Biggest questions facing Rockets ahead of NBA restart: Russell Westbrook’s health, effectiveness of small ball

The Houston Rockets will resume the 2019-20 NBA season with title aspirations. Despite an up-and-down regular season, Houston’s ceiling is extremely high thanks to the presence of two former league MVPs — James Harden and Russell Westbrook — on the roster. The Rockets are capable of beating any team in the league on any given night. For them, consistency will be key in Orlando.   

Like all of the other teams from across the league’s landscape, the Rockets will enter the restart of the season facing their fair share of uncertainty. With that said, here’s a look at the biggest questions facing Houston when the season resumes after nearly five months of no basketball.

Where will the Rockets sit in the standings heading into the postseason?

The Rockets could realistically finish anywhere from second to seventh in the West depending on how they perform during their eight seeding games. While where they finish won’t matter in terms of homecourt advantage, it will obviously matter a lot in terms of their playoff path. If they stay in the sixth spot or fall to seventh, they could end up facing the Clippers or Nuggets in the first round; neither would be an ideal opening round opponent. However, if they’re able to move up to third or fourth in the standings they could set up a more manageable first round matchup against the likes of the Thunder or the Jazz. While the seeding games are a formality for some squads that already have their postseason position locked up, that’s certainly not the case for Houston.  

How healthy will Russell Westbrook be? 

The Rockets arrived in Orlando shorthanded, as All-Star guard Russell Westbrook announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 prior to Houston’s departure for the NBA bubble. As a result of the positive diagnosis, Westbrook was unable to travel with his team.  

“I tested positive for COVID-19 prior to my team’s departure to Orlando,” Westbrook said in a statement released via social media. “I’m currently feeling well, quarantined, and looking forward to rejoining my teammates when I am cleared. Thank you all for the well wishes and continued support. Please take this virus seriously. Be safe. Mask up!” 

The good news for Houston is that Westbrook is feeling good, and the former MVP was ultimately able to join his teammates in Orlando. In order to join the Rockets inside the bubble, Westbrook had to undergo an extended quarantine and then test negative for the virus on consecutive days. Since he was able to join the Rockets in Orlando well before the season resumes, Westbrook likely won’t have to miss any games. However, it’s fair to wonder how healthy he will be fresh off of the virus, and what type of condition he will be in after the long layoff. Since he was late to arrive in Orlando, he didn’t get the same amount of preparation time as the rest of his teammates did. A healthy Westbrook is central to success for Houston, and they’ll need him to be at his best — in other words, in constant attack mode — if they hope to make a deep run. 

Will Houston’s small-ball style prevail in the postseason?

The Rockets turned heads during the regular season when they veered away from using a traditional lineup with a center in favor of an extreme style of small ball. They doubled down on this approach when they traded away talented young center Clint Capela in February. Though they also have veteran center Tyson Chandler, the Rockets now trot out P.J. Tucker, who is listed at 6’5″, at the center spot. They had some success with this approach during the regular season, as it creates matchup issues for bigger teams. It’s yet to be seen how it will work in the postseason though when play slows down, and increased emphasis is placed on post play. Will a combination of Tucker and Chandler be enough to contend with some of the other elite centers in the West like Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert? We’ll find out in Orlando.   

Is Mike D’Antoni coaching for his job?

The fact that the Rockets and D’Antoni were unable to come to an agreement on a contract extension last offseason shows that the organization has some ambivalence about committing to their coach long term beyond the current campaign. Similar to the D’Antoni-led Phoenix Suns teams of the mid-2000s, the Rockets have been prolific — and historic — on the offensive end of the floor. And like those Suns teams, they have also been unable to translate regular-season success into serious postseason success. 

D’Antoni’s future in Houston could very well hinge on how the Rockets perform in the postseason, as a Finals run could motivate the organization to commit to D’Antoni. However, if the Rockets ultimately fall short — again — in the playoffs with their small-ball approach, the two sides could part ways when D’Antoni’s contract is up after the season. Unless the organization is convinced that the team can win at the highest level by emphasizing shooting and scoring while downplaying defense and rebounding, a split after the season is very possible, even likely.  

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