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.

 

Deshaun Watson takes his act to New York. Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Texans Saturday play a lousy 4-9 Jets team Saturday now without its leading rusher (Isaiah Crowell) and leading pass catcher (Quincy Enunwa). Then they face a probably Carson Wentz-less Eagles team seeing its Super Bowl championship defense die away. Then the awful Jaguars come to Houston. 12-4 is right there for the Texans, but that will only be enough for the number three seed in the AFC and a Wild Card weekend home game unless the fading Steelers rise up Sunday to knock off the Patriots. That game is in Pittsburgh. The Patriots' final two games are both at home against the Bills and Jets.

With the Patriots losing their game to the Miami Miracle, on one hand you can say the Texans blew a massive opportunity in losing at home to the Colts. On the other hand the Colts were clearly the better team in ending the Texans' nine game winning streak.

The loss to Indy was a reality check. The Texans are a pretty good team, but glaring areas of weakness keep it from being a reeeeally good team. The offensive line is flat lousy in pass protection, though sometimes Deshaun Watson makes it look even worse by holding on to the ball too long. Pending free agent moves in the offseason, one of the Texans' top two draft picks next spring MUST be spent on an offensive lineman, the other on a cornerback (if not on another o-lineman). Even in their zone-heavy scheme, the Texans lack corners who run well enough. If the pass rush isn't raising hell, the secondary is Swiss cheesy. Remember, the Texans have an extra second pick this spring, acquired from Seattle in last year's Duane Brown trade.

If somehow the Texans chump up two of their remaining three games, as long as one of the losses isn't to the Jaguars they still win the AFC South even if the Titans or Colts win out.

Coogs' house

None of the Phi Slama Jama era Houston Cougar basketball teams started a season better than 5-0. Sunday Kelvin Sampson's Coogs go for a Bo Derek (perfect 10, anybody remember Bo?) start. Only UH team ever to open 10-0: the Elvin Hayes-led '67-'68 squad that went 31-0 and along the way beat UCLA in the Game of the Century before the Bruins obliterated the Cougars at the Final Four.

The new Fertitta Center is a modest-sized gem, and currently offers the hands down best sports environment in town. Non-Cougars are never going to embrace UH in big numbers especially not in a major league sports town, so UH's "For the City" slogan doesn't hit the mark. But so what? Drawing more of the Cougar base, plus any outside of it who might have some interest piqued by intensely played quality college basketball is good enough.

Rockets rumors

The Rockets have been vastly less excitement-inducing this season, though James Harden's closing brilliance in a 50 point explosion Thursday night to put away the Lakers was a doozy. Getting back to and then over ,500 is the Rockets' near term goal. A good month of sustained quality play is needed to restore credibility. Chris Paul's overall level of play remains a serious concern. The rumor this week of their interest in Cleveland malcontent J.R. Smith, egads! That would render Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey Desperate Daryl. Morey is trying to recover from his awful offseason, but I can't believe he sees J.R. Smith as worthwhile.

Speaking of Morey's offseason work, the Rockets Saturday gain the right to trade Carmelo Anthony. What a bonanza must await in return!

Astros still armed

Not a great look for the Astros that they tugged on their purse strings while the Tampa Bay Rays of all teams guaranteed Charlie Morton $30 million dollars over the next two years. The Astros did not err. Morton was on balance outstanding in his two Astro seasons but he wore down badly this year, and at 35 years old his arm is a ticking bomb. The Astros should add an established starting pitcher, but even if Jeff Luhnow doesn't, the Collin McHugh/Brad Peacock/Josh James/Framber Valdez quartet isn't an indefensible plan to cover three rotation spots while waiting on elite prospect Forrest Whitley's arrival during the 2019 season. If poor performance/injuries are issues, nothing precludes a notable in-season trade. That Verlander fellow worked out okay a couple of seasons ago. A left handed hitter is the obvious other logical Astros' target.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Pipe down Tony La Russa. Harold Baines making the Baseball Hall of Fame is ridiculous. 2. La Russa also used to lambaste those who dared to believe that Mark McGwire might have been a steroid guy. 3. Best teams in the AFC: Bronze-Patriots Silver-Chargers Gold-Chiefs (but barely post-loser Kareem Hunt).

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