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What’s wrong with the Rockets?

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Wretched Wipeouts Weary, Worry, Well-wishing Watchers.

No, really, I do.
Wish you were here.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Raise your hand if you had the Rockets starting 1-4. Anyone?

So what the hell is wrong with the Rockets? Here are some possibilities.

It’s The Defense.

Well, it has to be to some extent. The other team is scoring more points that the Rockets 80% of the time, so far. The NBA as a whole has largely started off like a pinball machine, as new rules, and a faster paced and more shooting oriented league light up scoreboards. (I’d assert that the pace and shooting aren’t the only reasons for this, though.)

In the first five games last season the Rockets gave up 100pts to the Kings, 121 to the Warriors, 91 to Dallas, 98 to the Grizzlies and 104 to the 76ers. An average of 103.

Their lone loss in the first five games in 2017-18 came against Memphis who put up a spectacular free-throw shooting display, making 34-37 free throws. (Yes, this game still annoys me, why?)

This season the Rockets have surrendered 131, 115, 115, 100 and 133 for an average of 119.

Why is the defense so bad? Let’s look below.

It’s The Roster.

Trevor Ariza might well be in decline. (He’s definitely not worth $45 million real dollars, at any rate.) Luc Mbah a Moute didn’t play well in the last part of the season and playoffs due to health, and getting the yips, or something worse. That said, they both played quite well in the regular season, and gave the Rockets three switchy wings they could plug into games, with PJ Tucker, who could fairly reliably make open three point shots. (At the start of last season, if anyone remembers, PJ Tucker looked to be the problem, so, chin up?)

Right now the Rockets have PJ Tucker, an infrequently healthy and frequently foul-prone James Ennis, Michael Carter-Williams and Carmelo Antony. Ennis appears able to shoot the three. MCW doesn’t. Gary Clark looks like an NBA player and could be ready to really help at a high level as soon as November (2019) if all breaks well.

Carmelo has apparently been awful on a Per 100 Possessions basis, but to my view he’s improved in the past two games. In the first three “Melo The Center” games, he looked like a man experiencing a multi-car wreck, over and over. He seemed miserable and terrified and didn’t know where to focus his attention in the carnage unfolding all around him.

Marquese Chriss hasn’t been around, and he’s been declared A Center, anyhow. When MDA declares you A Center, that’s what you are, and that’s what you do, at least in my experience. Montrezl Harrell seems able to be a small ball center, or a power forward, but you almost never saw him there in Houston. Because he was A Center.

Three guys who could shoot the three ball are gone. That’s right, don’t forget Ryan Anderson, who started last year pretty well. If nothing else, he dragged defenders 35 feet out from the basket and opened space for drives. Ariza, LMAM and Anderson have been replaced with Carmelo, (which is working fine from 3pt range) and a guy who can’t seem to play for various reasons, in Ennis.

Clint Capela hasn’t looked as good as last year. Now, in my view, when defenses break down it’s often the center who ends up blamed, because he’s trying to fix mistakes made in front him. Usually the errors weren’t his fault, and virtually no center can salvage a badly broken defense. (The few who could are in the HoF.)

Also, perhaps surprisingly, Rockets opponents watched the playoffs. They saw Capela wreck KAT and Rudy Gobert. They know that Capela got paid for good reason. I don’t believe the new contract has made him worse, rather, I think other teams now gameplan for Clint Capela. They use the Rockets switches to pull him away from the basket, not so they can isolate a guard on him (because that’s generally not a winning plan for most teams) but so he won’t be near the basket to help on an attacks coming at the rim.

Let’s talk about that attack below.

It’s The Coaching

The NBA adapts. Tom Thibodeau’s ICE! defense more or less destroyed certain time-honored NBA offenses for good. Much of the league copied it with varying degrees of success. With ICE!, good defenders could shade (or ICE!) coverage areas to disrupt various offensive actions, while still defending their main assignment. But the defender can only ICE! so far, and a spread Pick and Roll, and spread offenses in general, makes it far harder for them to do that. ICE!, once dominant, appears outmoded.

What does this have to do with the Rockets? Last season the Rockets played a switch-heavy man-to-man defense to start the season. Sometime after Ryan Anderson fell from grace and PJ Tucker started games, they went to Switch Everything. With that defense, there’s no fighting over or under a pick, the defense just switches off guarding with motion of the offensive player.

This is very helpful defending a team like Golden State, as much as anything can be. The shooter can’t take advantage of the the time a defender spends navigating a pick, or in GS’s case multiple, mobile (thinly disguised as offensive player movement), picks. The switcher is usually ready to contest the shot, and if the defenders are versatile, defend a drive, too.

It’s a smart defense in that instance, but every defense has a weakness. If you can switch a big onto a smaller player, by the basket, the big can usually score. The defense counters by hawking the passing lanes into the basket area (unless perhaps your defense can’t do it well anymore without Ariza etc), and by immediately sending a helper to double the big.

But if the offense is clever, they send a cutter immediately to the rim. They know the double team is coming on the big and either the cutter, or the man the helper left to double the big, should be open for an easy layup, if the big can get the pass out. Again, you’ve lost a lot of your ball hawking (or “playing the passing lanes”) so the pass can usually get to the cutter. Easy money for the offense.

If the opponent has really manipulated your switching, two smalls are defending under the basket, meaning the big can also wait for a pass back from the cutter for an easy basket himself, because he’s left with one small no matter who tries to turn back and guard the cutter.

