The 2020-21 NBA Season has begun! Or, at least the pre-season has. In an effort to limit travel, NBA teams are playing two-game series that feel a lot like a baseball matchup. For the Houston Rockets, this meant the league year opened with two games in four days in the Windy City against the young Chicago Bulls.
Houston won the first game in runaway fashion. After a 37-point first quarter, the only thing that could slow the Rockets down were their own rotations. Houston’s five-out offensive versatility was on full display as the Rockets welcomed the Stephen Silas era with a flashy “W.” The second game was not as easy, especially when Houston limited minutes for much of the starting lineup. After a competitive first three quarters, Chicago jumped out to a 90-82 lead midway through the fourth quarter behind the strength of Wendell Carter. For the rest of the fourth quarter,
In analyzing the pre-season, it’s more useful to use the pair of games than just one or the other. The stars play so much fewer minutes than a normal game that their performance over the weekend adds up to a more traditional stat line, both in minutes played and production. Further, coaching strategy changes as younger and more inexperienced players get more minutes. What Silas ran with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins won’t look the same with Chris Clemons and Bruno Caboclo. With that in mind- What can we take away from the pair of games?
John Wall is Very Good
John Wall answered a lot of questions on the opening tip of the first game. After receiving the ball in the backcourt, Wall went opposite a screen and attacked the rim straight through defender Coby White’s chest. The move was fearless. The flex and snarl after were a signal: Wall is confident he’s back. If John Wall is back, and playing like his older self, the Rockets are a very different animal.
Wall’s stat lines in both games were pedestrian in large part because of how few minutes he, along with most of the starting lineup, played. But Wall was directing traffic, finding cutters, and whipping kickout passes all over the floor with precision.
Obviously, this season hinges on what the franchise does with James Harden. But if Harden does play this season out with the new Rockets roster, Wall as a second threat would be as talented as he could ask for. The way he attacks the cup from a multitude of angles and has the vision to hit shooters in the shooting pocket wherever they are is incredible to study. And if Harden isn’t intrigued, whatever star comes back for him in a trade should be very excited to get to play alongside Wall.
DeMarcus Cousins is Also Very Good
With Christian Wood out for both games, Cousins got the starts at Center. What “Boogie” Cousins (and Wood when he returns) offer is flexibility in the offense. As was on display throughout his minutes in both games, Cousins is going to spend a lot of the time on offense working from the perimeter. He is listed as 6’10” 270 lbs. (though many point out he looks slimmer in Houston than he did in Los Angeles a year ago), his ability to play inside and outside gives Coach Silas a number of options. He can be the pin down in the backside hammer screen, the roll man on a traditional pick and roll, and he was the pop out for three on the double drag action.
This type of big man was exactly what John Wall needed. But, his big weekend should also have been a key message to Harden. As great as Dwight Howard was, and as dominant as Clint Capela played at times, neither was more than a roll threat on offense. Cousins, in just two preseason games, is a better fit for score-first attacking guards than either Howard or Capela.
Wood, schematically, fits in the same way. While he isn’t as stout as Cousins, he is quicker and is every bit as versatile. The new offense in Houston is filled with options, and it is in large part due to the play Cousins demonstrated in the first two preseason games. If Cousins can stay healthy, the Houston Rockets have a lot to be excited about.
The Rockets’ Offense Will Look the Same but Different
In the first handful of sets, Stephens Silas’ new-look Houston Rockets came down in five out sets with no big man on the block. At first, this was eerily reminiscent of the Small Ball Rockets- they operated entirely without any big man clogging the lane. James Harden and Russell Westbrook had a lot of room to operate because there were so few bodies there by design. Those Rockets used PJ Tucker’s corner prowess, these use Wood and Boogie.
But what is happening around the perimeter is what’s new. As opposed to a quick double drag into isolation, as D’Antoni loved to run on the right wing to get harden going to the middle with his left hand, Silas was using a number of different off ball motions. Some actions featured dribble handoffs into pick and ops on one side with hammer actions on the other. Still others saw “Spain” pick and rolls leading to back cuts to opposite side pin downs . Houston did not have a big man inside, but they did not stand around and watch someone isolate for large stretches, either.
This projects to being more difficult in the playoffs than previous offenses. While it may be impossible to stay in front of James Harden in isolation, and the playoffs historically become even more iso heavy than the regular season, it wasn’t very difficult on a chalk board. Working in both styles of offense also means defenses will have to prepare for both. We knew Silas was an offensive genius, but we didn’t necessarily know that the Rockets would manage to look the same while playing so differently.
The Rockets’ Defense Will be Better
Houston’s offseason investments are already showing off on the defensive end, but there are two key things that will play in Houston’s favor defensively:
1- They added legitimate size to protect the rim
2- They maintained the flexibility to run a switching and trapping attack on the perimeter
The issue many will cite will be how many points per game they give up this season. Houston’s defense will, at the surface, appear non-existent. However, a closer look will make one thing clear: Houston’s points per possession will be low, but their possessions per game will be high. Silas brought over the incredible pace from his stint coaching the Dallas Mavericks. A season ago, casual box score reading indicated Dallas was one of the worst defenses in the league. While they were far from a juggernaut, they were an average NBA defense that played a lot of defensive possessions.
Houston, after adding some key defensive pieces in Cousins, Wood, Wall, Nwaba, and Tate in the last few weeks, looks like they could be a better version of that. If the Rockets can get PJ Tucker back in the mix this week, Houston has a shot to be a very stout defense.
David Nwaba Should Make the Rockets’ Rotation
Nwaba is entering his fourth NBA season. But after missing a year with an Achilles injury, he is really just entering his third healthy season. The long defender is a career 34-percent three-point shooter and was one of many low risk / high reward signings this offseason.
Nwaba’s effort and hustle play, even just in the first weekend of preseason games, is earning him minutes. He was relentlessly diving on the floor for balls, competing for rebounds, and timely with poking the ball away. Further, his explosiveness and agility made it appear his rehabilitation is complete and he is both physically and mentally ready to play again.
Nwaba did not shoot the ball well in the second game against Chicago, but Silas and the Rockets seemed unbothered. His spark off the bench was palpable, and that in itself was a pleasant surprise for Rockets fans. Keep an eye out, if his shot improves with more game minutes he may become a key contributor. Rockets fans remember the importance of Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza in the deep playoff run of 2018. Nwaba could play a similar role.
Jae’Sean Tate Can Play in this League
Jae’Sean Tate is a name many would not have known before the preseason. Undrafted out of Ohio State in 2018, Tate played overseas the last two seasons. Most recently, Tate played for the Sydney Kings of the NBL for Will Weaver. After Weaver and the Kings won the league in 2019, Weaver was added to Silas’ staff this off season… and he brought Tate with him.
Tate has proven, even in just two preseason games, that he is an NBA roster level player. Tate’s versatility was useful and his energy was contagious. Tate’s length helped him play a much bigger role than anyone intended the six-foot-four forward would. Tate scored just four points in the two games, but was very active and involved. His familiarity with Weaver will give him a leg up, but look to see Tate on the floor more at the beginning of the season than many thought before.
Gerald Green’s Light is still Green
In the first of two games, Gerald Green had 16 points on 10 shots. In the second, he had seven points on 11 shots. Even though he averaged just 13.5 minutes a game, it was great to see Houstonian Gerald Green back shooting the basketball with the same hair-trigger as before. Green had a rough season last year, and was traded then waived after breaking his foot. It’s hard not to root for a big comeback out of Green Light Gerald.
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