The Rockets have dropped both their first two games by 20 points at home, which hasn't been done since the 1971 Blazers. If you were wondering, that Portland team finished with a 18-64 record. Houston has not started a season 0-2 since 2010, when Yao Ming played just 5 games.
Despite the slow start to the 2015-16 campaign, there is a clear path to success for the talented group. Some faults are correctable and changes are imminent.
Part of the problem, at least in the Warriors game, is making open shots. They shot just 37% in that game and most shots just weren't falling, especially from James Harden. Harden individually needs to get on track, as he has posted two sub-par games so far.
Another issue, which can be easily fixed, is the defensive effort. Sluggish closeouts and miscommunication produced poor results in each game as the Rockets ceded 105 and 112 points respectively.
"We're slow. We're coming off things slow. We push the ball up slowly. We're running into screens slowly, rolling slowly. We're slow," Kevin McHale said after the blowout loss to the Warriors.
How can a team with such fast players — Lawson, Beverley, Ariza, Brewer — play so slow? The issue McHale is outlining is not directed at the offense, which is averaging 89 points per game through two games.
There are many small problems with this team: they lull in the third quarter, they can be stagnant and one-dimensional on offense, and some players (cough cough Harden cough Lawson) take plays off defensively. But the main problem with the Rockets, in my opinion, is that the defensive scheme doesn't always cater to the personnel.
The Rockets have an extremely unique roster with an overbearing theme of versatility and athleticism. You could argue Houston has more versatile players than the Warriors, even though they have Draymond "I can guard all five positions" Green. My question is: if the Rockets have such versatile players, why is their defense so vanilla?
Last year, the Rockets played at an elite defensive level because they gambled in the passing lanes, hedged the pick and roll aggressively, and recovered with rim protectors like Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Terrence Jones, and Donatas Motiejunas. All those defensive ticks led to easy buckets, which was the Rockets' MO.
The 2015-16 Rockets, despite having perhaps better players, have inexplicably strayed away from much of that.
Defensive pace, more of an idea than a qualitative statistic, is the impact of a defense in terms of how it dictates the opposing team's pace. In the first two games, the Rockets have barely impacted the pace of the Warriors or Nuggets at all, they've had a bad defensive pace.
Defensively, there are a couple different ways to dictate the pace. You can slow a team down so they have less time on the shot clock to set up an organized offense. Or you can speed a team up, forcing them to make mistakes while rushing with the ball. The Rockets did neither of these things against the Nuggets and Warriors.
Dictating the pace of an opposing offense is key to a modern NBA team's success. The NBA champion Warriors and 2010-2013 Miami Heat come to mind when thinking about defensive pace.
Kevin McHale should experiment with more aggressive defenses to change the speed of the game. They have enough athleticism on the wings to play a swarming defense like the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat teams (with a small-ball lineup). They have the versatility to switch every pick like the Warriors. Most teams don't have the luxury of roster full of ballhawks like Corey Brewer and Trevor Ariza.
In short spurts, the Rockets could even try a full court press with the right personnel on the court. When speedsters Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza, or Montrezl Harrell are in play, Houston can disrupt any offense using all 94 feet of the court.
NBA teams generally don't press because, if poorly executed, can lead to easy buckets for the team that breaks the defense. However, like you see in college basketball, a full-court press can be devastating and change the course of a game. It goes without saying that the Rockets would only press for a few plays at a time, after a made free throw or stopped ball.
Even with the starting lineup in, I'd like to see some of a 2-2-1 passive press to take an offense out of its rhythm. If they can do this effectively, the opposing team would initiate their offense with 15 or so seconds on the shot clock instead of 20.
These are the types of creative schemes the Rockets must implement defensively to right the ship. Whatever defense McHale decides to try (if any at all), success will only come if all the players buy in to the system and communicate on the court.