All we’ve learned about the Rockets’ place in the league so far is they can beat bad teams, which, to be fair, is something we couldn’t say about last year’s team. But we’ve also learned that many, many things need to go right for the Rockets to win more than they lose, and that could be bad news.
We already know the health concerns, but to re-hash briefly: outside of James Harden, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela, all of the Rockets’ major contributors have long injury histories. Tyler Ennis’ play in place of Patrick Beverley is just one example of Houston’s depth issues. Another injury could send this team into a tailspin.
But ignoring the injuries, this still is not a balanced team. The best-case scenario we hoped for on defense — to be better or stagnant from last year — has not come to fruition. Even against the Dirk-less Mavericks, the Kobe-less Lakers and the Phil-ful Knicks, the Rockets’ defense has been paltry.
Through seven games, they’re giving up 108.3 points per 100 possessions (which dropped from over 111 thanks to the ‘Zards), the fourth-worst mark in the league. Only the Lakers and Nets were worse than that over the full season last year. They’re giving up 18.4 points off turnovers and 14.4 second chance points, both bottom 10 in the league, per NBA.com.
Those numbers perfectly encapsulate the tightrope Houston walks every time down the court. Their high-octane offense, while beautiful when conducted by Maestro James Harden, has been incredibly turnover-prone. More than 17 percent of the Rockets’ possessions end in turnovers, the worst mark in the league.
That carelessness can’t even be attributed to pace, either. The Rockets are the 16th-fastest team in the league, slower than the Pacers, Blazers and Hornets. They just turn the ball over a ton. And if you’re going to give teams roughly 17 extra possessions per game, you’d better make sure that they only get one shot attempt when they get it.
Alas, the Rockets are the seventh-worst defensive rebounding team in the league, corralling just 74.1 percent of opponents’ misses. They are once again, however, one of the best offensive rebounding team in the league (No. 8). Last year, that could have been attributed to Dwight Howard working extra hard to get every shot he could. This year, it’s hard to know how to reconcile those two numbers.
The Rockets have won more games than they’ve lost while being this terrible on defense, which was the entire design of this offseason. It’s why Ryan Anderson is making $20 million a year until he turns 33 and still looks like he forgot how to play defense on many sequences.
Anderson is grabbing 9.2 percent of available offensive rebounds and 13.8 percent of available defensive rebounds so far, per NBA.com. If that seems askew to you, you’re not alone. He’s a stretch 4: why is he so much better rebounding on offense when his job is to be on the perimeter? By comparison, last year, Kevin Love — whose offensive role mirrors what Anderson’s is on the Rockets, and is a superior rebounder — grabbed 7.1 percent of available offensive rebounds and 28.7 percent of available defensive boards. That’s a more normal differential there.
Maybe it’s just a small sample size, but it’s not unfair to call out Anderson for caring a lot more about boxing out on one end of the floor than the other. And he just can’t if the Rockets are going to be anything more than just OK. He’s not alone in that; Nene’s ratio is 9.5-to-14.1 percent. Capela is the only player on the team grabbing more than 20% of available defensive rebounds. The disdain for the defensive glass is systemic.
Let’s get to the other trouble spot: turnovers. James Harden set an all-time record for these little devils last year, but he’s not the biggest problem. That title belongs to the man responsible for the offense when Harden goes off the floor: Tyler Ennis.
Ennis, who’s in Houston because Michael Beasley is in Milwaukee, has been just awful. A quarter of the time he touches the ball, he turns it over. A quarter. His shooting is so bad it’s comical: his eFG% is 23.5 and his true shooting percentage is 25.2. Ennis was a first-round draft pick two years ago, and he’s getting legitimate playing time. It’s grown clear he is not an NBA-caliber player.
Beyond Ennis, Nene and Capela have higher possession-to-turnover ratios than Harden. The team’s worst culprit isn’t even Ennis: it’s Rockets Twitter’s favorite player Montrezl Harrell, who has turned the ball over 26.2 percent of the time he’s touched the ball in his 46 minutes of action so far this year.
The thing about turnover issues like this is they can be corrected. Many are passes that go off someone’s hands. For the continuity among Harden, Ariza and Capela, integrating Nene, Anderson, Eric Gordon and Ennis was never going to be an overnight success.
These problems just accentuate the Rocket’s core issue: they don’t have the personnel to be a complete team. Anderson can’t guard anyone. Until Beverley comes back, there is absolutely no one who can run this offense other than the Beard (and there’s no reason to be sure Beverley can, either). Capela can’t shoot free throws and Nene is a pitiful rebounder for a center. Nothing can change any of these facts.
And that’s why stuff like turnovers and defensive effort, particularly on the glass, matter so much. The only chance the Rockets have is to get more possessions than the other team, because they can outscore anyone. But if they’re giving the ball away and not getting it back, this team is sunk.