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A Christmas Rockets Roundtable: Trade rumors, playoff chances and James Harden's struggle

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Merry Christmas! Enjoy our airing of grievances against a frustrating Rockets team.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It's just over the one-third market of the NBA season. The Rockets now sit at an uninspiring 15-15, and, as we've gone over before, the hard part of their schedule has not even begun.

The trade winds around the league are all swirling around Houston, since no one knows if the Rockets will be buyers, sellers, who they're willing to part with and what is going on with the Dwight Howard situation. Ty Lawson, Terrence Jones, Corey Brewer and others could very well be on the move. Or none of them.

No one person can make sense of the Rockets this year. For Christmas, the TDS family gathered around the virtual fire to hash it out, just like your dysfunctional family.

What's been the biggest problem other than the general lack of effort?

AK2themax: A complete lack of offensive sets. As in, if you told me that Houston didn't have any offensive sets coming into the year, I would believe you. The league continues to prove that there are two ways to run an elite offense. You can either run the system that the Spurs use, which requires years of fine-tuning and the correct personnel in terms of ability and demeanor. Or you can run your offense through one player and surround them with shooters and rim finishers. Houston is firmly in the second camp, but in years pastm there was actually off-ball movement when Harden drove. Now, the offense has turned into: try to do stuff for a few seconds, give up, give the ball to James, and then stare at him unless he passes to you. In which case, you panic.

Darren Yuvan: The problem has been two-fold. Defense is the first major issue, though that is likely a function of lack of effort, being that we know the players on this team are mostly capable defenders when they want to be. We've seen it. The Rockets gave up 100.5 points per game last season with largely the same group of players. That's slipped to 106 points per game this year, which is dead last in the NBA.

The second is the failure to get Dwight Howard more involved. The Rockets have a second superstar for a reason. There's no excuse for Howard averaging 8 shots per night. The man is getting paid $23 million this year, and the Rockets need to utilize him like it. We saw some great glimpses in Saturday night's come-alive game against the Clippers. More of that, please. Hopefully, the Rockets and Dwight continue to use the current negative rumor talk as a motivator. All of the outside chatter goes away if the team starts winning again. It's really that simple.

Eric Nielsen: Chemistry. Many variables have changed from last year's success: injuries over the summer, the Rockets dumping McHale, the Harden adidas contract, a Kardashian and the integration of Lawson. The Rockets can't seem to muster the magic of last season. Everything went the Rockets' way last year and this group may have peaked, going to the WCF, last year.

Ethan Rothstein: It's a mix of lack of preseason preparation and defensive intensity. James Harden has reverted to his ball-watching ways on that end, Corey Brewer has been a train wreck and, until Clint Capela was inserted into the starting lineup, there was no one on the floor to help Dwight Howard — who has clearly lost a step — at the rim. The defense has stepped up, but it's not even close to the level it needs to be, or was last year.

Do you want to see a trade?

AK: Not really. This team has everything it needs to contend in terms of talent. Would a dead-eye shooter help? Sure, but where would that hypothetical guy play? If the Rockets acquired Kyle Korver today the team would have to play small-ball almost exclusively to use him. Furthermore, how could he play with James Harden defensively? Before I continue answering this question with a question (or three), I'll just finish by saying that Houston is 2-deep at every position and obtaining some other player at the expense of one of those guys might not change the team for the better.

Darren: I do think a trade is needed. The Rockets desperately need another shooter, and they have some players of value they can move. Ty Lawson, Terrence Jones and Corey Brewer all have the potential to be traded, either individually or in a package. A top shooter like Ryan Anderson would be a great fit coming off the bench for these Rockets, and with a workable $8.5 million contract, I'd love to see if Daryl Morey could get something done.

I also think, contrary to what we're hearing inside the Rockets organization, Dwight Howard could be moved near the deadline if the Rockets continue to struggle. There's no reason to lose him for nothing if the team isn't going anywhere.

Eric: I'd like to see the Rockets start stockpiling picks again to make a run at a franchise player. Knowing Morey, the number of players in their contract year and the struggles this team has had, I expect some trades. If we don't make some trades, we'll get nothing in return for valuable assets. But, I'm pessimistic that any trades made this year will assist in a deep playoff run.

Ethan: No. None of the options out there seem all that appealing. The Rockets have enough chemistry problems without adding Markieff Morris, Ryan Anderson just makes their defense worse, and Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford and Brook Lopez are all free agents after this year, and they're all worse than Dwight Howard. Maybe dumping Ty Lawson on someone would be addition by subtraction, but considering all trades the Rockets make have to match salary, it just doesn't seem likely that Rockets fans would be pleased with any deal Morey makes at this point.

