Out with the Old, in with the New: A look back on this past December and towards the future month.

The Houston Rockets finished November on a 5 game winning streak and a 13-5 record.  They had just defeated San Antonio on the road and the Asik-Howard fiasco was over.  Sure, the team needed time to gel after their first 9 games where they started 5-4, but things were looking up, correct?

Fast forward a month later, and the scent of panic has begun to linger over this team.  The Rockets went 8-8 in December, with a negative point differential.  There were some good wins against San Antonio and Golden State, but Houston blew three games against Sacramento and Utah and were also annihilated by a Westbrook-less Thunder and the Pacers.  The Rockets are currently 6th in the Western Conference by standings and 8th in point differential. These are not acceptable standards by a team that has hopes to win it all this year.

So, what are the problems?  And what can the Rockets look forward to handle them?

Uncontrollable Problems.

Let us begin by discussing the problems which are largely outside the team’s control.  16 games in a month is a lot.  The Rockets will play 14 games in January and March, and 10 games in February and April.  To make matters worse, the games were squeezed into the latter half of December – Tuesday’s debacle against Sacramento was the 9th game in 14 days.

Perhaps Houston could have endured that schedule better with an actual bench.  But while the Rockets have not lost an actual star to serious injuries like Golden State, Memphis, and Oklahoma City, their already shaky depth has been affected by the injures to Beverley, Asik, and Smith.  Asik’s is naturally the most concerning, as I think even those who are extremely frustrated by his actions have to admit by now that this injury appears to be serious.  Houston has not had the frontcourt depth to defend the interior with Howard out.  It recently nearly cost Houston against Memphis when Howard struggled with massive foul trouble, and has cost them in other games.

The January schedule looks very enticing – in addition to just 14 games, the Rockets only have 4 games against fellow Western Conference playoff teams.  But Houston has been oddly disappointing against weaker teams throughout the season.

On Moneyball.

As everyone who follows this blog likely knows, Houston (and many other teams in the league) have taken an approach of valuing three point shots and free throws as particularly efficient shots which win games.  But for all the valued importance of those shots, you have to actually make them first.  And Houston has been abysmal at both – they are currently 29th in FT% and 23 in 3PT%.

It is far too difficult to talk about free throws given the gigantic outlier that is Dwight Howard.  Howard actually shot reasonably well from the line for most of the month, until the last two games where he went a combined 6 for 18.  I’d also give a slight mention to Chandler Parsons’s problems there.  Parsons shots 68% from the line in December, poor for a wing man that is as good at shooting as he is.  It is however oddly inconsistent.  Most games, Parsons will shoot 80% or above, but every now and then, including Tuesday’s game, he will inexplicably have games where he goes 2-6 or 1-5.

What is a bigger problem is the 3 point line, and more specifically the bench players.  Francisco Garcia is the third guard behind Harden and Parsons, and his job is ostensibly to camp out from long range to catch and shoot.  Yet after shooting nearly 39% in his first season as a Rocket, Garcia is only shooting 34% from long range, which is nowhere near good enough for a player who contributes little else.  Omri Casspi is a little better at 35%, and he contributes far more without his 3 point shot than Garcia, but Houston’s bench shooting has been too weak this season for a team that uses it so much.  Combine that with Harden’s shooting woes (only 31% for the season), and Houston’s offense just hasn’t been quite as good as it could be.

Perimeter Defense

Yet despite the shooting woes, the Rockets are the 2nd best offensive team in the league as measured by points per possession.  Houston’s problem continues to be defense, particularly on the perimeter, as Dwight Howard recently stated.  The Rockets by most defensive metrics are not a top 10 defensive team, while practically every championship team over the past 15 years has possessed a top 10 offense AND defense.

Houston no doubt has a huge amount of problems when it comes to its perimeter defense, but I find that too much of any discussion tends to lurch towards blame of one player or another, most notably a certain bearded star.  Defense is a team game.  It requires communication, chemistry, and an understanding of rotations – who goes where, at what time.  And to one degree or another, Lin, Harden, and Parsons have had their problems.  Lin and Harden are at least decent one to one defenders, but both of them have had real problems chasing faster, smaller guards around through screens and hand-offs.  In fact, Houston is the very worst team in the league at guarding hand-off players.  Jeremy Lamb, Rudy Gay, and Marcus Thornton are among recent players who have used that play to grab easy jumpers or drive bys to the rim.

