Before I dive into some observations and trends from the Rockets’ first five games of the season, just want to express my excitement to contribute to the quality coverage of the team you have come to expect from Red94!
With that being said, let’s dive into the key aspects of this 1-4 start:
- Clint Capela’s start to the season has been anything but ideal. After signing the 5 year, $80 million extension in the offseason, Capela hasn’t looked like the rim-running, shot-blocking big man the Rockets need. On the surface, Capela’s numbers seem pretty impressive. After all, he is averaging nearly 15 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. However, the 24-year-old big man is grabbing less rebounds and blocking less shots despite playing more (career-high 33 minutes per game). The Rockets rank just 29th in the league in rebound percentage, including 24th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage. Last season, a key to the Rockets’ defensive improvement was their defensive rebounding, as they ranked fourth in the league. The more concerning development is the team’s inability to stop opponents from getting to the rim and finishing, as the Rockets have given up 42.3 percent of their opponent’s shots at the rim, which ranks 29th in the league. Players don’t appear to be afraid of challenging Capela, and so far they are succeeding, as teams are finishing at a 71.5% clip at the rim, good for 29th in the league. We’ve seen countless examples of Capela not defending the rim like he did last season, whether it be mis-timing a block attempt or getting physically outmatched around the rim. We haven’t even discussed Capela’s offensive impact, where his efficiency has taken a hit and he is turning the ball over more (two per game, to be exact). Perhaps Capela will simply work his way back into the groove he was in last season, and he will surely benefit from the team getting healthy in the near future. It also goes to show that despite the limitations that both Nene and Marquese Chriss bring to the table, they could be valuable depth pieces at center.
- Obviously the defense has been an issue. The switching has lacked effort and vigor, two key ingredients to make the scheme work. Even when he tries, Carmelo Anthony will be a liability that teams focus on. The Jazz got Anthony on Donovan Mitchell time and time again and he regularly torched him and got to the rim. Before getting injured, Harden was ball-watching A LOT and not getting back in transition. As already mentioned, Capela’s rim-protection has been lacking and the team isn’t finishing defensive possessions with a rebound. The Rockets need James Ennis to get healthy, Harden to be more engaged and Capela to snap out of his funk (if it is just that). Besides that, there aren’t many paths to improvement on the defensive end barring a roster change (Hi Jimmy Butler!). The team simply needs more effort and full health to even get back to league average, which might be considered a win for this season. One random thought: Maybe the Rockets should explore switching on the perimeter but not with their bigs? D’Antoni did express some thought to changing their scheme and this may prevent teams from getting those clear advantages in the post against the Rockets’ guards.
- Beyond the obvious defensive issues, the Rockets simply aren’t getting what they have come to expect from Eric Gordon. Gordon is going through a slump at the wrong time with Paul missing two games due to suspension and Harden going down. So far, Gordon has hit just 23.1% of his 3-pointers and has a true shooting percentage of 42.4%. Of course, we all expect Gordon to snap out of this slump and hit seven 3-pointers in an upcoming game, but it’s not only his 3-point shooting that is suffering. After shooting 66.1 percent from within three feet of the rim last season, Gordon is down to 48 percent so far this season. Until Gordon breaks out of the slump, the Rockets’ offense will continue to suffer without Harden.
- Remember when the team was praising Michael Carter-Williams during the preseason and fans slowly started buying in on him being part of the rotation? Yea, that seems like a long time ago. Carter-Williams has been nothing short of a disaster to start the season, posting a true shooting percentage of just 41% and killing the offense when on the floor due to his poor decision-making and lack of shooting. Yes, it is a small sample size of just 70 minutes for him so far (not counting garbage time), but the defense has been 11.1 points per 100 possessions worse and the offense has been 10.5 points per 100 possessions worse when he’s been on the floor. Yikes.
- My final thought isn’t specifically tied to the first five games of the season, though this small sample size has sounded the Jimmy Butler alarms more than most anticipated. Reports indicate that the Timberwolves require Eric Gordon in any potential deal and if that’s the case, you have to move on from him (and some first round picks) to get Butler. Gordon has been a great piece for the Rockets in recent years, but he is nowhere near the player that Butler is on both ends of the floor. Butler is a surefire top 15 player (probably closer to the top ten for most people) that is an All-NBA caliber defender and capable isolation scorer. You can find other players to provide scoring off the bench, but you can’t find other Jimmy Butlers to add to the roster for cheap. This team is all in, and Butler raises the team’s contender ceiling more than Gordon ever could.