Red94 roundtable: assessing the Houston Rockets midseason

With the Houston Rockets officially at the mid-point of the 2019-2020 season, Red94 staff members sat down and expressed their thoughts on the status of the team. Let’s get to the questions.

With the Rockets now at the halfway mark of the season, what do you see the team’s outcome being at the end of this season? Championship bound, 2nd round exit, or something worse? What are the team’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?

Kevin Glass: The team as it has been playing over the course of the first half of the season is far too inconsistent to be considered a title contender. Their defense has been a problem, as is usually the case, though during their recent struggles their defense has been fine while the offense has struggled. The team plays up or down to the level of competition.

Justin Levine: Currently I have the Rockets in a tier behind Milwaukee and the Lakers. I don’t see them making it past the second round without some upgrades. While those two teams are not as dominant than the Warriors, the Rockets have aged since that magical 2017-2018 season and have not made the necessary upgrades to bolster the roster’s athleticism. With the team refusing to be in the luxury tax, it has been hampered in its ability to acquire a true impact role player. The team’s biggest weakness once again is its defense, though its rebounding is much better compared to last year. Its offense continues to be top three in the league, but with the variability we’ve come to expect from a team that shoots the most threes without any true three-point marksmen (currently 21st in the league in 3pt %).

Derek Davidson: Second round exit seems likely. I do think there is another level for this team when the intensity ratchets up, but I’m not sure even that level is as high as the major contenders. 

[continue reading…]

Middle of the pack, Russ load management, and House struggles

  • At the time of writing, the Rockets sit at 26-14 in FIFTH in the loaded, top-heavy Western Conference. FIFTH. They’re on a two-game losing streak, coming off dreadful losses against the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers, both in which they looked utterly lifeless. They’re virtually in a tie with the much younger Dallas Mavericks and just four games up on the Thunder, a team that has sort of lucked its way into its current record and isn’t even really looking to win. But on the flip side, they’re still somehow within striking distance of the top of the West, just 2.5 games back of the Nuggets, and even closer to the Clippers, and Jazz. What an absolutely bizarre season. It feels like the Rockets are down at the bottom of the standings, but they’re somehow still hovering around the top of the pack.
  • There’s two different schools of thought right now. One is that the Rockets are a team completely in shambles, with these most recent losses serving as supporting evidence. The other is that they are a team that plays down to its competition, and are just waiting for May to show their true colors and blossom into full form. I don’t know where I stand entirely, but its definitely closer to the latter diagnosis. I had been saying for some time that I felt that the Rockets were getting ready to rip off ten straight victories the second Eric Gordon returned to the lineup. While Gordon has been good, that hasn’t exactly happened. (Much of this has to do with the fact that both Danuel House Jr. and P.J. Tucker have fallen off a cliff in terms of production.) But like I’ve been saying for some time now, this is the 16th ranked team in defensive rating, and has been for most of the year with no signs of improvement. The Rockets can’t win a championship playing middle-of-the-pack defense. That’s just a fact of the matter. Now is when they should be developing good habits. This isn’t a team that can just turn it on.
  • Russ load management: with the Rockets getting embarrassed in Memphis on Tuesday, some discussion turned to the topic of Russell Westbrook’s load management, prior to the eventual loss to Portland on Wednesday. Many have questioned the merit in load managing his knee, wondering if the team would have been better served going full throttle for the top seed. Another interesting point raised was the paradox of dealing for Westbrook on the basis of his supposed durability (especially in contrast to Chris Paul) but then needing to hold him out of games. For the record, my stance is that the load management is smart. This is a player entirely dependent upon his athleticism, in whom the team has made a multi-year multi-million dollar investment. They have to absolutely handle this asset with care. Because in Russ’s case, even the slightest degree of depreciation drastically reduces the production. (This is not the case with most players.) The initial sin, however, is how the team didn’t exercise such caution with the much older Paul last season. It’s actually baffling in hindsight unless the thinking was that wear and tear wouldn’t affect his abilities. Another concern is that when resting Russ, the team is invariably running Harden into the ground. Should they just fully embrace the process and also load manage Harden?
  • Further to the above, look at the shot distribution from Tuesday’s loss at Memphis: Harden took 37 shots, Gordon took 19, McLemore took 12, but then House took three, Rivers took seven, Capela took seven, and Tucker took one. The gameplan for games without Russ should not be for Harden to take 40 shots.
  • The Rockets’ currently preferred starting lineup of the familiar quintet of Westbrook/Harden/Capela/Tucker with McLemore in place of House now has a net rating of +18.3 in 116 minutes. Replace McLemore with House–their preferred lineup for most of the year–and they have a net rating of +9.3 in the much more significant sample size of 346 minutes.
  • A big part of Houston’s problem right now is that there is something wrong with House. That same quintet that has had a -29.9 net rating in its last ten games was at one time one of the top units in basketball. Its equally as interesting, however, how good the Rockets have been with McLemore, as evidenced by the +23.5 net rating if replacing Westbrook and House with Gordon and McLemore. I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise given the spacing so much shooting provides.