There are fixes for this. One is don’t send help on the big. Make him earn it with free throws, or just making the shot. It’s a pretty good shot, but still contested ,and not as good as the cutter for a layup.

Two, you can just not switch. You can try the radical old idea of keeping your big on their big. This opens up shooting while defenders fight through picks, but not every team is GS.

Once an opponent knows exactly how you’ll react to a given situation, you are easy to exploit.

That brings us to coaching. It’s fairly easy to keep the team doing what Jeff Bzdelik had them doing, switching everything. It’s harder to do what he did in-season, sometimes even at half-time of games, which is tweak the defense to shut down the ways the opponent was exploiting it, and see if that opponent can find something else. In the regular season specific attacks on defenses rarely go especially deep, and teams will typically revert to their default actions.

It could be that with experience, coaching-wise, and with the roster, the Rockets can do what they did last season, or do even better. It could be they can’t. I’d argue that giving up an average of 119 per game over five games is reason enough to try installing something the personnel can run right now. It might also be reason to try to find another defensive guru somewhere, college, Europe, anywhere.

It’s not just the loss of defense that’s hurting, it’s loss of flexibility to adapt on defense. Opponents are operating inside the Rockets defensive reactions right now and the result is an ungodly mess of easy baskets and free-throws.

It’s The Offense

Whenever Jeff Van Gundy says “It’s a Make or Miss League.” ESPN really ought to flash a graphic of the Rockets logo. The Rockets depend on outside shooting to one of the highest, if not the highest, degrees in the Association.

When the shots don’t fall, everything else looks worse. The defense packs the paint for drives, the Rockets stars start hunting calls, and the whole thing looks predictable and bad. The problem is, the Rockets offense IS predictable, but it usually isn’t BAD. About three things might happen on a given possession. Generally, the Rockets are excellent at all three of those things. Last season they were excellent at them to an historic degree. One might expect regression, but not falling off a cliff.

Right now they’re generally bad at those three things. Shots aren’t falling, layups aren’t falling and Clint Capela isn’t finishing with the same sense of vicious, powerful, spite he did last season. He’s flipping the ball at the hoop like old Baby Euro Deer far too much.

And that’s it. That’s pretty much the offense, unless it’s Chris Paul shooting midrange (and missing this season) Carmelo shooting midrange (and missing) and MCW driving the rim and flipping weird looping shots from nine feet out at it (and often missing).

Some of you may not recall, but Mike D’Antoni was once known for teams doing more than spreading the floor, shooting, driving or throwing an alley oop. No, it’s true. If you don’t believe me, look at Golden State’s offense. D’Antoni effectively invented it. It’s awfully pretty at times, with those clever cuts, angled drive and kicks, and probing moves on the baseline that lead to guys diving and dunking.

We know that offense lives somewhere in Mike D’Antoni’s head. I often wonder why we never see any of it in Houston. Is it Morey? Did math convince him it isn’t worth it, despite the obvious success of that very offense (albeit with far more 3pt shooting)? Do the players not want to run it? Has the commitment to not tire players with practice lead to only one possible approach?

This is a years-long question for me. Why don’t the Rockets ever have a Plan B on offense?

It’s Injuries and Guys Missing Games.

Right now I don’t think the Rockets have been at full-strength across a nine-man rotation at any time in either the pre-season or regular season. It isn’t just one guy missing all the games, either. It’s one guy one game, then Chris Paul suspended two games, now James Harden two or three games. Two guys haven’t even suited up, really, and they’re eating Anderson’s salary slot. James Ennis can’t seem to stay on the court, for various reasons. And so on. And so forth.

It is practically impossible to integrate a new bench and other new pieces when things are like this. No one is in their role, they’re in another role, and then out of it. It leads to chaos, and we’ve seen a lot of chaos and the results of chaos.

It’s The Rules

The NBA’s “Freedom of Movement” rule is turning the NBA into a video game. It seems (in the most gracious possible interpretation) to focus on restricting the contact, any contact, that comes on a switch. I’m not sure how movement is unfree if players briefly touch, but that’s the way it’s being called against the Rockets. Often these new NBA rules are called for about two weeks, and then mercifully settle down. We can all hope so, because we’ve seen a lot of halves where the opponent shoots 24FTs, not on true shooting fouls, but on early FT bonus and accumulation of Freedom of Movement touch fouls.

It’s The Rockets Character and Moral Fitness.

“They’re all fat and soft.”

“They’re out of shape.”

“They got paid and now they don’t care.”

“That’s what James Harden always does, because he did it that one year with Dwight Howard and I can draw a trend line with one data point.”

“This is what they deserve because they’re awful people.” - (Thanks visiting fan!)

I’ll admit, I thought the Rockets looked slow and mentally out of it in the first two games. Since then I thought they’ve played hard, but have simply been outplayed (for reasons I hope I detailed above).

I think we have enough reasons above this one to not resort to character assassination when last year’s team produced the best non-title overall result in Rockets history. They’ve probably earned a few games to right the ship.

Poll

What say you?

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    This will all sort itself out in time. Remain calm.
    (320 votes)
  • 29%
    The ship is sinking, get your lifeboat early.
    (264 votes)
  • 19%
    Once Jimmy Butler arrives, all will be well.
    (171 votes)
  • 5%
    Once Jimmy Butler arrives it all gets worse.
    (49 votes)
  • 9%
    Dallas will soon regain its rightful place as third best Texas team! Wait...
    (84 votes)
888 votes total Vote Now