Practicing the schemes and consistency needed to close out on shooters requires time and discipline, and hopefully the next week or so with few games will help beef them up.  But if there is any reason that Houston will fail to even pass the first round this season, it will probably be because Houston’s perimeter players will have utterly failed to properly close out on screens and jump shooters.

Future Thoughts.

In Bill Simmons’s first column slamming the Harden trade, Simmons took issue with the oft-presented idea that the road to a championship is a marathon and not a sprint.  How many teams are there, he asked, who seemed to be on the road to the championship – but then for one reason or another, fell off and never returned?  One can look at the Brandon Roy Blazers, or the current Bulls as recent examples, but before them were the Payton Sonics, and before them was the Sampson-Olajuwon Twin Towers.  So much in the NBA can change so fast.

The Rockets have a decently young core, and a failure to win the championship this season would not be a major disappointment.  But there are real issues which need to be addressed as soon as possible by both Daryl Morey and Kevin McHale.  The shooting must improve, the team perimeter defense must get better, and the team needs to gel.  All of that is necessary if Houston is to join the ranks of the Thunder and the Spurs – which after a disappointing December seems farther than ever.

 

 

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Total comments: 16
  • Sir Thursday says 7 months ago

    One thing that's worth mentioning in the "what are the coaches telling Harden" debate - it's all very well telling Harden to put more effort in on defense, but unless he gets a chance to solidify that by actually working on it in practice I'm not sure it will stick. After games and games of engrained habits of lackadaisical defense, this is not going to be an easy change to make.

    Now, the Rockets have basically not been able to run a complete 5-on-5 practice the whole of December, as far as I can tell. First there were the injuries that left them with a lack of warm bodies (including Harden's ankle/foot problems that will have meant he wasn't there), then there was the ridiculous schedule congestion towards the end of the month. Good defensive technique and positioning, especially the off-ball sort that Harden struggles with, really needs to be done in a 5-on-5 setting. So my hope is that the extra rest and practice days this month will allow the coaches to work with him and the rest of the Perimeter defenders to get a more cohesive scheme in place.

    ST

  • thejohnnygold says 7 months ago

    I just can't believe the coaching staff told him not to try on defense.

    Harden is still our second best player and hopefully play some defense when it counts. He's Nash bad at times.

    See, I can't believe they're coddling him. These are grown men with a ton of cache (Morey and McHale). I don't think Harden rules the roost. McHale is not a lame duck coach--he's got the endorsement from management. I also get the impression that Sampson and Bickerstaff are some no nonsense dudes--especially JB.

    I don't think they're saying "James, why don't you relax on defense and let the other guys handle it". That would be ridiculous. I do think they may try to protect him from foul trouble. Maybe they are willing to concede a blow by on the perimeter because Harden cherry picks lay-ups by leaking out as soon as they get by him. I don't know. It just doesn't make sense. Something is missing because either way you look it just doesn't add up.

  • timetodienow1234567 says 7 months ago I just can't believe the coaching staff told him not to try on defense.

    Harden is still our second best player and hopefully play some defense when it counts. He's Nash bad at times.
  • timetodienow1234567 says 7 months ago He gets away with it due to coddling.
  • thejohnnygold says 7 months ago

    At this point, I am inclined to agree with Steven--the measure of this team will come in the playoffs. The regular season is going to be a bumpy ride--especially with the injuries we're enduring. So much is happening.

    Parsons is expanding his game, his role, and his responsibilities.

    Lin is working on becoming a better scorer, facilitator and defender while taking on a new role as 6th man (which he has not had much time for with all the injuries).

    Asik (enough said).

    Terrence Jones is emerging as a legit PF in this league and this board is going to explode once he truly gets comfortable and confident. He's slowly developing into Larry Johnson. :)

    Harden has clearly been hampered by his feet/ankles. His defensive effort hasn't changed since last year. I still think there is a method to the madness--there's just no way a guy could get away with playing D like that without consent from the coaches and a plan/reasoning behind it. (at least that is what I tell myself).

