Well, here we are. This is (hopefully) rock bottom for the Houston Rockets.
After rebounding from the slow start to the year, they began to look like the team we expected with a five-game win streak, including defeats of the Golden State Warriors, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, and Detroit Pistons, all teams with winning records.
But right after Thanksgiving, with a lineup of opponents most expected the Rockets to beat, the team has sunk lower than at any time in recent memory. Following last night’s embarrassing loss to the cross-state Mavericks, the Rockets have now lost four games in a row and sit in next-to-last place in the Western Conference with a 9-11 record.
This was a real blown opportunity for the Rockets, who could have been sitting pretty at 13-7 or 12-8 had they ran through their last four opponents with a 4-0 or 3-1 record as expected. Instead, after losses to the Pistons in a rematch and shameful defeats to the awful Cleveland Cavaliers, the imploding Washington Wizards, and the rebuilding Dallas Mavericks, we’re asking ourselves what can be done to save the season. And who’s really at fault for this mess?
Well, let’s get one thing out of the way right now, because he’s the obvious lightening rod for Twitter criticism. What’s going on with the Rockets is not on James Harden. The Beard has been as good as ever, leading the league in both points per game (31.1) and steals per game (2.5). He is currently third in assists, with 8.7 per game.
His offensive plus-minus of +8.2 would be good enough for the third-highest of his career, and his flat even (0.0) defensive plus-minus make him one of just four Rockets to not be in the negative. His shooting percentages of 44-37-82 are right in line with his career numbers.
Critics will point to his turnovers, a career-high 5.9 per game right now, but it’s important to note that The Beard leads the NBA in minutes per game (37.7) and also in usage at 37.1 percent. If that figure would hold, it would be the highest usage of his career. Harden is handling a ridiculous load right now. With Chris Paul on the shelf and Eric Gordon in a season-long slump (save two games), the offense starts and ends with James Harden, and we’re seeing the result of that unbelievable usage in his high turnover rate.
The main reason for this has been Houston’s lack of depth. Certain critics will be quick to point to the losses of Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Ryan Anderson as the reason Houston is struggling with depth, but these guys have been borderline awful (like seriously bad) with their new clubs. Make no mistake, GM Daryl Morey got out from under these aging and slipping veterans at the right time. None of them are the same players they were last season, let alone two or three years ago.
The issue is who they’ve been replaced with. The Carmelo Anthony experiment has famously gone up in flames, Michael Carter-Williams has been terrible after a somewhat promising preseason, Brandon Knight has yet to see the court due to a knee injury, and Marquese Chriss has been everything people said he was— supremely athletic, but mostly bad at basketball. Out of the new acquisitions, only James Ennis has been serviceable and playing well at times.
Next, there are the injuries. The Rockets have also been playing without three other main cogs from last year’s squad who are still on the roster. Chris Paul missed his third straight game with the same sore hamstring from the Western Conference Finals (and missed 2 games earlier in the year due to suspension), Nene has yet to see the court with a strained calf (though there are rumors he could return next week),and Gerald Green has been battling a bum right ankle for several weeks now that’s caused him to miss four games.
This light lineup has forced the team to give extended minutes to former G-League player Danuel House and push youngsters Gary Clark and Isaiah Hartenstein into more responsibility than they may be ready for. Both players have promise, but are they ready yet to be key rotation pieces on team that’s sole goal is title contention?
Head coach Mike D’Antoni discussed some of these issues with ESPN after the loss to the Mavs, saying:
“Obviously, it’s (depth) a problem. It’s something that I know that the front office tried to address. They’re going to do the best they can. No blame going around; it’s just the way it is. We’ve got everybody a couple of rungs up. We’ve got rookies playing as the sixth or seventh man. They should be ninth, 10th men. They would be okay every once in a while, but when you rely on them, it’s tough. And it’s not their fault. They’re going to develop. Again, we’re just going to have to knock on wood and make sure they stay healthy.”
As a result, Houston’s switch-heavy defensive scheme— which requires time together on court, experience, and communication— has been struggling. It rebounded a bit from a slow start and helped push the team to the earlier five-game win streak, but as the lineup has shuffled, the defense has crumbled. Houston’s 112.6 defensive rating is currently 28th in the league. The offense has been less of a problem, currently sitting at ninth, but simply “good” was not what we were expecting from this former offensive juggernaut.
The good news is that this really should be rock bottom. Paul, Green, and Nene should all be on the court soon, giving the Rockets experienced veterans back in the lineup who are well-versed in the team’s schemes. Knight is also rumored to return soon, giving Houston a much-needed extra playmaker. Assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik is also once again roaming the sideline, which should give a boost to the defense once the personnel is straightened out.
And if it doesn’t improve, it’s going to be on Daryl Morey to work some serious magic in the trade and buyout markets. After all, the lack of depth is currently on him with the Anthony, Carter-Willams, and Chriss failures. While we can’t blame him for jettisoning the aging Ariza, Mbah a Moute, and Anderson (those guys are cooked), he can be blamed for who he replaced them with. I love Dork Elvis as much as the next Rockets fan and have championed his many successes, but it’s only fair to point out his failures as well.
Last year’s team didn’t suffer their 11th loss until after the new year. We’re already there in November this season.
And if it doesn’t get turned around, who knows what the team looks like next year? It’s fair to say that Harden, Paul, and Clint Capela aren’t going anywhere, but new owner Tilman Fertitta is a total wild card when it comes to these matters. What happens if this team misses the playoffs entirely? What heads will roll? Mike D’Antoni? Morey himself?
I’m not saying those moves should or will happen, just that Fertitta is paying big bucks for this team, and he demands a winner.
Thankfully, again, this looks like rock bottom for the Rockets. We’ve watched this core of guys rip off ridiculous win streaks in seasons past. There’s nothing stopping them from doing it again. Get everyone healthy and back into the playoff hunt, and this first quarter-season of disarray could easily be a distant memory come April.
They even ripped of five in a row earlier this year when most of the rotation was present. It can easily happen again. And, as mentioned, there’s likely some reinforcements coming somewhere along the way either via trade or buyout.
I still have confidence that with 75 percent of the year still to play, there’s enough talent on this team in the locker room and in the front office to get it straightened out. As bad as they’ve been, they’re only five games out of the top seed in the cannibalizing west. They’re only 1.5 games out of the eight-seed.
Yes, this is likely rock bottom. But if for some reason it’s not, we’ll have a whole new laundry list of questions that will need to be answered.