SALMAN ALI

The Rockets have to work towards competence before contention

Chris Paul's absence has hurt the Rockets. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

After a surprising 1-4 start, the Houston Rockets have simply looked like a bad basketball team. Gone is the 65-win-juggernaut that took the Golden State Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. They’ve since been replaced by a team doesn’t seem to have much cohesion on both ends of the floor.

“I just kind of feel like we’re disjointed. I feel like we’re not connected,” Rockets guard Gerald Green said at Rockets’ practice Sunday.

The core of the problem has clearly been their defense. According to NBA.com/stats, the Rockets currently sit with the the league’s fourth worst Defensive RTG. After tearing through the league last season with their switch-everything scheme, the Rockets look fairly directionless with their system this year. It’s possible they’re just less equipped to handle such a scheme as many theorized after losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute this summer, but the collective buy-in just isn’t there like it was last year.

“I think our communication is not good. We’re not communicating on the defensive end like we should,” said Green when asked what needs to change.

Head coach Mike D’Antoni toyed with the idea of abandoning switching altogether after Houston’s latest loss to the Clippers Friday night before backtracking a few days later. Last season, the Rockets switched with a purpose, the communication was excellent, and they played physical at the rim.

Here is a great video that demonstrates how great the Rockets defense was last year against the Jazz. As you can see, the Rockets ability to switch 1-5 gave teams nightmares as it nearly took away the ability to penetrate completely and forced offenses to take difficult isolation-based shots. The Warriors changed their entire offense from motion-based to isolation solely because Houston’s defense took them out of their system. This year, that discipline hasn’t been there.

“Our defense is just awful. We don’t have any continuity”, said coach D’Antoni Friday night.

To be fair to Houston, they’ve missed time from a lot key contributors. Chris Paul missed two games from suspension, James Harden has to yet to return from a Grade 1-Plus left hamstring strain, James Ennis is recovering from a Grade-2 hamstring strain himself, and Nenê Hilario recently re-aggravated his right calf strain and will be reevaluated in two weeks.

The Rockets are having the rely on rookies like Isaiah Hartenstein and Gary Clark to fill bench roles that were previously occupied by veterans before injuries. That’s a tall order for young players that weren’t expecting to play much this season.

In addition to their defense taking a step back, Houston’s once dependable offense has not been anything to write home about, sitting at 19th in the league as things stand. While it’s certainly worth noting that Harden and Paul have missed time, the Rockets are missing an exorbitant amount of wide open layups and 3-pointers. Per NBA.com/stats, the Rockets are shooting 35.6% (third worst) on wide-open field goals and 32.6% on wide-open threes (fourth worst).

Houston’s spacing takes a huge hit when Michael-Carter Williams is on the floor and it’s glaring. The Rockets are 8.3 points per 100 possessions better on offense when Williams sits. The reason for this is defenders are completely sagging off of him at the three-point line to help on better offensive threats and Williams hasn’t been able to make them pay.

One positive thing that Rockets fans can take away from this start is that it’s unlikely that Eric Gordon continues to play this poorly. Gordon looks like a complete shell of himself right now. In the past two games, he’s averaging 10.5 PPG on 28.9% true shooting with a -20.4 Net RTG. Gordon doesn’t look mentally all the way on the court as he’s passing up open looks, missing layups, and hesitating far too much for a player of his caliber. It’s unlikely this trend continues, but the Rockets will need him to shake out of it quick, as the will need his production the next two games without Harden.

For what it’s worth, the Rockets don’t seem to be too worried about the offensive side of the ball. “We're going to be a really good offense. I'm not worried about that”, says Mike D’Antoni.

“We've just got to work hard for one another defensively and offensively, it'll come,” echoes Gordon at Sunday’s practice.

Until the Rockets fix a lot of their issues, they should not be considered serious championship contenders. For now, Houston should simply strive to be a competitive basketball team. If they achieve competence, the conversation can shift back to contention, but not a moment sooner. We’re only five games in and a lot can happen, but the early returns are extremely discouraging for a team that achieved so much just a season ago.

 

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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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