During yet another Rockets loss on Wednesday night, the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen tweeted an incredibly distressing fact about the team this season:
As often as Rockets opponents have someone get hot off the bench, as Courtney Lee has tonight, Rockets don't. Bench outscored in every game.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) November 26, 2015
The Rockets bench has been outscored in every damn game. It's a stark contrast to the Rockets' elite bench mob of last season, once they acquired Corey Brewer and Josh Smith. Smith is gone (and struggling to find a role on the Clippers, with whom he signed for less money than the Rockets offered), and Brewer hasn't been remotely the same player he was as last season. Those are the biggest problems with the bench, but they're not the only ones.
Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell are 1-2 on the Rockets in terms of field goal percentage, and they've served their highly specialized functions well, but of the rest of the reserves, not a single one cracks 40 percent from the field. Jason Terry sits at 40.3, but he's now, improbably, a starter. Marcus Thornton started 7 games and shot a quite-nice 48 percent from the field in those contests, but off the bench his FG% is at a lowly 26.8 percent. Corey Brewer wishes his FG% was as high as 26.8.
It's also worthwhile to mention that Capela is averaging just 12.2 minutes in the last six games he's come off the bench, and Harrell's averaging about 10 minutes per game over his last six (he hasn't played at all in two of the Rockets' last 8, over which time the team has gone 1-7).
Shooting percentages aren't exactly a tell-all stat, but look at the above tweet again. We know that the Rockets have been bad defensively across the board, but the bench is never supposed to be a stout defensive unit. The bench, especially the Rockets' bench, can distinguish itself by injecting a scoring boost, or at least by treading water.
To hear that the Rockets reserves have been outscored every game suddenly puts a lot of things into context, like how the Rockets can never seem to finish off runs to get back into the game, and instead stall just out of reach, like what happened throughout the second half against Memphis on Tuesday.
Again, a big part of this problem has been the Rockets' first guy off the bench -- Brewer. His net rating this year is an abysmal -14.5, third-worst on the team (Beverley and Harrell). His offensive rating is a paltry 91.5, a far cry from last year's 102.7. He's a notoriously streaky player, and this is the longest and coldest streak of his Rockets career. He's still running and doing crazy things like last year, but it gets a lot less endearing when you can't put the ball in the basket to save your life. There's no solution to his problems that I can see except to wait for him to turn it around, or stop playing him if he doesn't.
The more complicated problem comes from the point guard position. Ty Lawson's struggles have been well-documented, and he's quickly becoming an afterthought as Kevin McHale, and now J.B. Bickerstaff, lost all confidence in him. We have often thought that he'd be perfect coming off the bench as the primary ballhandler to replace James Harden, but Lawson is lost right now. He's shooting only 31.6 percent from the field, and getting to the free throw line just over half as often as he did last year.
If Lawson's not shooting well and not penetrating, he loses his effectiveness as a distributor (see: last year's version of Rajon Rondo; the last three years' versions of Deron Williams). It appears Bickerstaff's strategy is to sit him down for a few games and hope he gets his mind right. It's not a bad plan in theory; we can only hope it works. Remember, Denver gave Lawson away at pennies on the dollar for a reason.
The lone bench bright spot has been, of course, Clint Capela. The only Rocket with a positive net rating, he also has the best defensive rating on the team. He's a legitimate rim protector already in his career, and he turns the ball over far less than Dwight Howard. Neither of them have developed post games, but one of them is nearly ten years older than the other. At this point, until Dwight either gets healthier or simply improves, Capela might be better straight-up. In his five starts this year (in which he still played under 25 minutes per game), Capela averaged damn near a double-double. With Dwight now planning on playing every game, it feels good to have one reliable option off the bench.
Of course, the problem with Capela is that he can't create his own offense, or anything close to it. He's a capable pick-and-roll finisher, but he needs a viable dribble threat to pair with him or bigs will simply drop off to the basket to cut off Capela's rim runs. He covers up for a lot defensively, but perhaps the Rockets' biggest defensive issue -- on transition -- is not one that a rim protector can solve. If and/or when Lawson gets right, they seem like they could be a devastating pair. But until then, Capela will continue to be a good player without the right pieces around him to truly unlock his potential.
If Donatas Motiejunas returns to the starting lineup, Terrence Jones would certainly benefit from coming off the bench and not having to bang with front-line power forwards -- he looked pathetically overmatched against the 7'3" Kristaps Porzingis, for example, and a second unit of Lawson, Thornton, Brewer, Jones and Capela could still be a deadly unit. But a lot has to change for that to happen.