Emergency Red94 Roundtable: What is going on?

After Sunday’s debacle against Miami, the Red94 crew got together to discuss what was wrong with the Houston Rockets. And as Rahat observed, even yesterday’s victory against Oklahoma City does not just make those problems go away.

Here are our thoughts:

McGuire: Allow me to begin this commiserating session by pointing out two things.

First, one of Miami’s weaknesses coming into this season was the fact that they are not a good shooting team. Wade is a joke on 3-pointers, and Dragic, Deng and Bosh are just okay.

And the Heat still outshot the Rockets from three-point land.

Second is about Harden. I missed the Denver game, but noticed this immediately in the Golden State game and it was true against Miami. When Harden does not have the ball, he is constantly standing at the top of the key, quite a few feet away from the three-point line.

And while I know it’s ridiculous, I’m constantly reminded of this game in 2009. Harden has displayed more effort on defense than McGrady did in that clip, but it would be hard not to. But the offensive effort is right about there. Simmons talked about how Wade and LeBron did “duelling banjos” before they figured it out, and Harden and Lawson are not Wade and LeBron.

Rahat: Harden loafing is something you kind of have to live with, unfortunately. It is not ideal, but he is not going to change his stripes at this point. But when you already have him penciled in to standing around, you certainly can’t expect to win with the other four guys also remaining stagnant. It is one thing to have everyone watching Harden dribble the ball when he’s scoring and going well. That is what happened last year. But when he is ineffective, you don’t have a prayer. Not in 2015. Defenses are too good, and too smart.

And this hits home at one of the fundamental problems that has plagued this team throughout this entire era. I railed against iso-ball two years ago. Then last year, we were forced to reconsider the premise because Harden was just so good. But the fundamental issue remains.

Here is the thing. He is going to go off one of these games. He will return to form. And everyone will keep watching him. And they’ll win games doing it. But they are not going to win a championship without any sort of movement off the ball. Harden won’t be able to carry them every night. So far, he has not been able to carry them on any of these three nights.

Walker: Before we get into how to fix what’s going wrong can we just try to figure out what’s going wrong in the first place? This isn’t your run of the mill slump. This is the complete transformation of a basketball team into a foreign organism. I haven’t seen this happen since… oh. Since Houston in the playoffs after playing against Dallas. Whatever infected them then is apparently continuing to do so, only worse.

There are effort and hustle and awareness problems. The defense is sluggish and the offense is stationary off the ball. But there is more to it. To wit: Harden is shooting 12 percent on uncontested shots. Where does that come from? Harden’s terrible and it’s not just a matter of “he needs to step it up.” There’s something rotten in Denmark, as they say, and Harden is likely at the center of whatever is happening to the Rockets. Let’s just hope there was a one-off intense night of Halloween partying in Miami and that he returns to form soon.

McGuire: The thing about off-ball Harden is look at how Harden played compared to how Marcus Thornton played. Sure, Thornton cooled off in the second half. But when he did not have the ball, he was active. He ran around, came off some screens which Harden hit ( and I think Harden has done fine passing, but holding the ball for 15 seconds and throwing it to a shooter does not make a great offense) and made some shots.

I’m not asking Harden to be the next Redick. I am asking that Harden actually stands at the three-point line and not a couple feet behind it. If he wants to be a catch-and-shoot guy like he said he wanted to be at the start of the season, then he actually needs to be in a position where he can shoot.

Walker: Harden has been truly awful and something seems wrong with him, and that is probably a large part of why Houston has lost three games now by exactly 20 points each time. There is no way his personal life is helping his game right now, and coming off a Saturday night Halloween in Miami could not have been a positive influence either. If it’s just temporary issues or nagging injuries, the real James Harden should show up eventually. Right now that’s gotta be the hope for Houston and their fans.

Also weird: the game against Miami. How often do you see both teams hold a 20 point lead in the same game? I actually sort of suspect that one of the rims may have been faulty. Since each team plays a half on each rim, the influence basically evens out, and the outcome would have been the same either way, but it’s worth noting. Teams shot 42/84 (50%) overall and 18/32 (56%) from deep on one rim and 29/81 (36%) and 1/26 (4%) from deep on the other. That is pretty weird, right? Maybe that is why the Rockets seemed to not be terrible at first. Miami, check your rims. Rockets, start caring. If you don’t care after three different versions of a 20 point loss, will you ever care?

Dover: It’s funny that you mention the rims. I was pretty sure that one of the ones in the Rockets’ gym was a bit off at the start of last year. There was one end that teams shot suspiciously low percentages from 3, and it was noted by multiple national columnists that the Rockets were somehow getting opponents to shoot unusually low percentages on wide-open shots. But I digress.

It has been a bad start, there’s no denying it. Seems to me that there are a few factors at play here:

  • Harden is, by his own admission, a bit shorter on match practice/fitness than he would normally be owing to his offseason ankle issue. His game relies on an awful lot of subtle things going right for him to work his magic, and perhaps what we are seeing at the moment is what happens when things are out of kilter.
  • I think the Rockets miss Motiejunas in a big way. He is a stabilizing force on defense and gives the team an alternative approach they can try to change things up if the offense is not firing. But more generally, the power forward slot was a mess all preseason with injuries – it is no surprise that with all the niggles Terrence Jones has been having, he has not played well in the first two games either.
  • There were two questions I wanted answered from the preseason: (1) how does the PF rotation look? and (2) How do Lawson and Harden play together? We did not get the answers from either of them, and that’s a bad thing. I think they only played together in about two of the games? Hopefully that this is not a repeat of the Jeremy Lin situation, but as others have alluded to, Harden is not doing a great job off the ball right now. I’m still optimistic that they will gel though. They just haven’t had the time on the court together to figure things out.

At the end of the day, three losses to start the season is far from the end of the world, especially when one of them was to the defending champions. The margin is irrelevant as long as they change things around sharpish. You might just want to knock a few wins off that prediction, that’s all.

McGuire:  I suppose if we wanted to be optimistic, we could attribute the first game to laziness, the second to the fact that Golden State is on track to win 82 games this year, and the third to our wrecked frontcourt.

But the margin does matter. If those three games had all been close losses, I think my reaction would be more like yours, Robert. But right now, every Rockets fan should be panicking.

Though perhaps if we wanted to be REALLY optimistic in a morbid sense, there’s the fact that the last time Houston lost their first three games by 20+points, they ended up getting Hakeem Olajuwon in the draft. I do not think Houston is that bad.


Addendum: Well, the Rockets did win against the Oklahoma City Thunder last night, thanks to better ball movement and Harden finally showing up. But there were still problems in the form of too many Harden-isos ( those last two positions where he just pulled up for more tough shots made me pull out my hair), as well as the continuing big man issue.

Jonathan Feigen has made it clear on Twitter that McHale is determined not to play any two of Harrell, Capela, and Dwight at the same time because of spacing concerns. But it is not like teams are that terrified of Motiejunas or Jones shooting either. And Houston got absolutely murdered on the boards. As Robert observed, this power forward situation needs to be figured out really fast.



About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.

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