JOEL BLANK

Rockets problems are far bigger than Carmelo Anthony

The Rockets have bigger problems than this guy. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Everyone wants to blame Carmelo Anthony for all that ails Houston's favorite basketball team. It's the easy way out, the fastest way to point fingers. The average fan and all the outsiders can say the aquisition of Melo is the reason the team is below .500 and can't seem to score 100 points anymore.  The truth is, the problems are way deeper than that and are spread far and wide accross a team and roster that is light years away from the squad that should have been in the Finals a season ago.

By now you all have read and watched and listened to me vent about how important the losses of Jeff Bzdelk, Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute were to this team. The defense has been a disaster through the first ten games and they can't get stops and can't slow down teams when they get on a run. Their two best players have been below their averages at best and have each spent time out of the lineup due to injury and suspenson. The team that was supposed to be able to score with anyone has found it difficult to score 100 points in a game lately. They can't make the most important shot in their offensive system, the 3-ball, and struggle to make free throws and even layups occasionally. Eric Gordon looks like a shell of his 6th man of the year self and has struggled to adjust to his new role with Melo on the roster. The list goes on and on. So, sure, the defense is bad, but there is so much more to this story and a majority of it starts and ends with the General Manager that loves to soak up the accolades but hates to be in the cross hairs of criticism.  

Daryl Morey is a General Manager that cannot stand pat, period. The same reason he has made a trade at the deadline virtually every year he's had a say so or control of an NBA roster, he can't seem to sit still and "run it back" with the same roster or close to the group that got you so far, so good last year. He was fine with Ariza and Luc leaving, which most observers agreed with, but where he screwed up was not replacing them with players that had similar skill sets and could play the same system the same way as their predecessors did.

He brought in a handful of guys that can't shoot the 3 ball and can't defend individually or collectively the way this team needs players to play in order to be effective. He made a trade to unload another mistake he made previously in Ryan Anderson and brought back a wasted lottery pick in Marquese Chriss that seems disinterested at best, as well as a back up point guard coming off major knee surgery in Brandon Knight.

The roster at first glance is exactly what I thought it would be, a bunch of dudes, just guys, a few folks past their prime and some more who were going to be asked to do things completely different from what they did a year ago, and of course, two of the best players in the game. there is no continuity, no chemestry and no chance of them playing the style and brand of basketball that they played all of last season as currently constructed. 

Morey brought in Anthony, a player that he had pursued for more than seven years, that he had to have and was convinced he was the missing piece to the Rockets championship puzzle. It was like a Wall Street wolf that was so obsessed with a stock that he buys it too high and way too late to have any ROI, but it doesn't matter because he finally got the prize he had coveted for so long! He was so adamant that Melo be in Houston that he ignored the negative past history that Mike D'Antoni had with him and basically told the coach that he would not only have Anthony on his roster again but that he better find a way to make it work.

That's not even taking into consideration the back story between the player and his first NBA coach, Jeff Bzdelik. Not exactly the kind of treatment you give a guy that won you more regular season games than you had every seen your franchise win in a regular season and the guy that turned your defense into a top six squad in the league as opposed to the bottom feeding "D" the team had played previous to his arrival. 

If the GM really believed in the squad that he constructed for this season and thought it was talented enough to win a title, then why was he in such hot pursuit of Jimmy Butler? Why was it rumored that he was willing to give up four first round draft picks and a couple of major rotational players for just one guy?

Is that the sign of a guy that liked what he saw in the first month of the season or a guy that knew he had plenty of work to do to try and re-construct a roster that wasn't going to cut it in a loaded and talented Western Conference, let alone compete for a title? Now that Butler has been traded to Philadelphia, that dream is over and the heat that has been on the H-town GM is getting to a boiling point. There aren't too many all-stars out there to be had and there aren't too many GM's in the West in a hurry to help out Morey. The Anthony situation is up in the air, but the rest of the roster should be too. Regardless of what happens with Melo, Morey had better be on the phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, trying to add better pieces to this puzzle and a supporting cast that can make shots, execute a system and get stops better than the roster he has right now. There's still time to right the ship and get back on course with sights set on a return engagement with the Warriors, but time is of the essence and there is no quick fix in sight.

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com)

As of last week:

Offensive RTG: 113.4 (5th)

Defensive RTG: 110.1 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.3 (10th)

As of this week:

Offensive RTG: 113.5 (5th)

Defensive RTG: 110.1 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.4 (10th)

Biggest developments:

1. Big men defending Russell Westbrook

It's not surprising at all that Quin Snyder was the first head coach to throw an interesting wrinkle defensively at Houston's micro-ball unit. Let's not forget Snyder was the one who copied the Bucks by implementing the "Sit on James Harden's left hip and allow him to go right" strategy in the playoffs last season. However, having a big man defending a non-shooter isn't as revolutionary an idea. The Warriors had Andrew Bogut defend Tony Allen to great success in the second round of the 2015 playoffs to great success.

But Russell Westbrook isn't Tony Allen, so when Jazz big man Rudy Gobert took on the assignment in the first quarter, the Jazz didn't exactly get the results they wanted.