Sort of a live blog of the Rockets/Blazers first half?

  • I’m writing this right before the Blazers game. We will either win or lose. I have no way of knowing.
  • I said this yesterday: this season has by far been the biggest drag I can remember in recent history. Literally nothing excites me. I just want it to end. I’m not having fun. I don’t know if this is a function of factors in my personal life (I’m old as f*** now, at 34) or a function of factors universal to all of us: we blew the World Series; the football team got humiliated in routine fashion; this version of the Rockets has absolutely nothing to prove before the postseason. We all know what will happen. They’ll win somewhere around 55 games. James Harden will score a ton of points en route to an MVP season. They’ll shed some salary. They’ll get past the first round of the playoffs with ease. After that, all bets are off and after that is the only time during which they can validate themselves.
  • Danuel House’s problems all started after the should injury. I think he’ll be fine eventually.
  • I’m watching the game right now (consider this a live blog?) and seeing Kent Bazemore reminded me of the grand master plan in the summer of 2016 when the real targets were Kent Bazemore and Al Horford with the consolation prize being Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Its worth mentioning that the Rockets sent a caravan including all-time great Hakeem Olajuwon to woo Bazemore. This is really all anyone will ever need to know about free agency in the summer of 2016.
  • But how would history have played out had the Rockets scored that pair of Atlanta Hawks instead of the duo of New Orleans Pelicans? Not having Gordon would have certainly been a massive hit but I have to think having Horford over the zero that was Anderson would have vastly offset that loss, particularly during the 2017-2018 title run. We would certainly still have D’Anthony Melton and last year’s draft pick due to not scrambling to shed Anderson’s salary.
  • Russ likes to post up so much now that I would have liked to have seen him play against Memphis. No doubt he would have looked to punish Morant inside given the massive size disparity in his favor.
  • Hassan Whiteside is a bum. But I did like that Snapchat story he did a few years back where he had the camera on his goldfish or something like that. Good sense of humor.
  • Its really nice to see Carmelo Anthony doing well with Portland and helping them turn their season around with the Blazers now sitting at tenth in the West but knocking on the door of the coveted ninth seed.
  • The first quarter just ended. Christ, the Rockets look horrible on defense.
  • I think the Rockets think they can just turn it on when they need to, particularly when the playoffs roll around, but they’re not good enough for that. They can’t just flip a switch. They need to be developing good habits right now. I just haven’t seen anything yet to be convinced that they are actually better than the middle-of-the-pack DRTG at which they’ve hovered all season.
  • Melo is killing dudes on the low block right now breaking out all of those moves from the Instagram clips last summer.
  • I just can’t see us bringing back Austin Rivers for too much more than the veteran minimum given this team’s financial constraints and the existence of a cheap replacement in Chris Clemons. Rivers is probably this team’s best perimeter defender, but its difficult to justify an expensive long term contract when he can’t shoot from the outside. It was doable when the team had Chris Paul, but its just not palatable to play Rivers and Westbrook together. And if you can’t play those two together, where do you find enough minutes for Rivers?
  • This is so hard to watch. This team is so damn frustrating.

Follow Red94 for occasional rants, musings, and all new post updates