By trading for Russell Westbrook, the Houston Rockets now have an even deadlier backcourt to match up with the San Antonio Spurs’ emerging guards.
Several teams in the Western Conference had huge offseasons and the Houston Rockets were definitely one of them. In a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston lost star point guard Chris Paul, but gained a younger, more talented point guard in Russell Westbrook. The eight-time NBA All-Star now joins seven-time NBA All-Star James Harden to create what will likely be the toughest backcourt the San Antonio Spurs will have to face this season.
The Southwest Division rivalry between the Rockets and Spurs always leads to classic moments, close finishes and exciting action. It seems like no matter how both teams are playing leading up to their face-offs, both seem to bring their A-game when they meet. Three of the four Texas matchups last season were decided by single digits, with Houston taking two. Overall, H-Town has taken six of the last eight games against the silver and black after previously having lost 6-of-8 against the Spurs.
Last season, Harden was simply too much for the Spurs. The Beard averaged 37 points per game against San Antonio, including a 61-point explosion last March. While this number was right around his season average, it’s too much for a Gregg Popovich-led team to give up to one player.
Clint Capela also killed the Spurs, particularly in the pick and roll. The Swiss center, a career 12 point per game scorer, averaged 16.8 points and a whopping 17 rebounds per game against San Antonio, including a 21 point, 23 rebound performance.
LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan were the only consistent players for the Spurs in the season series against the Rockets last season. In their lone victory, Aldridge put up 27 points and pulled down 10 boards as the Spurs defeated Houston 96-89.
Before we examine how San Antonio can reverse their recent history against Houston, let’s take a closer look at this year’s Houston Rockets squad.
Next: The 2019-20 Houston Rockets
The 2019-20 Houston Rockets
Rockets GM Daryl Morey had quite a busy offseason. After being eliminated by the Golden State Warriors once again last season, it’s clear the organization wanted to make some big changes to avoid another playoff letdown.
The Rockets signed several key role players that have plenty to offer, such as Ben McLemore, Tyson Chandler and most recently, Thabo Sefolosha. Oh yeah, and they also traded for a point guard that has averaged a triple-double in each of the last three seasons!
The pairing of Russ with Harden gives Houston the NBA’s first-ever backcourt composed of two former regular-season MVPs. Individually, both are stellar at every offensive facet of the game. Combining their averages for last season with their respective teams, we’re talking 59 points, 18.2 assists and 17.7 rebounds per game.
The Chandler signing is also an underrated pickup for Mike D’Antoni‘s Rockets. Chandler is an excellent rebounder that can help Houston with their defensive rebounding issue from last season, which will be discussed more in-depth later on. Sefolosha can also make an impact with perimeter defense if he’s able to earn minutes in D’Antoni’s rotation.
Even though smaller moves like these definitely make an impact, this Rockets team will live and die with how well they can get their new superstar duo to co-exist. Yes, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are childhood friends and former teammates, but they’re also both used to dominating the ball and being involved in just about every play while on the court.
D’Antoni has had rosters in the past that on paper, probably should have won a title or two but has never quite been able to get over the hump. It will take the best coaching performance of his career to figure out how to utilize his new backcourt to their fullest potential while also keeping everybody happy.
Next: How to beat the Rockets
Beating the Rockets
While Houston seems to have gotten better over the summer, so have the Spurs. Their biggest addition from last season will be someone they already had on their roster – Dejounte Murray.
The young point guard is capable of impacting a game on both ends of the floor. Murray has been hitting the gym like crazy since being fully cleared from his ACL injury, further working on his offensive game. Defensively, he’s already one of the best young talents in the league at his position.
Murray will be key in matchups with Houston. As mentioned before, the Rockets were a bad defensive rebounding team last season. In fact, Houston averaged 31.9 defensive rebounds per game, which had them tied with Cleveland for 29th in the NBA, ahead of only the Phoenix Suns.
Considering the Rockets just acquired a point guard that averages 11.1 rebounds per game, chances are that will help them immensely. In two of the matchups last season between the Spurs and Rockets, San Antonio was out-rebounded by a significant margin.
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Having Murray back to battle Westbrook on the boards will give San Antonio a much better chance to at least keep the rebounding numbers closer to a draw instead of being out-rebounded by 15, such as what happened in one game last season.
Besides improving their rebounding, the Spurs will need to pay special attention to transition defense when facing this new Rockets team. Contrary to the pace Mike D’Antoni has enforced in the past, last season’s Houston Rockets were actually 27th in pace of play last season. In response, he has already vowed to greatly increase the team’s pace, and with the energetic Russell Westbrook now in play, he has the personnel to do it.
The Rockets would love nothing more than to run the ball up and down the court and pull up for 20-plus threes per game. In fact, last season they doubled-up the Spurs in three-point attempts in all but one of their matchups. The one time they didn’t was when they shot just nine times from behind the arc in their only loss. If the Spurs can limit transition opportunities and at least force the Rockets to shoot tough threes, they have an excellent chance to take the series this season.
Season Prediction: The Rockets and Spurs will face off four times this season — twice in April and twice in December. Both teams always seem to be evenly matched whenever they face each other and I see this season being no different. The Rockets and Spurs will likely split the series 2-2, with both teams probably getting one road win.