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While not new, it's definitely creative for teams like the Jazz to try this, but it's a better idea in theory than in practice. In theory, since Westbrook's best strength is attacking the basket, placing a rim protector on him and allowing him to shoot should neutralize him. In practice, this only gives Westbrook a head of steam going at the rim and puts the defender on his heels, unprepared for what's coming at him. It also doesn't help that it's Gobert's responsibility to monitor the rest of the floor and play a heavy amount of help defense (as shown in the clip), so he'll be a half-step late in recovering to defend the layup.

The same principle applies to Anthony Davis.

It'll be interesting to see if teams keep trying this tact or if they get even more creative and add a layer of sophistication to it.

2. Rockets starting to figure things out defensively

The Rockets have a 108.7 defensive rating over their last two games (good for 8th in the league in that span), which is actually 1.4 points per 100 possessions better than what they are on the season. If you take away Bojan Bogdanovic's ridiculous game winning shot from Sunday, that number is actually better. It may not seem like a big difference, but it's significant and also becoming very clear that switching is a defense that the Rockets are more comfortable with than the altered drop-back scheme they were working with for the past year.

The biggest reason for Houston's success? Forced turnovers. The Rockets are forcing 18.6 turnovers per game over their last 9 games, which is good for first in the NBA.

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By playing this small, the Rockets are making the very bold claim that they don't have be a good defensive rebounding team to be a good defense. The internal calculus is that they can make up the lost possessions with forced turnovers and in-turn, compete defensively. It challenges everything we've been taught about basketball, but it's why the Rockets are the must-watch team of the closing stretch of the season.

3. Backup center Thabo Sefolosha

Here's something I never expected to say at the beginning of the season: Thabo Sefolosha has become a pretty reliable backup center for Houston. Ignoring the past few rough plus/minus outings (which can be noisy), the Rockets have finally found a practical use for the defensive intelligence of the 35-year-old swingman. At the beginning of the season Sefolosha looked awful and it was starting to look like he'd spend his full season on Houston's bench. However, in this new role, Sefolosha looks reinvigorated.

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Officially, Sefolosha is listed as 6'6", but it's strange because in person (and on television), he looks much taller. It could be his hair, it could be his 7'2" wingspan, but whatever the case, he's found a nice role as the backup center to P.J. Tucker (what a wild sentence to type out). The Rockets are better defensively when Sefolosha's on the floor versus off the floor. He communicates well and just knows where to be and when to be there.

Week of games in review:

You never want to dismiss losses, but the Jazz game was just such an awesome game of two seemingly equal-matched Western Conference foes and the Rockets lost on a last-second shot. Apart from the Rockets allowing Jordan Clarkson to have his way with their defense in the second half, they played a strong game and just lost to a really good team in the end.

In the same token, you don't want to put too much weight on Houston beating the Celtics before heading off to the All-Star break either. Sure, it was an impressive victory, but you almost got the feel that Boston didn't play all of their cards until it was too late, specifically their small-ball lineup of Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker. They also foolishly posted up Enes Kanter in the first half and got away from their traditional offense. The Rockets deserve credit for getting the win, but the Celtics also beat themselves in a lot of areas.

Questions for the Rockets after the All-Star break:

1. Can Houston make a run for a top seed in the West?

If the Rockets are going to be make a strong run for a top seed in the Western Conference, now's the time. In addition to getting nine days off for the All-Star break, the Rockets have the 7th easiest schedule remaining (.477 winning percentage) with 28 games remaining in the season. They clearly have a lot of room to grow defensively and you get the feeling they haven't reached their peaks as an offense yet.

Last season, the Rockets went 21-7 in their last 28 games with the second best Net Rating in the NBA (+10.4), so it's not completely crazy to suggest they may have another gear in them this season. They've started the craft their identity after the trade deadline, shortly before this break, which is huge. We know what the Rockets are trying to do and they've bought into it collectively. Houston currently stands two games out of the 4th seed in the West and three games out of the 2nd seed. Every game is significantly more important from here on out.

2. How soon do we Bruno Caboclo take the floor?

In addition to Eric Gordon, the Rockets also have Bruno Caboclo's return to look forward to after the All-Star break. Caboclo was dealing with a knee hyperextension before the break and is set to be cleared very soon. The Rockets traded Jordan Bell for the right to get another look at Caboclo over the next couple years, but they clearly like what they see as they've brought him into their program twice in the past eight months.

This question may have more to do with Houston's ability to get to garbage time in fourth quarters than anything else. It's unlikely Caboclo cracks the rotation at this point, but if he does, he will almost exclusively play backup center. Currently that role is taken by Thabo Sefolosha, but if Caboclo shows something in garbage time, this could get interesting.

He's one week away from possibly being one week away.

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3. Will the Rockets become an all-time offense again?

For the past few years, the Rockets have been breaking records in offensive rating under head coach Mike D'Antoni, but ever since they traded for Russell Westbrook in July, the've stagnated. Westbrook isn't to blame, but since James harden no longer has three quality shooters on the floor around him at all times, things have become a little more clunky.

They're still very good (113.5 Offensive Rating, 5th in the NBA), but they're no longer elite or record-breaking. They've really opened up their ceiling by going four-out before the All-Star break, it's just a matter of if they can return to their ridiculous norm. Right now Russell Westbrook looks great and really comfortable in Houston's spaced out offense and James Harden's starting to come back around after a brutal January, but it'll still be fascinating to monitor.

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