    Howard is getting healthier and learning how to play with new guys and learning all kinds of nifty, new moves. He is trying to assert himself and I like it. He looks to be willing to bear the burden of winning and losing both on and off the court and not shying away from pointing a finger when it needs to be done. I have to admit, I like him better than I thought I would. I think the Rockets should increase his role in the offense and trust him more on defense--he can handle it.

    Casspi has taken Delfino's role and improved on it slightly--Delfino shot better, but I think Casspi is a better all-around player. He has integrated pretty well with his new team.

    McHale. I feel like he has a plan...I'm just not sure what it is. He seems content to let them fall and get back up again until they learn. As fans, this is understandably frustrating. I know many want him gone, but I believe his methods may pay off down the road and he just needs time...I could also be incredibly wrong about him.

    Trade rumors swirl, our rotations are determined by injury more than anything else, and our shots aren't falling, but we're doing better than last year and our future looks bright.

  • Steven says 7 months ago

    a first round exit is looking more and more probable if the rockets continue at this trajectory.

    Unless the Rockets match up with the Spurs.
  • miketheodio says 7 months ago

    a first round exit is looking more and more probable if the rockets continue at this trajectory.

  • thenit says 7 months ago Also want to add, I have the same outlook on Irving. Unbelievable scorer but terrible defender. That's why the cavs are awful despite him scoring all those points.
  • thenit says 7 months ago Agree but they are at least trying to run through screens and follow their man. Harden just give a lazy slap and let's his man just blow pass him. If he tried and he failed I can accept it but not when he just stands there. He has to lead by example. Even young Lebron or Kobe wade wasn't perfect on D but they at least lead by example at young age same with KD, PG CP3. Even undersized AI hustled. Question is is he going to be a Melo, T Mac who scores his points and become allstars but never get a sniff on a championship as THE MAN.
  • PKM says 7 months ago

    This team will never get better if the coach and the player don't acknowledge individual responsibility. Yes, I'm definitely referring to the Bearded one... he's not the sole problem, of course, but the statistics and the well-trained eye both point to him as the leading culprit.

    From NBA.comhttp://www.nba.com/games/20131231/SACHOU/gameinfo.html

    BAD MOVE:For all the offense Harden provided, his lackadaisical approach on defense hampered his team severely AGAIN Tuesday. Harden took several questionable risks and was caught ball-watching too often, allowing his man to sneak behind him for easy baskets on back-door cuts.

    So, when you say it's all the guards' problem... NO NO NO. Yea, Lin and Garcia and Bev can practice more, but I don't think they can give any more mental or physical effort. And effort is what Harden clearly lacks on Defense. That is his fault and his fault alone (or, actually, his and McHale's fault).

    You cited Jeremy Lamb, Rudy Gay, and Marcus Thornton as problems recently for H-Town's D... all Shooting Guards or Forward/Guards. C'mon, Paul McGuire, open ur eyes man!! That's primarily Harden's responsibility then. If Harden single-handedly matched the effort on D as most of his teammates, the team's defense would be significantly improved. Since he clearly cannot realize that himself (he never takes ownership of defensive lapses individually), then it falls on the head coach.

    What if I was to tell you....that Harden gives up fewer points per possessions for off screens and cuts than Lin and Parsons?

    I'm not some slave to numbers, which is why I didn't bother to mention it - there is clearly plenty of noise. But no less than Zach Lowe has observed that Houston's perimeter defense problems do not wholly fall on Harden. Harden probably needs more work than Lin, Beverley, or whomever - but I think it is perfectly fair to observe that the whole team needs serious improvement on that end.

  • thenit says 7 months ago Difference is you can't expect talent to change but at least you should exert some effort. Like everyone says Harden is our leader, several rockets players has said that so when your leader don't do anything on D and then has the audacity to say in interviews we as a team didn't do well etc, how is that leading the team. No one is perfect but I always expect maximum effort. Someone like DMo can be frustrating for example with poor rotation etc but at least I can say he is doing his best.

