The Rockets’ Recent Struggles

On Monday night, the Rockets finally broke out of their losing slump with a six-point win over the lowly Bobcats. Prior to this victory, Houston had lost seven consecutive games and squandered much of the cushion they had built for themselves earlier in the season. What, if anything, was the cause of the Rockets’ recent slump, and are there any implications for the season going-forward?

Over a span of eleven days (January 9th through January 19th), the Rockets lost seven consecutive games against the Hornets, Celtics, Sixers, Clippers, Mavericks, Pacers, and Timberwolves. In these seven losses, Houston’s average scoring margin was -9.1 points per game (compared with their season average of +2.1 points per game). Indeed, the Rockets were outscored by an average of nearly 10 points per 100 possessions during this stretch. Looking purely at opponent winning percentages, this stretch of the Rockets’ schedule does not appear to be particularly difficult: the average current winning percentage of the teams Houston faced over this eleven day period was 50%. This compares with a 51% average winning percentage of all teams Houston has played so far. Another indicator provides some more clues, however—all but one of these seven games were played on the road. To date, the Rockets are 14-7 at home and only 8-14 on the road: nearly half the winning percentage in a comparable amount of games. Thus, part of Houston’s recent woes may be due to a shift away from their home-heavy schedule at the start of the season.

On a deeper level though, much of the blame for Houston’s losing streak can be placed on the offense. In those seven games, only once (against the Clippers) did the Rockets post even a league-average effective field-goal percentage. Despite ranking 5th in offensive efficiency for the season (at a robust 105 points per 100 possessions), the Rockets had four instances of sub-100 points per 100 possessions scoring, including an 86 points per 100 possessions stinker against the Hornets, a scoring rate inferior to that of the league-worst Wizards. The simple fact of the matter is that Houston failed to convert shots at their typical rate: the team’s effective field goal percentage (which accounts for three-pointers) over these seven losses was only 48%, versus their season average of 52%.

In particular, James Harden, the Rockets leading scorer and user of 29% of all possessions while he’s on the floor, struggled mightily during this stretch. On the season, Harden has a TS% of 61%; in these seven games, Harden’s TS% were 61%, 40%, 40%, 35%, 51%, 64% and 54%. Three of these outings (against the Timberwolves, Pacers, and Mavericks) were truly putrid offensively. Throughout this stretch, Harden maintained and often exceeded his sky-high usage rate, something to be expected from a team playing from behind.

Another factor that contributed to Houston’s offensive difficulties was the alarming uptick in turnovers over this period. Houston’s season-long turnover rate of 15% (already worst in the league) was exceeded in all but one of the Rockets’ seven losses. The Rockets were especially poor in this regard against Minnesota and New Orleans, games in which they posted turnover rates of 24% and 25% respectively. Some of this may be simply due to chance: apart from the Clippers and Celtics (1st and 6th in opponent turnover rate), none of Houston’s seven opponents force turnovers at an above-average rate.

In summary, a spate of road games, an uptick in the turnover rate, and James Harden’s offensive struggles all conspired to hand Houston seven consecutive losses and bring the Rockets down to a more pedestrian 22-21, good for eighth in the West. The Rockets can take some comfort in the fact that four of these seven opponents were above-average defensive teams (Indiana, Boston, and L.A. are all in the top ten in defensive efficiency). Half-way through the season, Houston has settled into a spot familiar to Rockets followers over the past few seasons—a record at or around 0.500 and a spot near the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race. That Houston has accomplished this with one of the league’s youngest rosters, however, is cause to celebrate and to reflect on just how much this team has exceeded expectations.

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