HOUSTON – The Houston Rockets have been among the best teams in the Western Conference for several seasons. But they've fallen short of a conference championship each time. So has everyone else in the conference, not named Golden State, as the Warriors have won the west five consecutive seasons.
This offseason brought yet another star player into the mix to try to mix in with superstar James Harden and propel the Rockets to new heights. After Dwight Howard, then Chris Paul, now it's Russell Westbrook's turn to try to help elevate this team, while playing second fiddle to Harden. Not an easy task, but certainly within reach.
Here the top 5 keys to a successful season for the Rockets.
Team first attitude
With star-pairing in the NBA, this is almost always the most important thing - the stars must put the team first. Harden and Westbrook have known each other since they were kids. They've been teammates in the NBA before when they were in Oklahoma City. They reached the finals then - before either had won MVP awards. They are back together again, to get back to the finals and this time win it. If they want it to work, it will. It's that simple when players are this talented. They'll find a way. Westbrook probably sees a significant downturn in his triple-doubles. Harden likely sees a downturn across the board in his averages. They have to push their individual numbers to the side.
Capela must be a force
Rockets center Clint Capela absolutely deserved his massive contract signed before the start of last season. He followed the big pay raise with a solid season. He followed his solid season with a very disappointing postseason. He played weak and unconfident and it crippled the Rockets interior. To be fair, Capela suffered a torn ligament in his thumb midseason, then suffered from a respiratory illness in the playoffs that clearly affected him. He appears to be stronger, but now he has to play stronger.
Gordon must reward the Rockets
The team rewarded Eric Gordon with a long-term extension this past offseason. He has to find a way to be more consistent. He's their third option for offense, so it's understandable he might struggle with consistency. Interestingly, his three-point shooting percentage, three-point field goal attempts and makes per game have been almost identical in each of his three seasons in Houston. It's the rest of his game that sometimes escapes. He averaged exactly 16.2 points per game in his 1st and third seasons in Houston while making just under 50 percent of his two-point attempts. But two seasons ago, in his 2nd season with the Rockets, he averaged 18 points per game and made 54% of his two-point field goal attempts. That's the Gordon the Rockets needs this season on a nightly basis. Or he could bump his three-point shooting percentage up to 40% - that would be fine, too.
No second chances
The Rockets love to play small and it's been very effective for their own offense and often for their defense as they switch almost everything. The problem is while they force a lot of initial shot misses - they don't corral enough of those defensive rebounds. Tucker is a phenomenal defensive player, but often his man can simple reach up and grab rebounds over the top of him. Capela must make strides here, too. Far too many second chance points and extended positions were allowed last season.
James Harden has been incredibly durable in his NBA career, now entering his 11th season, having missed more than 10 games in a season only once in his career. Westbrook will enter the season after a pair of minor offseason surgeries and some trouble with jammed fingers late in the preseason. The team is pretty healthy as they season begins, and they also appear to be more willing than in previous seasons to ease up on the load their top level players carry throughout the season. Two years ago, an injury prevented them from ended Golden State's western conference dominance. Last season the injuries forced the team to lead heavily on Harden for months at a time, which meant he was likely not as hit best at the end of the playoffs.