2019 NBA offseason, Part 4: Rockets, Heat, Knicks – reloads that could be full of surprises

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There are the teams that many pundits no longer see as championship contenders because of the departure of some of their stars. Thing is I felt some of these teams are unreasonably ranked very low but have made enough moves to remain in the hunt for the championship.

Here is the second part of teams that lost some key stars resulting to their not being highly ranked this coming season but had made what I consider nice roster bounce back moves that could really surprise us with a deep playoff appearance.

In this part, it was a management decision to let go of their stars in exchange of one coming in.

Houston Rockets

Key losses: Chris Paul, Kenneth Faried, and Nene Hilario.
Key additions: Russell Westbrook, Tyson Chandler, and Anthony Bennett.

The Rockets swap point guards with big contracts, getting more obligation in terms of dollars but became younger, when they shipped out Paul with Westbrook.

A lot of pundits don’t question talent in this acquisition and put emphasis on chemistry on the possibility of failure to become a better team overall.

Well, it’s really a see-first matter but I feel otherwise. The key here is Westbrook’s strengths, not chemistry.

Just look at these circumstances leading to the trade: (1) James Harden and Westbrook are said to be friends and played in the same Boys and Girls Club; (2) both played together professionally with the Thunder early in their careers and even got taste of success that were never duplicated when they went separate ways, (3) Harden endorsed the trade to management.

Chemistry between the two might be least of the problems.

What the Rockets are getting in Westbrook is his ability to play point guard and carry a team on his back, penetrate the lane with impunity and having a stocky body type could be the swing factor.

Westbrook’s style of play is suited for the lane, not the three point area and beyond. He is a perfect fit for the Rockets style. With the presence of shooters who attempt heavy volume of threes, the lane is often left unmanned and Westbrook should be able to take advantage of it. I can see Westbrook attempting a lot more layups and dunks compared to three pointers this year.

The Rockets like to switch a lot in defense and opponents often take advantage of mismatches when the point guard gets a bigger man during the switch. Westbrook’s size partially disallows this scenario because he will still be able to defend majority of the opposing guards and forwards. I am aware this is on Westbrook’s hands, but should he put his mind on it, he should be able bring the Rockets’ defense a notch higher. If he wants to.

Lastly, the coaching staff were often hesitant to give Harden a rest during games because they were generally outscored when they do so. That resulted to the Harden burnout and poor performances in the later stretch of the playoffs due to the heavy minutes played during the season. Westbrook could be the cure here as he has shown he can carry the Thunder on his back in long stretches during a game why playing point.

The Rockets should consider giving Westbrook the ball and let him do his thing whenever they like giving Harden a rest. I think it will work well.

Even with these changes, I could see these Rockets struggle to duplicate their Western Conference Finals appearance last year due to the exodus of stars to the West. However, I would gave them a better shot at going further because of what Westbrook brings to the team.

It would not be surprising to see them back in the Western Conference Finals. It could be even further.

Miami Heat

Key losses: Hassan Whiteside, Dwayne Wade (retirement), and Josh Richardson.
Key additions: Jimmy Butler and Meyers Leonard.

The question whether Butler will fit as Miami’s franchise player is apt and this will only be answered when we see how he and the team fares as they move forward. Moreover, I’m sure he could not lift this team to championship contender status alone in the event this team fails to construct a better line-up around him.

His presence, however, propels them back to being a playoff contending team and this is the key benefit the Heat are getting.

The Butler acquisition probably has some more chapters ahead. I feel the Heat is banking on Butler being a fit with the team, allowing them to become competitive, like what the Clippers have done last year, and attract a 2020 or 2021 superstar free agent to pair with him or allow the team to trade for one.

The Heat should improve their 10th place finish in the Eastern Conference last year. It should not be surprising if Butler’s competitiveness could spark them to take advantage of the “weak” East and get a first round home court advantage, reach the second round, and give the higher seed a scare.

If this happens, superstars will definitely give this team, located in one of the favored prime destinations for superstar players in the NBA, a look in free agency or in trades.

New York Knicks

Key losses: DeAndre Jordan and Emmanuel Mudiay.
Key additions: Rookie  RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington, Taj Gibson, and Bobby Portis.

Caveat: This is not an added “insult to injury” for Knicks fans who suffered long enough by their team’s inability to get to the playoffs for a long while.

While these additions are not Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and/or Zion Williamson,  the realistic dream they had prior to the draft lottery and free agency of the possibility of any combinations these trio joining the team for this season, their new acquisitions are more than enough to help them avoid another trip to the cellar in the standings.

Barrett is considered by some NBA analysts as the most NBA ready among the rookies and the game improvements showed by Julius Randle after leaving the Lakers are things not to be taken for granted.

By mixing veterans Gibson and Morris, this Knicks team is now prepared to make some sort of  noise this year and, maybe more importantly, give management some direction on who to target as the person they would build their franchise around.

By all means these Knicks are not going to the championship rounds but will no longer be a lottery team. They now have enough pieces to realistically label them at least playoff contenders.

The Knicks will definitely improve their last place finish last year and squeeze in the playoffs as one of the lower seeds.

By Armando M. Bolislis
Banner illustration by Don Ray Ramos.

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