What should we expect from the Rockets this season? Outside of a playoff series win over Portland in the 2008-2009 season, the Rockets have been stuck in a cycle of being either just above average or just below average going back to the late 1990's. In each of the last two seasons the Rockets have finished 1 spot out of the playoffs as the 9th seed, but would have made the playoffs in the East; they would have been the 6th seed last season. So what's changed? What reason is there to expect things to be different this season? They attempted to make a big move recently in the three-team trade involving Pau Gasol and Chris Paul, but as we all know that was blocked for "basketball reasons". Wednesday night they did manage to add some size with the 7-foot tall Samuel Dalembert, but will that be enough to put the Rockets back into the playoffs? For his career he's averaged 8 points, 8 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game so he's not a huge difference maker, but considering how small the Rockets lineup was, he will help. With the roster set, for now, let's take a look at what we can expect from our team this year.
Shortened Season - I believe the shortened season with the increase in back-to-backs and even a back-to-back-to-back on the schedule will favor younger teams and wear down veteran teams quickly. The Rockets only have 2 players (Dalembert & Scola) that are at least 30-years-old, so I think the quicker schedule this year will be an advantage for the Rockets. Kevin Martin is 28, Kyle Lowry 25, Chase Budinger 23, Jordan Hill 24, and Patrick Patterson is 22; most of this team is young. They'll be able to run, they'll be able to bounce back on short to no rest, and I think they'll steal some wins against better teams who have older, tired players.
Offense For Defense - Last year the Rockets finished 3rd in points scored at 105 per game, but gave up 103 per game on defense which ranked 22nd. Their offense is good enough to just out-gun people and win some games, but they have to improve some on defense in order to be taken seriously in the West. They don't have to play defense like they did under JVG, but if McHale and Kelvin Sampson can get their defensive ranking from 22nd to 12-15th, then that could mean 5-8 more wins, which last year would have put them into the 6th seed. We know Martin, Budinger, and Scola aren't good defenders, but with Dalembert in the middle protecting the rim, that could change the way opponents attack the Rockets. Along with Lowry, the Rockets new center will have to lead the team on the defensive end. It at least should no longer be a glorified lay-up line for opponents.
Kyle Lowry - One of the biggest questions for the Rockets in this season is, how good can Kyle Lowry be? The ex-Villanova star became a different player in the 2nd half of the season last year after Aaron Brooks was traded and Lowry became the unquestioned starter. After the All-Star break Lowry averaged 4 more points, +1 rebound, +1 assist, and 3% better in 3-point percentage than before the All-Star break. In March, Lowry averaged 19.8 points, 8.1 assists, 5.3 rebounds, and shot 42% from beyond the arc; if he can do that over a full season, he'll be an All-Star and have the Rockets comfortably in the playoffs.
Surprise performances - We all know we can count on Scola, Martin, and Lowry to be good players and leaders, but the Rockets have a collection of cast-offs from other teams who have something to prove. Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Jordan Hill, and Terrance Williams were all lottery picks in the 2009 draft by other teams and are at the point of needing to prove they deserve to still be in the league. If even just one of them steps up their game and becomes a big contributor, then it will greatly improve this team. I have hope that Hill and Williams can take that next step, but it's a short season and the coaches won't have time to be patient.
Prediction: 38-28, 7th seed in the West, 1st round exit