Over the next month, Blazer's Edge will be rolling out season previews for all 30 NBA teams. Continuing this feature, we discuss the Houston Rockets with The Dream Shake managing editor Ethan Rothstein. (Yesterday's preview: Golden State Warriors)
Houston Rockets 2014-15 Season Preview
2013-14 Record: 54-28, No. 2 in Southwest Division, No. 4 in Western Conference
Roster additions: Jeff Adrien, Trevor Ariza, Tarik Black (rookie, undrafted), Clint Capela (rookie, No. 25), Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson (rookie, No. 42), Akil Mitchell (rookie, undrafted), Kostas Papanikolaou, Ish Smith, Jason Terry
Roster subtractions: Omer Asik, Omri Casspi, Jordan Hamilton, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons
SB Nation affiliate: The Dream Shake
Blazer's Edge: James Harden has said he knows his defense needs to improve...do you think he'll be better on that end of the floor this year?
Ethan Rothstein: Well, it's hard to be worse. In truth, it's impossible to tell. He hasn't really played much in the preseason, and he was still pretty atrocious during the FIBA World Cup. The thing is, at the same World Cup, he proved even further that few, if any, players in the world can match his singularly effective offensive game. That's what made him still deserve his first-team All-NBA spot last year; even if his defense is laughable, the balance of his offense still makes him one of the very best players in the world.
As far as his defense this year, he's said all the right things, and he has all the ability. He guarded LeBron James -- pretty effectively at that -- in his last minutes with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. It's not out of the question that he improves, and Trevor Ariza over Chandler Parsons at the wing should only help the Rockets' team burden. Considering just how jarringly little he sometimes cares about defense, however, I wouldn't be shocked if it doesn't improve at all. And I'll still love his game.
BE: The Rockets lost Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons this past offseason. Are you concerned with the lack of proven depth on Houston's bench? Who do you think will be the sixth man?
ER: Any Rockets fan would be lying to you if they told you they weren't even a little concerned. We have talent, but the word "proven" is very critical here. Jason Terry is the Rockets only proven bench player (if you don't count Francisco Garcia, who has been abysmal in his limited preseason minutes), and he hasn't played a minute in the preseason. Troy Daniels has shown the ability to take over a game, even a playoff game, with his microwave bench shooting, and through the preseason he has been on fire.
Past those characters, the bench is some amalgam of Ish Smith, Donatas Motiejunas, Jeff Adrien/Tarik Black/Joey Dorsey, Kostas Papanikolaou (we call him Big Papa and he looks like another Morey steal so far), Isaiah Canaan and rookie Nick Johnson. Each has shown flashes but none have consistently impressed in the lead up to the season. I feel like Big Papa is the real deal as a, dare I say, young Hedo Turkoglu-type player, but past that it's impossible to know how this bench does over an 82 game season, let alone the playoffs.
BE: What are Rockets fans' general feelings about the first-round playoff series against the Blazers last year? Are the expectations higher this season?
ER: Our general feeling is basically one of profound pain. My personal experience: I was watching in my girlfriend's office at 11 p.m. while she was finishing up a project. When Chandler Parsons forgot he was playing defense and Lillard got so open, I shouted "No!!!" then watched Damian Lillard crush us. It was devastating, because it's hard not to think, if Howard kept playing like he was and if Harden could turn it on in the next series, the Rockets had a shot of really doing damage. But it was not to be.
This season, the expectations are mixed. Yes, we know we're thinner than last year. But Trevor Ariza brings defense and savvy that Parsons lacked, despite the lack of on-the-ball ability. It was Dwight Howard's first year on the team and, by all accounts, he's even healthier this year. It could be the Rockets take a big step just in terms of team chemistry and familiarity, at least with the starting unit.
No one would be shocked if the Rockets improve or drop a few games off of last year's pace. But anything below a 6 seed will be considered a step back.
BE: Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard start in the frontcourt, with a whole host of role players and journeymen behind them on the depth chart. How does that frontcourt rotation work this year?
ER: This is the topic we discuss most on the site. The backup center spot looks like a three-horse race among Adrien, Black and Dorsey, and, even though Dorsey has a two-year guaranteed contract, he looks like the worst of the three to this point. That being said, none of them look particularly good since Dwight Howard has been sitting with a sore knee. They were dominated by the Pelicans on Tuesday night, and not a one has flashed any offensive creativity. I'd put Black in the lead based on athleticism and hustle, but he fouls like crazy.
At four, it's going to be Donatas Motiejunas, who has looked comfortable working the post and shooting from deep, with some of Big Papa at stretch four. When bench units come in, these two will frequently be the first option offensively.
BE: I've heard some criticisms of coach Kevin McHale's game-planning...do you think he's the right man for the job in Houston?
ER: No one is thrilled with Coach McHale, but it's also hard to fully complain because of how close the Rockets were to the conference semis last year, and how great a job he had done in 2013 to make the playoffs. This year feels like it will decide his future in Houston. If the Rockets can advance a round and he does well, he'll buy himself a couple more years. If the Rockets take a big step back at the start of the season, he just may be one of the first coaches on the hot seat. Howard is only signed until 2016 -- the Rockets can't afford a step back.
BE: Will the Rockets have one of the highest-powered offenses in the NBA again this year?
ER: Probably, but maybe not quite as explosive as last year. We need to see how Ariza can fit in the offense and what improvement we see out of Terrence Jones, Patrick Beverley and the bench. Harden and Howard should be everything they were last year, and some are expecting an uptick from Dwight, and they will still be an efficiency-minded team, so it's hard to see them falling out of the top seven or eight teams in the league offensively.
Special thanks to The Dream Shake managing editor Ethan Rothstein for taking the time to discuss the Houston Rockets' upcoming season with Blazer's Edge. Andy can be found on twitter @ethanrothstein. The Dream Shake has you covered for Rockets news and analysis.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter