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The Houston Rockets (9-9) have now played 18 games of their 2020-21 regular season. With the schedule shortened to 72 games due to COVID-19, which pushed back the NBA calendar last year, this means that they’re officially a quarter of the way through the season.
Generally speaking, that sample size is becoming significant enough to draw some conclusions. While the record feels a bit misleading due to injuries, quarantines, and chemistry effects from James Harden’s early trade request (keep in mind, the Rockets were 3-6 with Harden), the sample offers ample evidence to begin analyzing individuals.
Since trading Harden, the Rockets have transitioned from the No. 22 overall defense to one of the league’s elite, and with a winning record. They ended January on a five-game winning streak.
This quarter-point analysis excludes players who have yet to play 100 game minutes with the Rockets (Kevin Porter Jr., Brodric Thomas, KJ Martin, Rodions Kurucs), since they haven’t played enough to get a sense of their abilities. In the case of Porter, Thomas, and Martin, all are reporting to the G League “bubble” for developmental purposes.
Here’s a look at the 12 core members of the Rockets who have played 100+ minutes during the 2020-21 season to date. The list is sorted by total minutes played, starting with the highest. Grades are determined relative to realistic expectations going into the year — i.e. even though rookie Mason Jones has one of the team’s highest grades, it doesn’t mean he’s automatically more valuable than those with lower grades.
PJ Tucker: B
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2020-21 stats: 5.3 points (45.3% FG, 39.1% on 3-pointers), 4.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists in 31.1 minutes per game The good news for Tucker is that he's shooting a career-high percentage on 3-pointers, and as always, he continues to prioritize the "little things" such as on-court communication, screening, and hustle plays. The potentially bad news, however, is that he's not making the same statistical impact, relative to past seasons. Now 35 years old, Tucker's overall net rating and defensive rating, which is where his value often shows, ranks worst on the entire Houston roster among rotation players. As usual, though, there is some added value from Tucker's extreme durability. The 6-foot-5 forward is the only Houston player to start in every game this season, and he hasn't missed any regular-season or playoff game since signing with the Rockets in July 2017. Dating back to 2012-13, Tucker has played in the most games of any NBA player. He's also a respected veteran leader in the Houston locker room. https://twitter.com/AdamSpolane/status/1355665097788682240 Moving forward, the case for optimism is that some of Tucker's sluggish start could be attributed to subpar fitness, rather than the aging curve. After not receiving his desired contract extension during the offseason, Tucker was a late arrival at training camp and missed half of the preseason. He should progressively work his way into better shape. The question is whether the Rockets will be the team to reap those benefits. With Tucker in the final season of his contract, he could be traded to a title contender before the March 25 trade deadline — unless Houston is finally able to reach a long-term agreement with him. https://twitter.com/AdamSpolane/status/1355733943434227715
Christian Wood: A
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2020-21 stats: 23.6 points (55.3% FG, 37.9% on 3-pointers), 10.7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks in 33.0 minutes per game Going into this season, the question was whether Wood's production from a limited run as Detroit's starting center would translate to a full-time role. As shown by those numbers, the answer is clearly yes. The 6-foot-10 big man needs to continue improving defensively, particularly as a decision-maker on the back line, and potentially add a bit more bulk to his frame. But those traits should develop over time. At just 25 years old, Wood is turning into a long-term building block and foundational piece for the Rockets. He's likely to receive serious All-Star and Olympic consideration as 2021 progresses. “Christian Wood is an emerging star, right now,” head coach Stephen Silas said on Saturday. “He’s playing at a really high level.” https://twitter.com/HoustonRockets/status/1355723732090687497 Silas also credited Wood with helping enable the team's recent growth on defense. “The biggest jump for him, I would say, is on the defensive end,” Silas said. “We’ve gotten a little more aggressive with our coverages when he’s in, and he’s done a really good job. The last couple games that he’s played in, he’s done a good job with his pick-and-roll defense on the ball, and then recovering back to his man, or helping somebody else. I would say the biggest jump that he’s made so far, and you don’t really see it in the points and rebounds, but it’s on the defensive end.”
Jae'Sean Tate: A-
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2020-21 stats: 8.2 points (51.3% FG, 33.3% on 3-pointers), 4.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists in 25.6 minutes per game In his first year as an NBA player, the 25-year-old rookie seems to have solidified a starting spot with his strong defense and intangibles. "He’s trustworthy," Silas said of Tate. "He makes the right plays, makes the right reads. He’s usually in the right spot on both ends of the floor. You just like to have people on the floor you can trust, and you know what you’re going to get from them. He’s one of those guys." https://twitter.com/ATTSportsNetSW/status/1355738483000705028 Given that Tate is a slightly undersized forward who is best known for defense and toughness, many fans who read scouting reports and watched various highlight clips initially pictured him as a younger version of Tucker, his teammate. However, after watching him at the NBA level, some have gone a step further by comparing him to Golden State's Draymond Green, thanks to his ball-handling and playmaking skills. Tate did play professionally in overseas markets the last two seasons, which likely made him more prepared for NBA life than rookies straight out of college. While his numbers don't jump off the stat sheet, Tate brings a high motor, steady presence, and often makes winning plays.
Eric Gordon: B
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2020-21 stats: 17.0 points (44.4%, 34.0% on 3-pointers), 2.2 assists, 2.1 rebounds in 28.2 minutes per game Gordon is shooting the highest percentage on 2-point shots (58.7%) of his entire career, and his defense has clearly improved relative to his injury-plagued season of 2019-20. In short, his legs finally appear healthy, and the athleticism of his earlier seasons in Houston is back. The one nitpick involving the veteran guard is that he's only shooting 34.0% on 3-pointers. Now 32 years old, Gordon believes he's capable of shooting 40% or better from deep. With Houston's roster returning to full health, they may need Gordon more for floor spacing in the weeks ahead and less for creating his own offense off the dribble.
David Nwaba: B+
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2020-21 stats: 8.6 points (47.5% FG, 28.2% on 3-pointers), 3.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals in 22.6 minutes per game By FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR metric, Nwaba grades out as one of the NBA's elite defensive players. That's what the "eye test" shows, as well, with Silas trusting Nwaba for his intensity and an ability to guard multiple positions. The 6-foot-5 swingman has shown no ill effects from the torn Achilles he suffered in December 2019, as evidenced by the athleticism he frequently displays during Houston's transition sequences. The one downside to Nwaba is that his 3-point shooting has fallen off from 42.9% a year ago (prior to the injury) to 28.2% this season. That has made it tough for Silas to close games with him, since defenses often choose to rotate off him during halfcourt sets. But overall, for a player on a near-minimum contract, Nwaba provides excellent value. After Saturday's win, he has the best overall net rating of any rotation player.
John Wall: B+
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2020-21 stats: 17.8 points (43.4% FG, 33.3% on 3-pointers), 5.8 assists, 3.9 rebounds in 30.7 minutes per game The biggest concern for Wall remains durability. After missing most of the last two years with an injured foot, Wall recently missed five games with left knee soreness and remains on a slight minutes restriction. For a 30-year-old guard who depends on his burst and lightning-quick first step, it's a storyline worth monitoring. While Wall is scoring well, the Rockets would love to see his 3-point shooting to tick up from its current 33.3% rate and edge closer to the 37.1% from his last healthy season (2017-18). https://twitter.com/NBATV/status/1354428950496292871 That said, Wall's contributions can't solely be judged by numbers. His veteran leadership has proven essential in helping the Rockets overcome the loss of James Harden, all while setting the appropriate culture for younger players. He's also a reliable defender against opposing point guards, both on-ball and away from the ball. That value has helped make him an apparent upgrade to Russell Westbrook (who Wall was traded for). "Don't worry about making or missing shots, just worry about defending at a high level," Wall told his teammates after falling behind by 20 points in the first quarter of Thursday's game versus Portland. That message clearly resonated during Houston's comeback win, and it's one of many reasons why Wall is a beloved figure by fans, coaches, and teammates.
Sterling Brown: A
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2020-21 stats: 8.1 points (49.0% FG, 45.6% on 3-pointers), 3.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists in 20.3 minutes per game After falling out of the rotation at times during his third and final season in Milwaukee, Brown signed with the Rockets in free agency to a minimum contract with limited expectations. Since then, the 25-year-old guard has become a productive player on both ends of the court, shooting 49.0% overall and 45.6% on 3-pointers. Meanwhile, his defensive rating ranks second among Houston's rotation players. Relative to the investment cost, Brown was a tremendous find by new Rockets GM Rafael Stone.
