So you extended Kevin McHale and practically signed Josh Smith, now what?
Coming into the season, many thought that the Rockets had taken a huge step back in their road to contention. Not only the Rockets failed to bring in the third star they coveted, they also lost three rotational players in the process, two of whom were arguably in the top 10 of their respective positions.
The Rockets did what they always do to salvage the situation: make the financial decisions to keep cap room flexibility and live to swing another day. With many of the other Western Conference teams further strengthened their depth, it felt like a lost season, or at the very least, a season with a limited ceiling.
Two months into the season, the Rockets have everyone singing a different tune. The Rockets have a record of 20-7, good for fourth in the ridiculously competitive Western Conference. Just to add shock value to their success, they've achieved this record with three-fifths of the starting lineup missing about half the games and shooting just 42 percent from the floor as a team. Even with a flawed and thin bench, the Rockets somehow managed to claw and fight their way into the the ranks of the western elite. Part of it is a relatively soft schedule to date and a renewed commitment to defense, but most of it is due to the herculean effort of one James Edward Harden Jr.
Thanks to James Harden's MVP level performance through 27 games, the Rockets are quickly realizing that they may need to capitalize on this chaotic season for a chance at the title. They've already cashed in the Jeremy Lin trade exception for Corey Brewer and Alexey Shved, and Josh Smith, long rumored to be a target, literally fell into their laps just before the holidays. Within the span of a week, the talent level of the roster seems to have increased exponentially.
However, simply looking at the roster assembled on paper, it feels like the Rockets are still a few cards shy of a full deck. The Rockets have collected some odd pieces up to this point of the season, especially for their style of play. With Daryl Morey's habitual wheeling and dealing, one cannot help but expect another move on the horizon.
The question is, just what exactly is that move?
Let's start by examining what do the Rockets need.
Ever since Harden's arrival, Houston has gained a reputation of having a high octane offense, driven by a high volume of three-pointers and free throws. But so far this season, the Rockets have struggled to score with the same efficiency as the past, highlighted by an utter inability to shoot the ball. The Rocket are the third-worst shooting team in the NBA, behind teams like the Lakers and the Hornets, putting the ball in the basket on just 42 percent of shots.
Perhaps due to Howard's absence, Houston has up the ante on the volume of threes, averaging 34 attempts a game, which leads the league by a wide margin. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they only manage to hit 34 percent of those attempts. Among the expected contributors, none have struggled more than Trevor Ariza, who averages the most three-point attempts on the team and the most catch and shoot attempts in the league, but only makes 33 percent of his attempts from long range.
His backupa, until recently Kostas Papanikolaou but Brewer before coming to Houston, aren't faring any better. Big Papa is averaging a paltry 29 percent from range, and Brewer has been even worse despite hot shooting in his first two games on the team. Francisco Garcia, after missing what seemed like a million open 3s (it was only 29, it only felt like a million), is no longer with the team.
In fact, Patrick Beverley and Jason Terry are the only two players in the regular rotation who shoot above average from 3. The new additions of Brewer, Shved and Smith are not likely to boost the shooting numbers either, since none of them shoots over 30% on jump shots this season. For a team that preaches "pace and space," and on pace to break the single season record for three-point attempts, this roster is curiously lacking in shooters.
Partially related to the poor shooting is the Rockets' low assist rate. Houston lost two of their better passers over the summer in Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, and Morey never really restocked the team with playmakers to ease the transition. As a result, one of the poorer passing teams of last season has now become even worse. Houston is dead last in assist rate, second to last in both assist to turnover ratio and assists per game, 20th in assist opportunity per game.
It's not hard to understand why when you look at the team's construction as a whole. James Harden has been the only ball handler in the rotation capable of driving to the basket and generate scoring and assist opportunities via the drive and kick. Although Patrick Beverley has significantly upped his three-point shooting, his role in the offense has not expanded as significantly as one would expect, leaving most of the playmaking to James Harden.
Jason Terry never was much of a passer, and he still is not. The hope that more assists can come via post kick out also never materialized with Dwight Howard injured for half the season, and Donatas Motiejunas not really good enough to command consistent double teams. One little bit of salvation on the passing front has been the play of Papanikolaou, demonstrating an ability to recognize and create easy opportunities for the front court player that none of our guards have, but his spotty shooting and suspect ball handling has severely held back his chance to contribute.
With the addition of Shved, Brewer and Josh Smith, Morey has gone under the radar to upgrade the passing game. Shved, looking like a broke ass Tony Stark, gives the Rocket another option that can handle the ball and actually drive into the paint and manufacture openings. Corey Brewer, while not known for his ball handling and passing, has shown the capability to be a decent emergency ball handler with the Timberwolves this season. Josh Smith just might be the second-best passer on the team, as chilling as that sounds. With all that said, the dire state of Houston's passing game needs more than just subtle improvements, especially if we factor in that all of our best passers have high turnover rates for their usage.
Obviously, bench has always been a concern with the Rockets. Dead last in pretty much every offensive category off the bench, Rockets has basically opted to play James Harden and Trevor Ariza Jimmy Butler minutes. While Rockets have added more productive players, how much does it actually improve the bench is still unclear. Both shooting and play-making are still lacking. Motiejunas' solid defense and post game gets pushed to the bench, but he also brings along his limited rebounding capabilities. It also pushes out the underrated contribution on the offensive glass by both Joey Dorsey and Tarik Black.
Who will be the go-to scorer for the bench unit? Jason Terry has not been the most reliable option. D-Mo at times seems to have this offense thing figured out, but his offense is still overall unreliable. You never know if D-Mo brings his shooting hands or his brick hands. From a simple 5-foot hook to a couple free throws at the line to wide open three-point shots, he can just as easily be automatic as he can be utterly inept. There is no clear structure off the bench, especially without Harden. It'll be interesting to see if McHale can put together a functional group out of these misfit pieces.
What the Rockets need seems pretty obvious. They need a three-point shooting play-maker, preferably one that can create his own shot in times of need. Most likely the Rockets need another point guard that can play about 20 to 25 minutes a game, if not more. We all know where this is headed.
All stats are up-to-date as of Christmas. Part 2 will cover the Rockets' wants for the rest of the year.