The Rockets have to work towards competence before contention
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 They’ve since been replaced by a team doesn’t seem to have much cohesion on both ends of the floor.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.