at hand is this season; Daryl Morey has made the “win now” ideology evident throughout the past couple offseasons.
Last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Anthony averaged career-lows in two important categories: points per game (16.2) and field goal percentage (40.4%). OKC trading him and Atlanta buying out his contract shows just how bad last season went for the 10 time All-Star, but that did not stop Houston from seeking his services. Coach Mike D’Antoni and crew are hoping that 2017-18 was a situational fit issue for Melo.
To fuel the optimism, Anthony has averaged 14.5 PPG on a nearly 60% field goal percentage (58.3% from behind-the-arc) to go with 4.5 RPG in the team’s first two preseason contests. Although it may be preseason, it is good to see Melo gaining confidence and forming his role. It also helps that Houston has two of the top guards in the league running the show. Regardless, the Rockets need Melo to fit in effectively within the rotation. Despite his defensive woes, he still has the tools to bring another source of scoring in an explosive, isolation-heavy offense.
#1: Chris Paul’s Health
What if Chris Paul hadn’t went down with a hamstring injury in game 5 of the Western Conference Finals? That question may haunt the team and the rest of Houston for a very long time. However, CP3 is not going anywhere. The 33-year-old signed a lucrative 4-year contract extension in the offseason, but he is not getting any younger. Paul only played 58 games in the regular season during the 2017-18 campaign, which is the second-lowest of his career. Splitting ball-handling duties with James Harden, he averaged 18.6 PPG, 7.9 APG, 1.7 SPG, and 5.4 RPG. While he may not be putting up numbers like he did in the past, Paul is still making his presence felt. Since the beginning, he and Harden clicked almost instantly on the court.
When they were both present on the floor, opposing defenses had to deal with two guys who could shoot, score in the paint, and run the show. In turn, the various guards/wings like Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Trevor Ariza were able to get more open shots. Despite the roster additions/departures, Houston returns one of the deadliest backcourts in the league. For the Rockets to maintain the success they had last season, Chris Paul must stay healthy.