The Rockets managed to pack plenty of storylines into the pre-Christmas portion of their 2018-19 season. The Carmelo Anthony experiment failed faster than anyone expected, and a fight with the Lakers stole the spotlight in LeBron’s home debut. Blowout losses in early December prompted concerning comments from Eric Gordon. Two weeks later, it was announced Chris Paul would be out through the end of 2018 with a hamstring injury. All of this came on the heels of a dominant, 65-win season and a near miss of the Finals.
While their hangover hasn't completely subsided, the Rockets have stabilized of late, winning seven of the last eight to sit seventh in the West at 18–15 following Christmas Day’s 113–109 win over Oklahoma City. Nearly three weeks after it sat at 11–14, Houston is four games behind Denver for the West’s top seed. Everything could be back to normal after Christmas, and a 60-win pace to close the regular season could be on the horizon. Yet legitimate questions remain regarding how sturdy this roster is as we turn the calendar to 2019.
There were no immediate answers for Houston’s slog through the first quarter of the season. Its MVP and superstar sidekick returned, as did defensive anchor Clint Capela on a five-year, $90 million deal. Could the departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute really derail Houston’s chances of a rematch with Golden State? Both were big defensive cogs, but Ariza averaged just 11.7 points per game in 2017-18. Mbah a Moute made just one three per contest. Previous 60-win teams with significant drop-offs the next season (Cleveland post-LeBron, the Pacers following the Artest Melee) had clear explanations for their struggles. The Rockets’ woes through 25 games held no clear antidote.
The pair of losses on the wing didn’t create a noticeable hole in the scorebook. Houston still leads the league in threes attempted and threes made. Eric Gordon is still launching over eight triples per game and James Harden continues to cook. But the two offseason departures created a vacuum in minutes and schematic fit, holes that general manager Daryl Morey has yet to fill. Danuel House doesn’t look ready for prime time, shooting 28% from beyond the arc. Gerald Green’s hyperactivity has breeded more chaos and frustration than success. Michael Carter-Williams isn't a rotational guard on a contender, and Carmelo Anthony looked woefully unprepared to succeed as a modern 3-and-D wing in his short time in Houston. Austin Rivers has a chance to provide good rotation minutes as Morey continues to hunt for upgrades.
P.J. Tucker is doing yeoman's work, defending players through point guard and center positions while shooting 41.4% from three. Yet at 35 minutes per game, he’s overly relied on in Houston’s defense. Last season’s lanky and versatile group was one of the leagues stingiest units, ranking No. 6 in defensive rating. Tucker switched and battled effortlessly with Ariza at his side. But the limitations of Ariza’s replacements have overextended Tucker, pulling him away from the defensive glass and onto explosive guards on the perimeter. Capela has faced a similar problem, too often exploited near the three-point line. Capela spent much of 2017-18 planted near the rim a la DeAndre Jordan. This season he’s been given a more mobile task, charged with dancing to contain the elite point guards of the Western Conference. The shift has caused diminishing returns for Houston, which rates No. 27 in defensive rating this season.
The rotational issues have contributed to Houston’s struggles. But strong play from its stars can shield this team from those shortcomings as Morey works to make improvements. That’s been the case over the last two weeks. Harden has gone nuclear in Houston’s 7–1 stretch, roster construction be damned. He’s scored 35 or more in six of his last seven games. He notched the fourth 50-point triple double of his career against the Lakers on Dec. 14. Harden has looked every bit like his MVP self following an embarrassing loss to Luka and the Mavericks on Dec. 8, and if he continues this form into 2019, Houston will be just fine come April.
It was noted how Westbrookian Harden’s performance was on Christmas, as he posted 41 points on 35 shots. Though the more apt comparison may be Kobe Bryant. Harden gunned his way through four quarters on Tuesday and became the first player since Kobe to rack up 34-plus shot attempts in back-to-back games. Watching Harden sans Paul evoked memories of Bryant in the post-Shaq, pre-Pau Gasol era, emptying the chamber with a middling cast. It hasn’t been pretty, but it’s been completely necessary. And given Harden’s otherworldly offensive skill, it can carry Houston through 82 games.
Expect Harden and Houston to climb the West standings post-Christmas. The top seed isn’t out of reach, and aside from Golden State, there’s no team who’d be a significant postseason favorite against the Rockets. Denver is unproven, and the Thunder’s disjointed attack may be too shaky come playoff time. The questions about LeBron’s supporting cast will carry through the spring. Skepticism remains with the Clippers, Blazers and Jazz. Yet Morey and Harden’s white whale isn’t any of the aforementioned teams. It’s the reigning champs.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Houston’s championship window lasted one season. The Rockets flummoxed the Warriors and had them on the ropes. When you come at the king, you best not miss. Their All-NBA point guard may never regain his 2017-18 form, and it’s perfect cocktail of switchable swingmen may be impossible to replicate. Morey went all in last season and fell just short.
But don’t be so quick to dismiss Houston and its offensive virtuoso. Harden is one of the most unique scoring machines in NBA history. His string of isolations, threes and free throws willed Houston to victories last season, one dagger at a time. A hot week from Harden can swing a season. Even though the roster isn’t as deep or as sturdy as last year and Paul is likely to take a step back from last year’s dominance upon his return from injury, don’t count out Harden's squad just yet. Another MVP-caliber campaign from The Beard, and Houston will be well on its way to a rematch with Golden State in the Western Conference finals.