The Houston Rockets were three wins away from their first NBA Finals appearance since 1994-95 last season. With a summer to get healthy and the addition of Ty Lawson, the anticipation for the start of the new campaign is almost at “new Star Wars trailer” levels.
With preseason over and 2015-16 season almost upon us, this feels like a good time to make some bold predictions on everything Houston Rockets-related.
1. Clint Capela Will be Houston’s Biggest Breakout Star
The bad news for the Rockets is the health of star center Dwight Howard is going to be a question mark throughout the season. Howard suited up just once during the preseason due to back issues, and the team will likely take a cautious approach going forward in an effort to keep him fresh for a postseason run. That could mean lowering his minutes and/or sitting him on the second half of back-to-backs.
The good news is the team has 21-year-old former first-round pick Clint Capela waiting in the wings. Capela didn’t play much during his rookie season, logging just 217 minutes in the regular season and playoffs combined, but he showed flashes of his potential when he was on the floor. With Joey Dorsey gone, Capela will assume the backup role behind Howard and will start the opener while D12 is suspended. To prepare for his increased role, Houston’s new Swiss Superman added some bulk to his lanky frame, going from 222 pounds as a rookie to 246 this season.
Offensively, Capela still has plenty of strides to make. He’s not much of an option beyond put-backs and dunks, but that area will grow with more time on the court. At the other end, Capela has the tools to be an elite rim-protector. He’s 6’11” with a 7’4.5″ wingspan and a 9’2.5″ standing reach. While the sample size is small, Capela was able to produce a ridiculous 7.8 block percentage in the regular season as well as 5.8 percent in the playoffs. With Howard struggling to stay healthy, the Rockets will need Capela to hold down the fort in the middle. He won’t put up gaudy scoring numbers, but don’t be surprised if he racks up the blocks and boards in his second season.
2. Ty Lawson Will Set Career High in Assists
The Rockets took one of the biggest gambles of the offseason by trading for Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson. Lawson was on the outs in Denver after being hit with his second DUI in seven months and third alcohol-related transgression of his basketball career. Beyond the off-the-court drama, Houston was also rolling the dice that a score-first floor general like Lawson would be able to coexist with a ball-dominant guard like James Harden.
So far, the Lawson experiment is off to a good start. The former North Carolina Tarheel averaged 11.8 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals during the preseason. He also shot 53.1 percent from the field, including 38.5 percent from three. More importantly, the prospect of holding the keys to this Rockets offense has him downright giddy after years of playing with less-than-stellar talent in Denver (via Houston Chronicle):
“It’s easy for me,” Lawson said. “All I got to do is read the defense. I know Trevor (Ariza) is going to hit shots. T.J. (Terrence Jones) is hitting 3s. James. Corey (Brewer) is coming in and playing well. I have a lot of options. I’m a kid in the candy store right now.”
Lawson’s assists per game have increased every season since his arrival in 2010-11. With so much talent around him, he should surpass last year’s career-high output, when he finished third in the NBA with 9.1 dimes per game.
3. James Harden Will Finish Outside NBA Top Three in Scoring
Last season, James Harden came within a hair of his first scoring title, trailing former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook by less than a point per game. However, Harden was tasked with carrying the Rockets’ offense while many of the team’s other scorers dealt with injuries. Howard missed 41 games. Terrence Jones was in and out of the lineup. Patrick Beverley’s season got cut short in March with a wrist injury. Harden’s ability to put the team on his back is largely why he came in second in MVP voting, but also why The Beard wore down during the playoffs.
This time around, the Rockets made every effort to lighten the load on Harden’s shoulders. Lawson was brought in to assume some of the playmaking duties. Trevor Ariza, Jones and even Howard should be around more often to give the offense more versatility. The end result will be a fresher Harden down the stretch, but it’ll also come at the expense of his stats. He’ll still average in the 22-24 points per game range, but the decrease in offensive responsibility will push him out of the top three in scoring. With Kevin Durant returning to the court in addition to guys like Anthony Davis and LeBron James getting the bulk of their respective teams’ touches, the competition for the scoring title will be especially deep this year.
4. Houston Rockets Will Win 60 Games and Earn Top Seed in the West
Despite the early injuries to Howard, Jones and Donatas Motiejunas, it’s hard not to like the Rockets’ chances of leading the West with this roster. Lawson and Harden have the potential to be a special backcourt with their combination of speed, shooting, passing and aggressiveness attacking the basket. Ariza should be more comfortable in his role as a 3-and-D guy in the second season of his second stint in H-Town. Corey Brewer can keep that two-way momentum going when Ariza needs a breather, as well. Jones improved the range on his jumper this season, stroking 36.4 percent from three during the preseason. If he stays healthy, he could be an underrated weapon in this offense. Even young players like Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could become key contributors this season.
While the Western Conference is the deepest it’s been in years, few teams possess Houston’s combination of experience, talent and depth. Even with injuries decimating the roster last season, the Rockets still managed to win 56 games. If the team can stay healthy and with Lawson now in the fold, why can’t they improve on that win total this season? The Rockets have never won 60 games in the franchise’s history. The closest they ever came was 58 wins during the club’s first championship season in 1993-94. With the improvements the team made during the offseason, a new franchise record this season is certainly possible.
5. The Rockets Will be Eliminated in the Second Round of the Playoffs
This is less about a lack of faith in the Rockets as championship contenders and more about the number of potential Western Conference playoff teams that pose a bad matchup for Houston. Let’s assume Houston does earn the top seed and makes quick work of either an upstart Utah Jazz team or a talented-yet-fragile New Orleans Pelicans squad.
In the second round, the competition figures to get much tougher. There’s the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have the trio of Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to go along with the creative offensive mind of new coach Billy Donovan. The Thunder sent the Rockets packing in the first round a couple years ago, albeit before the arrivals of Howard, Ariza and Lawson. What about the Los Angeles Clippers? Lob City had Houston on the ropes last season, jumping out to a 3-1 lead before collapsing in seven games. This summer, the Clips didn’t just add depth but also battle-tested veterans like Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith. All three have made extended runs in the playoffs, including Pierce’s two runs to the Finals and Smith’s extended run with the Rockets last season.
While the Rockets have the talent to overcome the odds, there are a lot of questions yet to be answered that cast doubts over their chances of making a repeat trip to the conference finals.