All 30 teams were put in a tough spot this season with a shortened pre-season and regular season, but few teams have a tougher opening stretch than the Houston Rockets. Not only are the Rockets having to learn a new system under a new coach, work in a few new players, but on top of those issues, they have a killer first 10 games on their schedule. Nine of their first ten opponents were either playoff teams last year and/or strong favorites to make the playoffs this season, and 7 of those 10 games are on the road.
They have games remaining at both LA teams, 2 games vs. the Thunder, and another game with the Spurs during the first 10 games; if they can get out of this stretch at 5-5 or even 4-6, it's a positive sign. During their next 10 games, they'll only face 3 likely playoff teams. The Rockets record will probably make it look like they haven't turned the corner after the first 10, but be patient, this team will continue to improve and the schedule is about to get much softer.
So what should we look for even when the game ends in a loss? In the season preview I wrote for the Rockets, I mentioned needing to get their defensive ranking from 22nd where it had been the last couple years, into the middle of the pack to at least 15th; they're currently ranked 17th this season. They're scoring is a little down but with the players they have, that shouldn't remain a problem. Right now they're giving up 96 points a game, if they can keep that number under 100 as an average during the first 10 games, I'd take that as a very positive sign. During these next 6 games I'd also like to see Dalembert's playing time start to increase. I'd like to see Patrick Patterson get into shape after his surgery and find the game he had towards the end of last season. I'd also like to see Chase Budinger make some progress or I feel it will be time to consider Courtney Lee or Terrance Williams to take his place. I'd also like to see them play better on the road even in losses. So far they've lost their two road games by an average of 14.5 points per game; they have road games remaining at the Lakers, Clippers, Thunder, and Spurs.
I believe this team is better than it has been over the last two seasons. That being said, they still have a lot of work to do to prove it. A strong showing in their next 6 games is a great way to start.