by Scott Mandel
The Rockets made a bold decision this offseason in trading Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook.
Coming off a season in which he averaged 22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 10.7 rebounds per game, Westbrook is still very much one of the best players in the league. Perhaps more importantly to the Rockets, he’s both better and more durable than Chris Paul is at this stage of his career. Paul almost helped the Rockets make the NBA Finals in 2017-18, but he had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2018-19 – a worrying sign for an undersized point guard entering his mid-30s.
However, Westbrook is neither the shooter nor defender that Paul is, the combination of which complicates his fit next to James Harden, the league’s leader in usage and shot attempts last season.
With four years and around $170 million remaining on Westbrook’s contract, the Rockets are betting big on him and Harden being the duo that can lead them to a championship in what should be a wide open Western Conference. If they can’t, Westbrook’s contract will make it difficult for the Rockets to flip him for someone who better complements Harden while he’s still in the prime of his Hall of Fame career.
Does Eric Gordon have another gear?
Other than Westbrook, the biggest move the Rockets made this offseason was signing Eric Gordon to a four-year, $75.6 million extension.
Gordon has been a huge part of Houston’s success in each of the last three seasons. He was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in his first season with the franchise and finished second behind LA Clippers guard Lou Williams for the award in 2017-18. He then started in 53 of the 68 games he appeared in last season, posting averages of 16.2 points per game on 36.0 percent shooting from 3-point range.
The Rockets are going to need Gordon to continue providing a scoring punch. According to The Athletic’s Alykhan Bijani, the 30-year-old will see a lot of his minutes alongside Westbrook against second units next season, making him the secondary scorer in those situations. He’s also “very likely” to start alongside Harden and Westbrook in the backcourt, a team source told Bijani, which will require him to be a more consistent 3-point shooter than he was at times last season.
Gordon is well aware of how valuable he is to the Rockets, telling Jenny Dial Creech of The Houston Chronicle that he has a lot to give and that he feels as though he’s going into the prime of his career. If the latter is true, it will go a long way in helping the Rockets overcome their demons in the playoffs.
Mike D’Antoni’s future
Having not come to terms on an extension this offseason, head coach Mike D’Antoni is entering the final season of his existing contract with the Rockets, which begs the question of whether or not 2019-20 will be his last in Houston.
Based on what Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta had to say when he was on ESPN’s First Take this offseason, it appears as though how far D’Antoni can coach Houston this season will determine his future with the franchise.
“Mike D’Antoni is a great coach and he fits our team,” he said. “Let’s not talk situational: I think that we’re going to have a great year, and Mike and I are going to sit down – I think Mike D’Antoni will be the coach this year, next year and probably the year after that. But we need to be successful too. I think we will be and I don’t even think it’ll be an issue.”
Beyond having to find a way to get the most out of the Westbrook and Harden duo, D’Antoni has a new coaching staff to work with after a number of assistant coaches were let go this summer, including Jeff Bzdelik, a well-known defensive guru who came out of retirement last season to re-join the Rockets.
In his three seasons as head coach of the Rockets, the team has compiled a 173-73 regular season record and a 23-16 postseason record. They made it to the Western Conference Finals in 2017-18 and the Western Conference Semifinals in both 2016-17 and 2018-19.