For a team that reached the Western Conference finals and won more regular-season games than it had since 1996-97, Houston wasn’t exactly sending out its preferred starting five all that often last season.
The Rockets, however, were always able to find an agreeable lineup against Denver.
With hopes of taking things a step further this season, the Rockets welcome the Michael Malone-led Nuggets for Wednesday’s season opener with plenty of lineup options, including a former Denver regular.
Houston fell three wins short of the NBA Finals, yet the entire playoff run and the end of the regular season came without point guard Patrick Beverley. Dwight Howard played half of the season and Terrence Jones was limited to 33 games. It amounted to 18 different starting fives on its way to 56 wins.
"If we stay healthy, I think we have a pretty good shot to win it all," said James Harden.
The injuries, though, might have helped cement Harden’s worth while he finished second in the NBA with 27.4 points a game and was MVP runner-up to Golden State’s Stephen Curry.
Backcourt mate Beverley signed a four-year, $25 million contract to stay with the Rockets in July, but they also brought in former Denver point guard Ty Lawson via trade, giving them a potential surplus of ball-handling a season after often relying on Harden.
The Lawson-Beverley duo could at times share minutes, though it’s Lawson who figures to start after Harden lobbied for the club to pursue him. He also might provide Harden with a shot at increased offense even after a career year.
The Nuggets with Lawson typically pushed the tempo, and the guard posted a Golden State-like 99.8 pace (possessions per 48 minutes) last season. Houston’s team mark was second at 99.2, so it fits Lawson’s style, but no one who started more than a game for Houston had an individual mark on his level.
There are of course Lawson’s personal issues to contend with considering the Rockets acquired him while he was in a 30-day residential treatment program following his second DUI arrest, but he’s trying to move past that.
"I don’t want to let my teammates down," Lawson said.
Howard is ready to go after suffering through knee problems last season, but the center turns 30 in December. He and the Rockets know they’ll have to manage his minutes to keep him fresh throughout the season.
"The main thing is that when I’m out there on the floor I can give the best effort for my team," Howard said.
That might not apply quite as much in Game 1. Howard played in two games against Denver last season and averaged 25.0 points and 14.5 rebounds, but the results were about the same without him.
The Rockets swept all four meetings last season by an average of 10.0 points. Harden scored 50 in the last meeting March 19 in Houston and averaged 35.8.
Malone, who was fired by Sacramento in December, takes over in Denver after the Nuggets spent two-plus seasons under Brian Shaw and 23 games behind interim coach Melvin Hunt to conclude last season.
The Nuggets parted with Lawson after drafting Emmanuel Mudiay, who at 19 takes over a team that returns veterans Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.
"I love challenges," said Mudiay, who bypassed college to spend last year playing pro ball in China. "My team gives me a lot of confidence and has a lot of trust in me."
The challenge of turning a 30-win team into a playoff contender in the West might be a tall task, but Faried sees promise.
"I believe we have a chance to make the playoffs this year," Faried said. "I 100 percent believe that – 110 percent. I don’t care what anybody has to say about it."