NBA 2014-15 Power Rankings Preview: #3 Houston Rockets

You might be surprised with the Rockets in the third spot of our rankings. Let us tell you why we think they'll have a big year.

This NBA offseason has been very eventful, and the preseason is now in full swing. To help hoops junkies with the transition from the lull of summer back to competitive basketball, we here at numberFire will be rolling out our projections for next season in the form of team previews, starting at 30 and going all the way to number one. We continue today with the 3rd-ranked Houston Rockets!

The Rockets had perhaps the most disappointing playoff performance of any team last season and have since listened to a summer-long media saga about James Harden's awful defense. Ever since Damian Lillard knocked them out with a brilliant 3-pointer, questions have arisen about this team's core. Can a Harden and Dwight Howard foundation really win a title? Is Daryl Morey’s focus on 3-pointers to the extreme a foolish one?

One thing is certain -- this season will answer a lot of questions about the Houston Rockets.

numberFire Metrics

Projected Record: 51-31
Western Conference Rank: 2nd
NBA Rank: 3rd
nERD: 64.9
Playoff Chances: 89.01%
Championship Chances: 10.49%

The Rockets above the Clippers and Thunder, you ask?! The Rockets with a 10.5% chance of winning a title?! Is it really that crazy to think? Dwight Howard looked like was elite-Orlando-era-DPOY-Dwight of old in the playoffs against the Trail Blazers. Trevor Ariza is a good defender and should fit right in immediately. More minutes for Patrick Beverley now that Jeremy Lin is out of town will mean a stouter defense as well. The Rockets arguably have 2 of the best 10 players in the world.

Why can’t a team like that win it all?

Player Movement

Notable Additions
Trevor Ariza (via trade)
Jeff Adrien (via free agency)
Clint Capela (via draft)

Notable Losses
Chandler Parsons (via free agency)
Jeremy Lin (via trade)
Omer Asik (via trade)
Omri Casspi (via trade)

At first glance, it looks like the Rockets got worse over the offseason, losing Parsons to Dallas, Asik to New Orleans, and Lin to Los Angeles. However, losing these players might actually mean more minutes for other players better suited to the Rockets’ system. Lin’s absence will give Beverley the sole point guard duties, which should be a good thing. Parsons was great for them, but Ariza is no slouch on either end of the floor and is on a better contract. Sure, they swung and missed on Chris Bosh, but the roster is still loaded for a great year in the West.

Three Burning Questions

Can James Harden become a better defender, and does it even matter?
In an article over the summer (linked on the right), I found that the Rockets weren’t any worse on defense with Harden on the floor than they were with him off of it. He gets a bad rap for his lack of effort, and admittedly it’s pretty pathetic and even funny at times. However, I mused in that article that perhaps perimeter defense is a bit overrated in regards to total team defense. The Rockets have a very high defensive floor merely because of Howard. Can Harden become a better defender? Who knows. Does it matter? I’d argue no.

Can Trevor Ariza replace the loss of Chandler Parsons?
A sub-question here is whether we believe in Trevor Ariza in a non-contract year. He was excellent on both ends of the floor last season for the Wizards but was looking for another contract. If he can bring the same play to the Rockets, he will fill Parsons absence and more. Last year, Ariza posted a nERD score of 5.3, indicating that a team with him in its starting lineup should expect to go 5 games over .500 over an 82-game season. Parsons' nERD was 3.9.

Ariza is just as good a shooter as Parsons and an upgrade on the defensive end. Before moving off of Harden’s defense completely, surrounding Harden with Beverley and Ariza on the wings will also make him non-important on the defensive end.

Can Dwight Howard play like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate?
In the Rockets’ series against the Trail Blazers, Howard certainly looked the part again. The Rockets were not as good as they could’ve been on defense last season, ranking 11th in the league and giving up 106.65 points per 100 possessions. The track record for being a true title contender and not having a top-10 defense has not been historically great, so a lot will depend on Howard’s rim protection this season. As great as Harden is on offense, Howard is the key to this team. If he’s merely good on defense, the Rockets will win a series or two in the playoffs. If Howard is DPOY-level, the Rockets are title contenders.

Fantasy Hoops Stock Watch

SG/SF James Harden (Yahoo O-Rank: 4)
Ever since Harden was traded from Oklahoma City to Houston, he has been an absolute fantasy stud. He averaged 25.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. He does turn the ball over a ton, averaging 3.6 turnovers per game, but that’s somewhat to be expected from a player with the ball in his hands as much as Harden has it. If you can stomach turnovers – or, if you’re in an 8-category league with no turnovers – Harden is easily a top-5 pick in fantasy drafts. Also, his dual eligibility SG/SF is immensely helpful in creating roster flexibility.

SG/SF Trevor Ariza (Yahoo O-Rank: 56)
Ariza is currently the 56th-ranked player on Yahoo, despite ending the year as the 26th-best player. He is perennially undervalued in fantasy, mostly because his game isn’t very flashy. However, he’s not really a negative on any category and is a big positive in 3-pointers and steals. Getting 6.2 rebounds from a guy with SG eligibility isn’t too shabby either. Ariza’s role shouldn’t really change in Houston – he’ll still rack up steals and corner 3’s. If you can get Ariza in the 6th round, you’ll be very happy.