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?
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.
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.
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.
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.