How could we have been so wrong about this team?

AK2themax: Because on paper it doesn't say anything about heart. If you looked at the roster and the success of last season, you would have been a fool to think the Rockets weren't better than they were last year. And remember, they were REALLY good last season. That was more playoff experience for James Harden as a leader of a team. It was more playoff coaching experience for Kevin McHale. It was more continuity and chemistry that everyone (read: Mark Cuban) said Houston didn't have last season. They accomplished so much without their starting point guard and power forward so getting them back meant addition by addition. I think we didn't consider that Corey Brewer couldn't make any of the crazy lay-ups that he never missed last year. I'm sure we didn't consider Ty Lawson would be a complete bust. And I know we didn't think the team would start the season shooting as poorly as they did. The first quarter of the season can be summed up by their general lack of effort and an inability to do the things that made them great last year, like making timely shots and defending at a high level.

Darren: Well, last season was not a fluke; we know this team has talent. But maybe last year's postseason run was the peak for this general group of guys? As good as they were last year, even then it seemed they had another possible gear that they weren't always utilizing. It always felt like we saw glimpses of what this team could be, just never for an extended enough period of time, even then. The thought was that they would get there, they just needed more time together. And this was thought to be the season they put it all together. It's almost time to start considering that maybe last year's Rockets, as they stood after the epic comeback versus the Clippers — a very good, but flawed team — was the best version of this group we'd see. The ancillary pieces haven't meshed like they were supposed to, and it may be time to reconfigure around Harden.

Eric: Our expectations were so high because of last year. Harden had a career year that is proving difficult to match. The Spurs added LaMarcus Aldridge, the Warriors stepped it up even more from last year, the Thunder got Durant back and the Clippers, Grizzlies and Mavericks are playing at their normal levels. The Rockets are more fickle and fragile than these other franchises, so they are annually challenged to show they are a stable and steady front runner.

Ethan: No one was wronger than I, having picked them to win the title and be the No. 2 seed in the West again. It's clear that James Harden's eventful summer affected him. He was in almost unbelievable shape last year, playing balls out on both ends of the court every night. It's kind of crazy to have assumed he'd do it again, but he lost so much energy for defense. There were warning signs — Khloe, the adidas contract and the preseason injury bug — but we were too blinded with optimism to see them.

Do the Rockets have a big run in them?

AK2themax: I can see it happening, but there's no way that run would be big enough to make me go, "The Rockets could totally play with Golden State or San Antonio in a seven-game series where they don't have homecourt advantage." Because that's who you're chasing if you're the NBA right now. The playoffs are coming down to the Western Conference Finals between the Spurs and Warriors, with Cleveland likely the roadkill that those teams would get in the Finals. Even with a run, I don't see Houston entering that discussion, especially with the impossibility of homecourt advantage in the second and third rounds. Basically, I think the version of the Rockets were are seeing (winning two-thirds of their games against inferior teams) is as good as this team really is, and so even a "run" wouldn't make them anything other than first round fodder. Now excuse me while I take a depression questionnaire.

Darren: They have a run in them. How big it actually is is another story. The West isn't nearly the top-to-bottom juggernaut it's been in year's past, so even if the team plays mediocre ball from here on out, it looks like they could still sneak into the playoffs as a low seed this season. But the gap between the Rockets and the Warriors and Spurs is more like a chasm, and I have my serious doubts if this team, as currently assembled, can improve enough to be competitive with either of those squads in a postseason series. It's certainly not impossible, but it's a very, very long climb from where they stand right now today.

Eric: There is a good chance. This team proved last year that when it's all clicking and the ball is going in the hole, they ramp up their effort and defensive intensity. There is a lot of season left, although the schedule gets immensely more difficult. D-Mo is providing some stability; J.B. is scratching hard to push the right buttons and find the right rotations; Lawson is relegated to a role equivalent to his ability to help the team; and momentum does swing heavy in the NBA. They only sit a few games back from the second tier in the West, so it's still possible to get home court in the first round of the playoffs.

Ethan: Anything is still possible for this team, except beating the Warriors, it seems. James Harden is second in the league in scoring despite his warts. Dwight Howard has looked more lively of late. Donuts is still working his way back into shape and everyone seems to be building to something. Even Ty Lawson! If I had to guess, I would say this 15-15 team gets to 48-34, the No. 6 seed in the west and a hard-fought, first-round loss to the Thunder.