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Are the Houston Rockets still contenders?

The Rockets will face the Lakers tonight at 7:30 p.m. PST on ESPN looking to rebound from a blowout loss to the Pelicans to open their season. After a questionable offseason, can these Rockets keep up with the Warriors this year?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Houston Rockets brought the Golden State Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals, very nearly winning it. If Chris Paul did not get injured, or one of those twenty-seven consecutive missed threes had gone down, we could be looking at a very different NBA.

But the Warriors prevailed and with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins this offseason, seem prepared to make another championship run. The Rockets, however, have quite a different roster this year after a weird offseason.

The Rockets were able to re-sign Chris Paul and Clint Capela, but lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute to free agency. Both were versatile defenders who were competent outside shooters, extremely important to Houston’s style of play. Furthermore, both could have returned if the Rockets simply offered more money. The signing of James Ennis can pan out, but the additions of Michael Carter-Williams and Carmelo Anthony are puzzling.

In their first game of the 2018-2019 NBA season, the Rockets were blown out by the Pelicans. Neither Harden nor Paul played well, but most concerning is that the Rockets are giving substantial playing time to Anthony and Carter-Williams. Anthony’s defensive struggles are well-known, and his offensive inefficiency makes matters even worse. Carter-Williams is athletic, but he’s an unfocused defender who cannot shoot from anywhere on the floor. They simply cannot replace Ariza and Mbah a Moute’s value to the team.

Also, the Rockets’ core is not getting younger. Chris Paul and PJ Tucker are both thirty-three, and James Harden is simply not likely to repeat his outrageous efficiency from last year’s MVP campaign. Carmelo is already thirty-four years old, and he’s not going to improve defensively.

The Rockets face two important questions: can James Harden and Chris Paul sustain their incredibly efficient isolation scoring that destroyed switching defenses for most of last year, and can the team play the same hard-nosed, physical defense? The answer to both questions is “not likely.”

GM Daryl Morey is still on the lookout for moves—the Rockets were involved in the Jimmy Butler talks just a few weeks ago—and they’ll need more depth. But versatile wings are difficult to find, and the Rockets don’t have too many valuable assets.

The Rockets will still probably end up being the second-best team in the West, and they still have a chance at beating the Warriors. But the margin has grown wider, and they have few avenues to improve their roster. Ultimately, it’s a shame if the 2017-2018 Rockets, one of the best teams in the past decade, falls apart because the team didn’t want to spend the money to retain the players that made their team so dangerous.

The Rockets face LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers tonight at 7:30 p.m. PST tonight on ESPN. Follow along with us in the comments below if you’re watching.

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