SALMAN ALI

Amidst Melo Drama, Rockets find a groove with shortened rotation

Mike D'Antoni has shortened the bench. Harry How/Getty Images

Amidst constant Carmelo Anthony chatter, the Houston Rockets have found themselves playing good basketball again for the first time since the 2017-18 season came to a close. Good is relative of course, as the Rockets aren’t nearly the same basketball team that stepped off the court in May. However, since their 1-5 start, they have won 5 out of their last 7 games (capped off by an impressive 109-99 win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday) and have shown minor glimpses of last year’s team.

 

So, how are they doing this? A few reasons.

Defensive identity coming into shape

Since James Ennis returned from injury and was placed into the starting lineup, the Rockets saw huge dividends defensively almost immediately. It's not as if Ennis is a lockdown defender, but he's miles above Carmelo Anthony - who Houston had to start in Ennis’ absence. The Rockets were allowing a blistering 111.0 points per 100 possessions when Anthony was on the floor.

To put that into perspective, that's equivalent to the 26th ranked defense in the NBA. When Anthony is off the floor, the Rockets only allow 103.2 points per 100 possessions - which would be equivalent to the third best defense in the NBA. Now it's important to note that Anthony wasn't the source to all of Houston's problems. However, he certainly wasn't the solution to many of them either.

In addition to swapping Ennis for Anthony, rookie Gary Clark is seeing a huge surge in minutes. The 6'8” swingman has been a stud defensively and slowly gaining Houston's trust more and more, including coach D'Antoni.

Shots are starting to fall

As of November 10th, the Rockets had the worst field goal percentage in the league (41.3%) along with the 28th ranked 3-PT percentage (31.7%). It was unlikely they would shoot this poorly for very long.

On Sunday, GM Daryl Morey talked about how the Rockets liked the quality of the shots they were getting, but just weren't making them. After defeating the Indiana Pacers with an offensive explosion, James Harden echoed the same sentiment.

In Houston's last two games, they've shot 51.7% from the field and 39.3% from 3-PT range (2nd and 7th in that span respectively). James Harden and Chris Paul have started to round into form after slow starts and it's fueled good offensive performances. It'll be interesting to see how long this progression to the mean lasts, but I'm sure the Rockets welcome as much of it as they can.

Shrunken rotation

And finally, possibly the biggest reason for Houston's turnaround is the deliberate shrinking of the rotation. Most people view a short rotation in the regular season to be a bad thing, but for the Rockets, it's a very welcome change. Houston is a very thin team this season and after their first 8-9 guys, there is a noticeable drop-off in quality of production.

The Rockets viewed Anthony, Michael-Carter Williams, and Marquese Chriss as worthwhile gambles, but after 11 regular season games, it's clear why their former teams jettisoned them. Head coach Mike D'Antoni has effectively eliminated them from the rotation and it has since led to a leaner, more effective team. By cutting the fat in negative minutes out of the rotation, the Rockets are able to give themselves a higher percentage chance of winning games.

It's worth questioning the long-term effects of the shortened rotation (fatigue, injuries, etc…), but with the Rockets just a game below .500, they have to be thinking with a short-term perspective until they right the ship. D'Antoni has been a coach criticized for his use of short rotations in the past, but it's hard to question when you look at his alternative options.

The eventual returns of Gerald Green (illness - likely the first to return), Nene Hilario (calf strain), and Brandon Knight (knee) should help, but Houston will have to address it's depth issues at some point in the season. They have most of their taxpayer mid-level exception remaining to spend on players who get bought out or waived. Additionally, they have all of their first round picks moving forward if they decide to make a more significant move.

What matters is the Rockets are on the right track. Questions of minutes distribution and depth can be resolved when Houston has the luxury to think long-term.

 

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Texans fall to Browns. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images.

The Houston Texans kept it closer than the experts thought they would, but couldn't pull out a victory. Here are 11 observations from the loss in Cleveland to the Browns.

1. The game looks totally different if Texans quarterback Tyrod Taylor finishes the game. Taylor left at halftime with a hamstring injury. He was playing exceptionally well against his former team. Taylor is not expected to play Thursday according to NFL Network.

2. Davis Mills had a rocky NFL debut which was to be expected. Mills looked to have the wrong elements of a few plays. He also couldn't hit backup wideout Andre Roberts over the middle and threw an interception. It was a fine performance considering what Mills showed he could do in the preseason.

3. Mills didn't work with a full load of offensive weapons in the second half. Rookie wideout Nico Collins didn't return to the game after his lone catch and big run early in the game. Veteran slot receiver Danny Amendola left the game with an injury. Tight end Anthony Auclair left with an eye injury. The Texans entered the game without wide receiver Anthony Miller who was inactive.

4. Brandin Cooks is a monster through two games. He is the most dangerous skill position player on the team, and defenses still have trouble covering him and staying with him. Cooks turned in yet another impressive day for this team and hauled in a Davis Mills touchdown pass.

5. The Browns did a solid job against the ground game of the Texans. Mark Ingram averaged under three yards per carry and Tyrod Taylor was the only rusher to have a big play on the ground. This led to a fair number of third-and-long situations which the Texans usually had trouble converting.

6. Justin Reid was set to increase his payday on his next contract with his early play. Reid forced a fumble and had an interception in the first half. Unfortunately, Reid would leave the game multiple times with injuries. The knock on Reid has always been his health.

7. The Texans were worn down by the Browns rushing attack all day. Once Cleveland committed to the run they saw the success of their work culminating in a 26-yard scamper by Nick Chubb for a touchdown. The Browns didn't run as much as I excepted them to run early.

8. Tim Kelly had another nice day calling plays. Kelly remains creative in finding ways to get the ball out of Taylor's hands quickly as well as manufacturing matchups where the Texans can win and pick up yards. He even got creative to get Davis Mills a passing touchdown late in the game. Kelly has been very impressive through two games.

9. Andre Roberts was inexcusably bad today. The Texans defense held on the opening drive and his muffed punt eliminated the momentum from the defensive stand. He also had poor returns on kickoffs. His lone job is to be a solid returner, and he failed at that on Sunday.

10. David Culley had a head-scratching decision foregoing an offsides call on a third down. The head coach opted for the result of the third down, and a punt on fourth down, instead of another third down. He did not explain himself well postgame on the decision either.

11. The Texans hung tough and should feel solid about where they could have been without the injury to their quarterback. With no Taylor in the short week, it will not be easy to beat the Panthers who upset the Saints on Sunday.

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