DeMarcus Cousins: C
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2020-21 stats: 8.3 points (33.6% FG, 30.0% on 3-pointers), 7.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists in 17.5 minutes per game Cousins has shown flashes of the form that made him a four-time All-Star earlier in his NBA career. During a recent three-game injury absence by Wood, "Boogie" started at center and averaged 17.3 points (40.9% on 3-pointers), 14.3 rebounds, and 4.7 assists in 31.9 minutes. That said, he's shooting 33.6% overall, which simply isn't good enough for an NBA center. He's also a defensive liability in certain matchups, with elite guards frequently using picks to exploit the 30-year-old's inability to defend on the perimeter. Cousins' limited mobility is understandable, given the severe leg injuries that cost him most of the previous three seasons. Yet, it is a problem at times for Silas and the Rockets. The team hopes that Cousins will be able to continue knocking off the rust and eventually show that his recent production as a starter can translate to a consistent bench role behind Wood.
Victor Oladipo: B+
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2020-21 stats: 22.0 points (41.2% FG, 31.3% on 3-pointers), 5.2 assists, 5.0 rebounds in 32.8 minutes per game Since joining the Rockets, Oladipo has by far the best defensive rating of any rotation player. In Thursday's win over Portland, Oladipo's on-ball defense helped limit Damian Lillard's shot attempts down the stretch. Meanwhile, on the other end of the court, Oladipo led the Rockets in scoring and hit the game's biggest shot in the final 30 seconds. https://twitter.com/sportingnews/status/1354986498496602117 The 6-foot-4 guard's shooting percentages with Houston are slightly low, but it's a very small sample. Overall, the Rockets are getting exactly what they hoped to get when they traded for the 28-year-old in the blockbuster deal that sent superstar guard James Harden to Brooklyn. “It’s a great group of guys in this locker room, a lot of guys with chips on their shoulders, a lot of guys with something to prove,” said Oladipo, a two-time All-Star. “We’re hungry, and we’re gonna remain that way.” Besides on-court production, the other factor to watch is the potential for off-court negotiations between Oladipo's representatives and Houston GM Rafael Stone. Since Oladipo is slated to become a free agent after this season, the Rockets would like to know whether there's a realistic chance to extend his contract for future years. If not, Oladipo could potentially be traded again before the March 25 deadline.
Ben McLemore: B-
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2020-21 stats: 7.1 points (43.5% on 3-pointers), 2.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists in 17.6 minutes per game McLemore was Houston's best 3-point shooter last season (40.0%), and he's been even more accurate (43.5%) in the 2020-21 season so far. Yet, now that the full roster is healthy, McLemore has fallen out of Stephen Silas' rotation in recent games in favor of veterans with more defensive ability and versatility — such as Nwaba, Brown, and House. The 27-year-old is still excelling at the primary skill (shooting) that he was brought to Houston to do. But unlike the 2019-20 season, it's clear that the Silas-era Rockets have defense as their foundation, and McLemore is often a liability on that end. Between that, his reduced minutes of late, and the fact that he's a free agent after this season, it wouldn't be a surprise if McLemore is dealt before the March 25 trade deadline to a contender wanting extra shooting for its bench.
Danuel House Jr.: C+
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2020-21 stats: 7.3 points (37.8% FG, 28.0% on 3-pointers), 3.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists in 27.3 minutes per game House has struggled to stay on the court, first with back spasms and then due to an issue involving the NBA's new health and safety protocols for COVID-19. When he's played, those shooting numbers are far below the 44.0% overall and 38.1% on 3-pointers that he's shot the last two years. Yet, the 27-year-old still offers significant value to Silas with his athleticism and defensive versatility. At the moment, House has the second-best overall net rating of any player in Houston's rotation. The 6-foot-6 forward showed signs of breaking out of his shooting slump during last Thursday's win over Portland, which could help him build momentum.
Mason Jones: A
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2020-21 stats: 7.7 points (56.3% FG, 56.0% on 3-pointers), 2.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists in 12.5 minutes per game Even though he's an undrafted rookie on a two-way contract, Jones has already made an impact with elite shooting and reliable ball-handling skills. Stephen Silas says Jones has earned his trust, and the Rockets are showing how much they value Jones by not sending him to the G League "bubble" and keeping him with the NBA team. This post originally appeared on Rockets Wire. Follow us on Facebook!