    Championship windows are short just look at injuries that can change a franchise. You don't want to waste these oppurturnities when looking back oh if he only tried to play some D we could have had a shot. Remember Yao Tmac era thought we had a solid 5-7years to do that but they were never healthy at the same time. So yes I do expect our best player to give it all if he misses shots. Etc I can live with that but not when you don't give it all.
  • rocketrick says 7 months ago

    This team will never get better if the coach and the player don't acknowledge individual responsibility. Yes, I'm definitely referring to the Bearded one... he's not the sole problem, of course, but the statistics and the well-trained eye both point to him as the leading culprit.

    From NBA.comhttp://www.nba.com/games/20131231/SACHOU/gameinfo.html
    BAD MOVE:For all the offense Harden provided, his lackadaisical approach on defense hampered his team severely AGAIN Tuesday. Harden took several questionable risks and was caught ball-watching too often, allowing his man to sneak behind him for easy baskets on back-door cuts.

    So, when you say it's all the guards' problem... NO NO NO. Yea, Lin and Garcia and Bev can practice more, but I don't think they can give any more mental or physical effort. And effort is what Harden clearly lacks on Defense. That is his fault and his fault alone (or, actually, his and McHale's fault).

    You cited Jeremy Lamb, Rudy Gay, and Marcus Thornton as problems recently for H-Town's D... all Shooting Guards or Forward/Guards. C'mon, Paul McGuire, open ur eyes man!! That's primarily Harden's responsibility then. If Harden single-handedly matched the effort on D as most of his teammates, the team's defense would be significantly improved. Since he clearly cannot realize that himself (he never takes ownership of defensive lapses individually), then it falls on the head coach.


    So I assume you want Coach McHale to sit our star on the bench when he has defensive lapses? Even though he is our #1 weapon on offense? Is that really the smart thing to do? And it's not like Harden hasn't been preached to by Coach McHale and D12 and other Rockets players that he needs to put more effort on defense. Harden has been a starter in the NBA for exactly how long now? And we expect him to be "perfect" on both ends of the floor? Or maybe you just want the Rockets to already trade Harden for a better defensive player that is surely going to be less productive on the offense.

    And let's see, exactly how long has Harden been a Rocket?

    OK, guess we'll see what happens next.

    Brings back those bad memories of when similar posters were trying to run the Dream out of Houston prior to our back to back championships.

    Just can't please everyone, can you!?! You know, these guys aren't perfect. If they were, we wouldn't have anything to complain about then, right!!
  • Sandman says 7 months ago

    Does defense have a place in Moreymetrics? Does he value defense or does he try to Loyolamarymount the league albeit at a more deliberate thoughtful pace?

  • thenit says 7 months ago

    Remember when Harden helped shut down Golden State. He is now coasting on the defensive side of the ball until the playoffs. Then you will see the energy on the defensive end again. The Rockets still have 50 games before the real season begins.



    That's what we said last year after he had a good 4th Q against Lebron for five minutes. Then OKC happened
  • Steven says 7 months ago Remember when Harden helped shut down Golden State. He is now coasting on the defensive side of the ball until the playoffs. Then you will see the energy on the defensive end again. The Rockets still have 50 games before the real season begins.
  • JohnC says 7 months ago

    This team will never get better if the coach and the player don't acknowledge individual responsibility. Yes, I'm definitely referring to the Bearded one... he's not the sole problem, of course, but the statistics and the well-trained eye both point to him as the leading culprit.

    From NBA.comhttp://www.nba.com/games/20131231/SACHOU/gameinfo.html

    BAD MOVE:For all the offense Harden provided, his lackadaisical approach on defense hampered his team severely AGAIN Tuesday. Harden took several questionable risks and was caught ball-watching too often, allowing his man to sneak behind him for easy baskets on back-door cuts.

    So, when you say it's all the guards' problem... NO NO NO. Yea, Lin and Garcia and Bev can practice more, but I don't think they can give any more mental or physical effort. And effort is what Harden clearly lacks on Defense. That is his fault and his fault alone (or, actually, his and McHale's fault).

    You cited Jeremy Lamb, Rudy Gay, and Marcus Thornton as problems recently for H-Town's D... all Shooting Guards or Forward/Guards. C'mon, Paul McGuire, open ur eyes man!! That's primarily Harden's responsibility then. If Harden single-handedly matched the effort on D as most of his teammates, the team's defense would be significantly improved. Since he clearly cannot realize that himself (he never takes ownership of defensive lapses individually), then it falls on the head coach.