By: Rahat Huq
The NBA season is a funny thing, isn't it? It seems like just days ago that the league admitted ineptitude in its handling of a non-call that could've pushed the Rockets within inches of second in the West. Instead, the team is licking its wounds after getting hammered inside by the Jazz, sitting in fourth, and dangerously close to even seventh with the San Antonio Spurs rolling on all cylinders. Whoever said the NBA season was a marathon wasn't joking. It was just yesterday it seems we were all bantering on Twitter whether Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones could be the team's future at the 4-5, almost prematurely turning the page on the Dwight Howard era. But after Rudy Gobert and the Blazers gobbled the Rockets big men up on the glass, the feeling in Houston is that Superman can't come back soon enough. It's clearer than ever: despite his efforts in muddying up the Houston offense, this team doesn't have a prayer in the postseason without Howard.
Remember James Harden, MVP frontrunner extraordinaire? He's now shooting 40% on the month of March, and 25% on 3's. Harden is just as dangerously close to falling out of the MVP race as the team is to dropping to 7th.
...but he's just as close to reclaiming the lead as the Rockets are to catching Memphis. It's a marathon, and even after what seems like the worst loss of the season, the Rockets will probably rip off five straight again in the near future and look like the team they've looked like all season. We're going to be okay; the sky is not falling. But there are concerns, of course.
For one, Harden looks completely gassed. That shouldn't come as a surprise, as the bearded man has effectively carried this team on his shoulders for the entire season. I'd give serious thought to resting him here and there, just to ensure that he's fresh for the postseason, especially after Howard's return. Motiejunas also has completely fallen off a cliff of late after early season brilliance inside. He's played more minutes now than he has at any other point in his life, and it's clearly showing. Those same hook shots that would fall with league-leading regularity are now routinely missing the mark. This is just a case of a young player hitting the wall.
Houston has slipped to 14th in offensive efficiency and sixth in defense. They play at the third fastest pace in the entire league. By comparison, on December 1st, after one month of basketball, Houston was 22nd in offense and second in defense, playing at the twelfth fastest pace. The team has clearly morphed its ways after losing Dwight.
How much have the Rockets missed the big man? Howard last played on January 23rd. Since that span, the Rockets have been eleventh in the league in defensive efficiency. They've been dead last in the entire league in defensive rebounding percentage. From November 1st up to January 23rd, Houston was 6th in defensive efficiency, and 22nd on the defensive boards. (Since losing Howard, the Rockets have been 11th in offense).
What does all of this mean? The team clearly suffers a bit without Howard both on the boards and overall defensively. They're a little better on offense. But you'd have to account for Terrence Jones as well, who is a superior rebounder to Donatas Motiejunas. Perhaps with both Howard and Jones playing together, Houston is better than just 22nd on the defensive glass?