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Most indicators trended upwards over the past week as offense climbed from an impossible 27th to 17th and defense ticked up to 18th from 21st. Surprisingly, pace got even slower, slipping to 29th from 27th while field goal percentage remained dead last. That’s a surprise given the team’s recent success.

In Houston’s last seven games, the Rockets have the third best defense in the league with a defensive rating of 102.5. That probably is going to hold steady given the significant personnel changes: Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams are definitively out and Gary Clark is firmly in. I suspect Gerald Green’s absence also has some impact here (the eye test!) but that won’t be sustainable. Mike D’Antoni is going to need one other cog in his rotation, whether it be Green or Brandon Knight. How that impacts things will be interesting.

Houston’s most heavily used quintet thus far is its preferred starting line up of Harden/Paul/Tucker/Ennis/Capela, and that group has posted a -3.6 net rating in 107 shared minutes. That’s good for 17th in the league among quintets playing at least 100 minutes. Take Ennis out and put in Clark, and you get a net rating of +44.7 in 18 minutes. Sub Paul out for Gordon, keep Clark in, and the result is a +9.7 in 17 minutes.

This is all to say that Gary Clark is likely to be the story of the season in a way unlike any Rockets rookie has been since maybe Chandler Parsons though in this case, he’s filling in as a key cog on a team that is coming off a 65 win season.

On a different note, you would think offense would start trending upwards eventually once Eric Gordon snaps out of it. Right? Right?

in from the editor

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Another week, another installment of the Red94 Mailbag! Thanks again to everyone that submitted questions as the Rockets go through a very strange stretch of the season given their inconsistent play and the news regarding Carmelo Anthony. With that being said, let’s get to this week’s set of questions!

It’s no secret that a main culprit in this very slow start for the Rockets is Eric Gordon. Simply put, Gordon can’t put the ball through the net so far this season, as he is posting a 42.6 true shooting percentage and has hit just 23.5 percent of his 3-pointers, a far cry from his career average of 37.3 percent.

To make matters worse, Gordon is struggling on wide open shots, as he is 9-41 (22 percent) on wide-open 3-pointers (wide open is defined as no defender within 6 feet of the shooter). Just for reference, Gordon hit 43.3 percent of such shots last season, so the number has to come up moving forward. Unfortunately, it just seems that Gordon is going through one of, if not the worst shooting slump of his career right when the Rockets have been dealing with injuries, inconsistent play and a tough schedule.

With that being said, to address the question, I’m not sure what options the Rockets have when it comes to Gordon. The most recent reporting mentioned that the Rockets altered their final offer for Jimmy Butler to include Gordon, Nene and two first round picks. Perhaps the Timberwolves didn’t care about draft picks and preferred to receive to win-now players, but Gordon’s poor play so far certainly didn’t help his trade value.

The Rockets will likely continue to shop Gordon around, but he doesn’t have much value to non-contending/playoff teams as he is not capable of running an offense or being a true focal point of a team’s attack. In the long-run, this level of play from Gordon should concern the Rockets’ front office as Gordon enters the final year of his contract next season. At this moment, I wouldn’t have any plans to offer an extension before his deal is up or even try to re-sign him in 2020 free agency given the amount he will likely demand.

The Rockets sure seem enamored with Bazemore, after trying to make him their marquee free agency signing in 2016 and then looking to acquire him this past summer by using Ryan Anderson and draft assets. Now that Jimmy Butler is off the table, lowering their trade expectations to a player like Bazemore does make a lot of sense for Houston, as he is a three-&-D wing the Rockets could really use in the rotation.

This season, Bazemore is averaging 14.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.8 steals and nearly 1 block per game, highlighting his ability to contribute in various facets of the game. Furthermore, Bazemore owns a positive DBPM and the Hawks’ defense is 16.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (per Cleaning the Glass). Despite going through a cold shooting stretch to start the season (just 31.8 percent on 3-pointers compared to 39.4 percent last season), Bazemore is a more than willing and capable shooter to space the floor. 

The question then becomes what would the Rockets have to give up to acquire Bazemore? Since the Hawks are in the early stages of their rebuild, they will be focused on young players and draft assets, which the Rockets don’t really have. Perhaps using Knight and Chriss along with a first round pick would be enough for Atlanta, especially with the Rockets’ 2019 first round pick looking like it could very well be in the late teens/early 20s if they are one of the lower playoff seeds.

Speaking of shooting slumps, Chris Paul also appears to be going through one of the worst of his career, as he is struggling from all over the floor this season. However, Paul has looked to regain his shooting touch in recent games, a good sign for the Rockets. A career 61 percent finisher around the rim, Paul has converted just 52.2 percent of such shots to start this season. On shots within 3 and 10 feet of the rim, Paul has hit just 34.5 percent, a steep drop-off from his 44.6 percent conversion rate last season. Heck, Paul can’t even hit his free throws, as he is down to just 77.1 percent so far, a far cry from the 91.9 percent rate he posted last season.

Furthermore, Paul is just 5-13 on wide open shots this season and has knocked down 34.8 percent of his 3-pointers. Paul has mentioned that he is bothered by an elbow injury, which is one that would certainly affect a shooter. With his shot not falling from pretty much anywhere on the floor, Paul has been a bit more hesitant to shoot at times, a recipe for disaster for the Rockets’ offense, especially when he is leading the second unit.

So far this season, the Rockets’ offense has actually been 1.4 points per 100 possessions worse when Paul is on the floor (though he is having a stronger defensive impact so far this season, with the team’s defense improving by 6 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court).

Right now, it’s still too early to simply chalk this up to age-related decline that is expected moving forward. Paul appears to simply be in a tough shooting slump (which has unfortunately coincided with another slump from Gordon). If the past two games (47 combined points on 60 percent shooting from the field) are any indication, everyone just needs to give him some more time to get over the elbow issue and start hitting some shots, as that would be a key remedy for the Rockets’ early season offensive woes.

in mailbag

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I’m struggling with what I should make of Rockets rookie center Isaiah Hartenstein. I thought he was terrible until I saw today that he leads the team in net rating at +26.0. There’s really nothing he seems able to do at a high level based on the eye test. He’s not particularly quick or athletic, doesn’t have range or post up skills, doesn’t have good hands, and is really clumsy. He spends a lot of time on the floor after falling down. I highlighted his defensive struggles some weeks before, particularly after getting switched onto speedy guards on the perimeter. That part was probably to be expected – not everyone is a rookie Clint Capela sticking with Steph Curry in the Western Conference Finals.

But Hartenstein is clearly doing something positive because the numbers don’t lie. It’s probably his energy. Or its something else I’d notice if I had the time or inclination to go back and review film. (I don’t.) And so he’s going to be the backup ‘5’ for the time being.

With Jimmy Butler in Philadelphia, Gary Clark here to stay, and Michael Carter-Williams banished to the bench, its safe to say the rotation is looking pretty set. I felt like the biggest remaining hole was backup ‘5’ where I thought Carmelo Anthony could have found a niche if he stayed a Rocket. (He probably won’t.) On the one hand, it’s fun to see young players develop over the course of a season. On the other hand, despite the 5-7 start, the Rockets are still a team with championship aspirations and are already integrating one rookie into a major role. My gut tells me they’ll be looking for a vet to take some of those minutes.

in musings

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