Every-Thing Sports

Good Rockets can be better, and they will need to be as the season goes on

Coming into this season, the Rockets were thought of as a possible Western Conference contender. Maybe not one of the teams that could make it to the Finals, but one of the top four to five for sure. Well, 14 games into the season, they're 11-3 and a half game behind the Lakers for the top spot in the West. James Harden is off to another MVP level start averaging an unbelievable 39.5 points per game. The experiment of pairing Harden with longtime friend Russell Westbrook is looking like a success so far. Although Westbrook has had to be load managed given his injury history, things appear to be flowing smoothly.

If you know me and follow my writings and whatnot, you know there's a but coming. Well, here it is: as good as things are, they can and need to be better. Some of the issues I have are necessary in order for them to contend for not just for seeding in the West, or a deep playoff run, but possibly an NBA title.

Harden's shooting percentages

While Harden is making history with his 39.5 scoring average, his field goal percentage (41.7) is his lowest since his rookie season (40.3) and his three point percentage (33.2) is his lowest since the 2016-17 season (34.7). While those are career lows or close to it, his free throw percentage (88.1) is a career best. Imagine if Harden was shooting at his career averages of 44.2% from the field and 36.4% from three? I'm pretty sure he'd be averaging well over 40 a game.

Health

Harden has been very durable over the course of his career, so this applies to him as far as his stamina is concerned, especially when going deep into the playoffs. Westbrook has been load managed, and rightfully so. His history of injuries, specifically his knees, at his age (31) and style of play require his minutes to be closely monitored. Eric Gordon is out for another month or so after knee surgery. Hopefully this'll have a twofold effect: getting Gordon healthy, and allowing other guys to play. With other guys playing, they will hopefully gain Mike D'Antoni's trust come playoff time given his penchant for shrinking his rotation in the postseason. Health isn't something you can correct or fix, but it's crucial to this team given the way they're built.

Defense dammit!

When you can score at the rate the Rockets can, if you can play average defense, you'll win a bleep ton of games. While they currently have .786 win percentage, it could be even better if they weren't giving up 114.2 points a game! That's 22nd in the league for those keep score. Letting Jeff Bzdelik go was a horrible decision. I don't care what was the issue, it should've been settled. Maybe switching everything isn't a good idea. Zone schemes and outside the box ideas should all be on the table right now. We're talking about a team that gave up 158 points in regulation, but won because they scored 159.

The D'Antoni Factor

D'Antoni is essentially a lame duck coach. His coaching staff was picked apart this past offseason and he put the word out there that he ended contract extension talks. As previously mentioned, he notoriously short with his bench, and is known for being an offensive-minded coach. If he can go against the grain and focus more on defense, as well as learn to trust guys outside his top seven to eight in the rotation, this team may go places. Harden is playing 37 minutes a night right now. Guys like Ben McLemore and Chris Clemons deserve a fair shot at more minutes. Isaiah Hartenstein has improved some over the last few years and may be ready to play more despite the team signing Tyson Chandler. D'Antoni has a say in all these matters which are all critical to any successes this tea wishes to have this year.

I'm not going to be overly confident the Rockets will have any and/or all of these fixed. I also won't be a homer and think they'll be in the NBA Finals either. They're off to a hot start. The Golden State Warriors' deal with the devil appears to be up given their current state. The Lakers have formed a "super team" and are sitting on top of the West. Meanwhile, the Celtics and Bucks in the East, as well as the Clippers and Nuggets in the West are all formidable. The Rockets have to be able to clean up some of their messesif they expect to make it through the wide wild West. Even if they manage to make it that far, they still have some heavy hitters from the East to beat in order to win a title. It hasn't gotten easier because the bully (the Warriors) appears to be broken. If anything, it's harder because there's so much parity that one can't pick one or two teams and say they're the overwhleming favorites. There is more hope than previous seasons for the Rockets. But it's ultimately up to them to produce.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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