Trust me, I never thought I would include a Kardashian in any story I ever would write for Doc's. Alas, might Khloe Kardashian ruin Houston's 2015-16 season? I ask because she and Rockets superstar James Harden had been an item since this summer. But now Khloe has put that relationship "on hold" as she tends to her estranged husband, ex-NBA player Lamar Odom, as he recovers from a drug overdose that nearly killed him and undergoes months of physical therapy. I'm assuming Harden still will be plenty focused on the coming season ... but some women do have power over men at times. Trust me, I know.
Houston finished 56-26 last season, won the Southwest Division and was the West's No. 2 seed for the playoffs. Those latter two were courtesy of a San Antonio loss in New Orleans on the final night of the season. Otherwise Houston would have been the No. 6. Instead, the Rockets easily handled the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks in Round 1 before taking on the L.A. Clippers in the conference semifinals. The Clippers were up 3-2 in the series and ahead by 19 points in the third quarter of Game 6 in L.A. The series was over.... and then it wasn't. In one of the most stunning playoff rallies in league history, and largely without Harden, who watched from the bench for most of the fourth quarter, Houston outscored the Clippers 51-20 after falling behind 87-68. Josh Smith and Corey Brewer were the two key guys in that rally.
The Rockets then took Game 7 at home against the deflated Clippers 113-100 to reach the West Finals for the first time since 1997. There, Houston was outclassed by Golden State -- with Harden having a terrible Game 3 (3-for-16 from field) and Game 5 (2-for-11 from field, 12 turnovers) -- and lost in five games.
Rockets 2015-16 Season Betting Story Lines
Houston made what looks like one of the NBA's best trades this offseason in acquiring point guard Ty Lawson from Denver. The Nuggets wanted rid of Lawson because he had two DUI arrests in a six-month span and had become a problem child on the team. So Houston got him for pennies on the dollar. But when motivated, Lawson is a great player, and he's a huge upgrade over former Rockets starter Patrick Beverley. Lawson should be motivated this year because he gave up his guaranteed contract for 2016-17 to facilitate the move. Thus, Houston could just dump him after this year if Lawson has another off-court problem. Lawson averaged 15.2 points and 9.6 assists - third-most in the league - in 2014-15.
The Rockets already played at one of the fastest paces in the NBA, but Coach Kevin McHale wants to go even faster this year. One of the reasons that Harden had trouble against the Warriors and other teams in the playoffs at times is because Houston didn't have a point guard to handle the ball as Beverley missed the postseason with an injury. So Harden had to be the guy and create his own shots -- so the opposition often trapped him. Hence all those turnovers. That shouldn't be a problem this year as Lawson will allow Harden more catch-and-shoot opportunities and, theoretically, get him more rest on offense. The Rockets are still going to shoot 3-pointers more than any other team: They led the NBA by far in averaging 32.7 per game in 2014-15.
With Harden free from ball-handling, he could have an even bigger season than last when he finished second to Steph Curry in the MVP voting after averaging 27.4 points (second in NBA), 7.0 assists and 5.7 rebounds. So that's a stellar backcourt of Lawson and Harden, with Trevor Ariza at small forward, Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas at power forward, and Dwight Howard at center in the starting five.
Howard is still a difference-maker, but he's nowhere near what he was in Orlando these days. He was limited to 41 regular-season games last year with various injuries and already has had a back problem this preseason. Howard averaged 15.8 points (.593 shooting) and 10.5 rebounds in 2014-15 but remains an atrocious free-throw shooter, and teams are going to keep hacking him late in games. I wouldn't count on Howard for more than 70 games, and even that might be optimistic.
Houston's bench lost Smith to the Clippers but added Sam Dekker in the first round of the 2015 draft. He should see some minutes on the second team with Beverley (a fantastic defender who could play in a small-ball lineup at times with Lawson and Harden), K.J. McDaniels, Motiejunas/Jones, Corey Brewer and Clint Capela. That would be one worry spot in that Capela isn't a great backup option for Howard. But, again, Houston could simply play at times without a true center as the NBA overall moves to smaller lineups.
Rockets 2015-16 Betting Odds
At BetOnline , Houston is +200 to win the Southwest Division, +1000 to win the Western Conference and +1600 to win the NBA title. The Rockets have an "over/under" wins total of 55.5, with both at -115. Dekker is +5000 to win NBA Rookie of the Year. Harden is the +300 second-favorite to lead the NBA in points per game. He is +650 to win NBA MVP. Howard is +1000 to lead the NBA in rebounds per game.
Rockets 2015-16 Betting Predictions
The statistical website FiveThirtyEight projects the Rockets to go 52-30 this season. That seems a bit low if everyone stays healthy. And that's really the question with this team: Can Howard stay on the court? If you tell me he plays 80 games, I think Houston wins the division because San Antonio will treat the regular season more as a playoff warm-up. I love the addition of Lawson. If he stays on the straight and narrow, I'm taking Houston to win the Southwest and go over that wins total. Win the West? Not ready to go there yet. I do like Harden to win the scoring title.
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