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How the Rockets can bounce back from a slow start

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Despite an uninspiring start to the season, there is plenty low-hanging fruit that can help the Rockets return to their winning ways.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the #spitgate dust has settled, it’s time to face the unfortunate truth that the Rockets enter tonight’s contest against the Utah Jazz in a funk. At 12th in offensive rating and 24th defensively through three games, this Rockets’ team couldn’t look further from the high-oiled machine fans saw in May, and it’s tough to say exactly why.

While the easy narrative is to point at Trevor Ariza in Phoenix and Luc Mbah a Moute in Los Angelos, and claim a downgrade in talent, it’s more complex than that. Growing pains are to be expected when you replace key parts of such a delicately built hierarchy.

(Getting caught in the middle of a nationally televised temper tantrum that snowballs into a suspension of your second best player in game two of that integration doesn’t help either.)

With that said, there’s no reason to sound the alarm (yet, at least). There is a plethora of low-hanging fruit the Rockets’ can reach to get back on track. Let’s explore a few:

James Harden’s finishing at the rim

Per Basketball Reference, after shooting an elite 66 percent in the restricted area last season, Harden is shooting a pedestrian 50 percent to start the year— with countless missed “bunnies” he’d die to get back. Some of this can be chalked up to October basketball, some to the L.A. flu, and some to the questionable officiating that has his free throw rate down 10 percent. Either way, it will normalize.

It’s possible the reduced spacing this season is affecting him more than he’s letting on, but even if that’s the case, expect it to go up. Throughout his career, Harden has danced his way to the rim to the tune of 64 percent shooting. It’s inevitable his touch comes around.

Good shooters missing shots

Last season, the Rockets had eight rotation players shoot above league average (36%) from three. So far this season they sit at four.

In particular, Eric Gordon (33 percent) and Carmelo Anthony (20 percent... Yikes), have started slow. Considering both are proven spot-up snipers and combine for 12 three-point attempts a game, the Rockets are in for better luck from beyond.

This variance of shooting is what’s accounted for most of the Rockets’ offensive struggles so far. They’re still the number one team in the league in isolation play, they’re still top three in half court offense. The system is fine.

Per Synergy Sports, the notable drop is from 1st in transition offense last season to 23rd thus far. Harden’s struggles at the rim and the Rockets’ poor outside shooting on kick-aheads bare most of the responsibility for this decline. Once those two return to normal, the offense will be humming the familiar league-leading, Mike D’Antoni tune.

Rebounding. Rebounding. Rebounding.

The clearest weakness for the Rockets through three games is their inability to control the boards. In each of their defeats, they’ve lost the rebounding battle by double digits. In their only win, they outrebounded the Lakers by 10. Their play has mirrored the glass.

The main culprits thus far are P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela, as both have seen their rebound rate drop a third compared to last season. With how often the Rockets go small, those two need to vacuum on misses for the Rockets’ style of play to remain viable. Unfortunately, the replacement of James Ennis with Michael Carter-Williams for the immediate future makes this problem even harder to solve.

Defensive chemistry and effort

As was heavily tweeted following their abysmal opening night loss to the Pelicans, the Rockets’ have been miserably executing their switch-everything scheme with their new personnel. The lack of cohesiveness has resulted in a steep drop from 8th in half-court defense last season to 27th in week one.

As troubling as that may seem, not all hope is lost. The Rockets’ are still top five in what they hang their hat on—- defending isolations. And the two play types they’ve struggled with the most, miscellaneous (ie. broken plays) and cuts, are largely based on communication and effort. If the Rockets’ can remedy their lack of chemistry and general meh approach to defense so far, things will turn quickly.

Rudy Gobert and the Jazz offer as good a litmus test for the severity of these issues as one could ask for. So Rockets fans should have a clearer picture of this team’s ability as currently constructed fairly soon.

Either way, it’s still October, Rockets fans. Don’t stress too much, yet.