JOEL BLANK

Rockets bench remains a work in progress

Eric Gordon needs to up his game. Jonathan Daniel

The Rockets last two games should tell you all you needed to know about where they are as a team and how far they still have to go. Sure, the team has made great strides and made up ground in the Western Conference by winning five straight games, but losing back to back games to the Pistons and Cavaliers proved they still have a long way to go. Daryl Morey needs to take a hard look at his roster and in particular his bench and start working immediately to improve one of the worst second units among contending teams.

A year ago Houston finished the regular season with one of, if not THE best bunch of reserves in the NBA. They were deep, they could shoot, they were athletic and they had size and versatility to play multiple positions and both ends of the floor. This year they seem to have done a 180 and are lacking in almost every one of those characteristics. It didn't help that the Carmelo Anthony experiment screwed up everything from a continuity standpoint and forced every reserve to play a new role with different minutes, while being on the floor with different teammates than what they were used to. When Anthony departed, the rest of the roster scrambled to try and get back to their old roles while the team pressed to climb back into the top half of the Western Conference. It's been a work in progress all year for the entire team, but the reserves have had to shoulder a big load as they have struggled to make shots and hold a lead when the starters sit down.

When we start to dig deeper and try and find the root of all the issues the bench has been having, it has to start with Eric Gordon. EG has had the biggest fall off and suffered the most from the addition and then subtraction of Melo. First off, he was forced to defer to Anthony when they came in the game with the second unit, while still being counted on to be the primary ball handler. This was hard on Gordon because he has been a shoot first sniper since he joined the Rockets a few years ago. Having him on the floor with James Harden and Chris Paul, or at least one of the two superstars, has produced incredible results. Gordon was the 6th Man of the Year two seasons ago and a runner up last year. He was the beneficiary of teams double teaming the teams' two best players, giving Gordon wide open looks from all over the floor. So when you look at the stats this season, you will see EG taking a similar amount of shots and playing close to the same minutes as he did previously, but the quality of the looks and the players he is on the floor with has changed drastically and so have the results. His stats are down across the board and he has been mired in a horrible shooting slump for almost all of the teams' first 18 games. If this team is going to right the ship and improve the bench brigade, it all starts with Gordon finding his rhythm and making shots on a consistent basis.

The rest of the bench continues to struggle along with Gordon, but they are not counted on for as much offense on a nightly basis. That doesn't mean they get a pass or are off the hook, it just means that if they don't come in make shots everything is compounded. The new additions to the squad have not produced the results that Morey and company had hoped for and most of them came in with the huge disadvantage of being counted on to make shots while never being known as a shooter, especially from behind the arc. All of the newcomers may be younger and more athletic, but Michael Carter Williams, James Ennis, Gary Clark and Isaiah Hartenstein have a 25 letter alphabet with no "J" in it. Teams sag off these guys from almost anywhere on the court 15 feet and out and especially from 3-point range. The fans forget that last season with Ryan Anderson and Luc Mbah a Moute starting throughout the year, the bench had shooters all over with PJ Tucker, Gerald Green, Gordon and even Joe Jackson as a late add for insurance. As quick as fans wanted to see Ariza, Anderson and Luc head out the door, the fact that Morey didn't replace them with players that had similar skill sets has set this team back as much as adding Anthony did. The time is now to be active in the trade market and pursue players that shoot the 3-ball well, are athletic in transition and can defend on the other end. Jodie Meeks was just released by Milwaukee; bring him in and work him out to see if he has anything left in the tank. He is a career 37% three point shooter and had valuable, veteran experience. I have previously mentioned  names like Kyle Korver and Jeff Green as other vets that could come in and help bolster the bench. There is still time to make moves and improve this roster, but sooner rather than later would be nice for all those who have a rooting interest in seeing the Rockets return to being one of the top two teams in the west.

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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