NBA Free Agency Diary: The Rockets Are Still Relevant

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Dear NBA Diary,

The Houston Rockets are having a rough summer. Despite tough talk from owner Tilman Fertitta after the team’s second-straight playoff defeat to the Golden State Warriors — and a mandate for general manager Daryl Morey to improve the team over the offseason — the Rockets have largely watched from the sidelines as other Western Conference teams overhauled their rosters. In fact, the biggest news to come out of Houston this summer might have been the (disputed) reports of friction between stars James Harden and Chris Paul.

Maybe there is still time for Houston to orchestrate a trade for orphaned OKC star Russell Westbrook, but that looks like a long shot. Most likely, the 2019-20 Rockets will closely resemble the 2018-19 Rockets, who also closely resembled the 2017-18 Rockets.

But is that such a bad thing? After a rocky start, last year’s Rockets righted the ship and finished the 2018-19 season with essentially the same Elo rating (1702) as they had at the end of 2017-18 (1704). And the Warriors, their longtime bête noire, are unquestionably weakened. (By how much? That’s a subject for a future entry, dear diary.) Our way-too-early CARMELO rankings consider Houston the best regular-season team in the West, talent-wise, right now:

The Rockets still have a lot of top talent on their side

Projected full-strength regular-season depth chart for the 2019-20 Houston Rockets, based on CARMELO plus/minus ratings

EXPECTED MINUTES PER GAME PLAYER RATING
PLAYER PG SG SF PF C TOTAL OFF. +/- DEF. +/- TOT. +/-
James Harden 8 25 4 0 0 37 +7.4 +0.9 +8.3
Clint Capela 0 0 0 2 29 31 -0.3 +2.3 +2.0
Chris Paul 30 0 0 0 0 30 +2.8 +0.7 +3.5
Eric Gordon 0 3 26 0 0 29 +1.1 -1.2 -0.1
PJ Tucker 0 0 2 26 0 28 -1.2 +1.1 -0.1
Austin Rivers 9 17 1 0 0 27 +0.1 -1.3 -1.2
Gerald Green 0 0 12 5 0 17 -0.7 -1.9 -2.6
Deyonta Davis 0 0 0 4 13 17 -1.7 +1.0 -0.7
Isaiah Hartenstein 0 0 0 6 6 12 -1.7 +1.4 -0.3
Danuel House Jr. 0 3 1 4 0 8 +0.0 -0.4 -0.5
Gary Clark 0 0 2 1 0 3 -1.9 -0.4 -2.3
Chris Chiozza 1 0 0 0 0 1 -0.9 -1.6 -2.5
Michael Frazier 0 0 0 0 0 0 -1.6 -1.3 -2.9
Team total 240 +5.9 +1.7 +7.6
Expected record: 56-26
CARMELO team rating: 1693

As my colleague Chris Herring and I argued immediately after Houston’s playoff loss, the Rockets would be in surprisingly good shape if they simply ran it back yet again with the same Harden-CP3-Clint Capela core. The roster is light on depth, to be sure. But our early simulation model for 2019-201 calls for Houston to win a conference-high 56 games (with a 97 percent chance of making the playoffs), and it gives the Rockets a 30 percent chance of making the NBA Finals and a 19 percent chance of winning the title (both of which rank No. 1 in the West).

Despite all this, the narrative around the Rockets seems to be that they need a major shake-up, or that their offseason will be a failure if they don’t participate in this summer’s wild superstar arms race. And after a string of so many disappointing playoff outcomes, it’s easy to see why. But don’t write off Houston quite yet, NBA Diary. It could just be the championship contender everyone is forgetting this summer.

Check out our NBA player ratings.

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