Welcome back for another installment of the Red94 mailbag! For the most part, the Rockets have continued their struggles since last week and now sit at 12-14, good for 14th in the Western Conference. If you didn’t feel bad about the season already, you should have some queasy feelings now, as it very much has a 2015-16 vibe to it (without the obvious locker room issues). With that being said, let’s get to this week’s great set of questions!
Can you contextualize the loss of Ariza and Mbah A Moute for me, please? Obviously their losses are nowhere near the biggest reasons for the failure to launch that we have in HOU, but it's something, right?
— Corban Ford-Watson (@CorbanfordNBA) December 10, 2018
One aspect of the Rockets discussion on Twitter (and elsewhere) has been the lazy, simplistic take of “See! Of course the Rockets are missing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute! Just like we said they would.” In one sense, that is a somewhat accurate opinion to have, but not for the reasons that most people believe.
I would reckon to guess that most people aren’t even aware that Luc Mbah a Moute has played in just four games this season and will continue to be out for several more weeks. What about the fact that Ariza ranks in the 11th percentile with a -10.7 net rating as he provides inconsistent effort in Phoenix? The two aforementioned players have either not been available this season or just haven’t played at the levels from last season.
Sure, one would think that Ariza would give more effort if on a contending team (I tend to believe this as well), but the reason the Rockets are missing the two wings is because of their missteps in the offseason when it came to replacing them. James Ennis has been adequate as a fill-in, but the team failed to add another wing with defensive prowess in the offseason. Instead, they relied on Gerald Green to absorb more minutes and for Carmelo Anthony to play as the de-facto backup four.
Of course, then Gary Clark emerged as a solid defensive player that wasn’t afraid to shoot 3-pointers, and many Rockets fans believed the team had found the solution to their problems. As is usually the case with rookies, Clark has hit somewhat of a rookie wall and has lost his rotation spot to Danuel House Jr., who has more offensive capabilities but struggles with defensive lapses.
One of the key reasons for this terrible season for the Rockets is their complete lack of depth on the roster. There are several roster spots that are being wasted at the moment and providing nothing to the team on a nightly basis. If the Rockets had Ariza and Mbah a Moute in place of House/Carter-Williams they would likely have a couple extra wins. But to say it is the main issue with the team would be a disservice to in-depth analysis of all of the team’s struggles.
Where would the Rockets be sitting right now if Morey gave Ariza that 15M contract
— Rockets 2018-2019 NBA Playoffs contenders (@Itamar1710) December 10, 2018
Ah, how great it would be to live in an alternate universe. I’d actually like to extend this question to cover an idea I proposed on Twitter several days ago, which is to ask where the Rockets would be sitting if Les Alexander were still owning the team. In that scenario, it’s very likely that the Rockets are willing to spend whatever it takes this past offseason, likely retaining Ariza and/or Mbah a Moute (or if the Rockets were indeed concerned by Mbah a Moute’s health, they would have spent the mid-level exception to get another quality player).
During the season, the Rockets would likely have simply waived Anthony and/or Carter-Williams by now and absorbed their cap hit in order to bring in players that could actually contribute on a game-to-game basis. Again, as mentioned earlier, it’s hard to say that the Rockets would be a top 3/4 seed in the West right now had they simply brought the majority of their roster back. But one thing is for sure, in this alternate universe, the Rockets would make every move with a focus on how it impacts them on the court, rather than the financial ramifications.
What do the rockets actually think they are going to get for Chriss and knight?? This team has the worst bench in league it seems.
— Omar (@79rockets) December 10, 2018
Although it may seem kind of sad to think about it like this, the (real-life) answer to this question will likely define the Rockets’ season. The Rockets traded away Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton (who looks more and more like a good prospect with each passing game) for Knight and Chriss because in theory, the two latter players are easier to trade. Of course, in such a trade using Knight’s contract, the Rockets will almost definitely have to give up a first round pick, which they would have had to do in a deal involving Anderson, had they not attached Melton to him.
Really, the Rockets’ options are fairly limited by who is available on the trade market. It has been reported that Houston is interested in J.R. Smith, who may only take Knight’s contract and some second-round picks to acquire. However, Smith won’t solve any issues for the Rockets as he is an inefficient scorer and has not provided solid defense in several years now.
Other names that have been thrown around are Kent Bazemore and DeMarre Carroll, but are either of those two players really turning around the Rockets’ season? The Rockets better be sure they do if they are going to give up a first round pick in such a deal. Regardless, I am of the opinion that the Rockets’ hands are tied as a result of the fact that Knight is a negative asset that will require draft assets to trade away and the fact that it appears to be a fairly limited trade market. The other complication is that the Rockets’ issues start at the top and trickle their way down through the roster (including the team’s most important players). If you are holding your breath in hopes that a mid-season trade will save the Rockets’ season, I would exhale at this point.