Houston Rockets Projected Starting Five:
- Russell Westbrook
- James Harden
- Eric Gordon
- P.J. Tucker
- Clint Capela
- Other Notable Players — Austin Rivers, Tyson Chandler, Danuel House Jr., Gerald Green, Kenneth Faried
The Houston Rockets made one of the bigger splashes of the summer, swapping out Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. The Rockets will now have two players who can single-handedly take over a game, and it will be on Coach Mike D’Antoni to optimize the rotation for them to coexist. The rest of the roster returns for the Rockets, plus Tyson Chandler who could see some sparing backup center minutes.
Chris Paul showed some signs of decline last season, particularly in isolation scoring, but he still kept the Rockets playing at an elite level when Harden was on the bench. The rockets had net rating of plus 8.1 when Chris Paul was on the court without Harden, per Cleaning the Glass. The impact was mostly felt on defense, where the Rockets had a defensive rating of about 106 with Paul on the court compared to about 115 with him off.
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Westbrook is not the smart team defender Paul is, but if he focuses his energy on that end he could be disruptive. The Rockets will hope that Westbrook’s offensive impact will more than make up for the defensive downgrade. Westbrook will be better suited to carry the offensive load while Harden sits, and his relentless rim attacks could be even more devastating with the Rocket’s army of shooters around him.
The Sixers will need to rely on the services of their two best wing defenders, Simmons and Richardson, to shadow the dynamic duo. I’d put Simmons on Harden, as his length and quickness gives him a chance to thwart the deadly Harden step-back. Richardson has the tools and the attitude to bother Westbrook.
There is also the always fun subplot of the Embiid-Westbrook rivalry, which will surely spice up these matchups. Embiid will not need to stray far from the rim with the Capela on the court, although he will be forced to guard the Harden-Capela pick-and-roll. The Rockets will spread the court around that play, and it will be up to Simmons and Richardson to stick to Harden on those screens to avoid Embiid switching to Harden.
A lot of teams try to have the player guarding Harden fight over that screen, and drop their center back to stick with Capela. The goal would be force Harden to drive and take a mid-range floater, which he can and will make, but a better option than giving up a step back three or a dunk.
Horford will have to guard a smaller player like P.J Tucker or Danuel House Jr. on the perimeter. Neither of those players should scare the Sixers with their off the bounce play, but it does keep Horford away from the rim where he would be most comfortable.
On offense, the Sixers should look to force Westbrook and Harden to guard in space, by either getting them isolated on Tobias Harris, or putting them in Pick and Roll action to wear them out. The Sixers will have a huge size advantage, as Tucker will likely be put on Horford, leaving 2 of Harden, Gordon, and Westbrook tasked with guarding Harris and Simmons. If either Harris or Simmons starts to light it up, Tucker could be switched to them, giving Horford a post advantage.
Last season, the Sixers split the season series with the Rockets, with each team getting a win at home. The Sixers win came with a memorable Corey Brewer performance, as they blew out a Rockets team that was missing both Chris Paul and Clint Capela. The Rockets returned the favor with a 16 point win of their in Houston. That game saw the Rockets at full strength, but the Sixers were missing Joel Embiid.
I predict each team will protect home court this season as well. The Sixers have the tools to defend the Rockets, but it will take a high energy level and focus for the entire game, which is not always guaranteed in the regular season.
That wraps up the Southwest Division, and according to my predictions, the Sixers will go 7-3 against these teams. We will move on to the Northwest in our next breakdown, stay tuned.