THE ROCKETS REPORT

Rockets show what they can be with a healthy lineup, but depth remains a concern

A healthy Chris Paul makes a big difference. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Week seven of the Houston Rockets season taught us two things. It taught us just how bad the Rockets can be when they are missing Chris Paul, and just how devastating they can be with a healthy squad. Houston split their four games this past week, losing in overtime to the Wizards on Monday and dropping what should have been a bounce back game against the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday. Chris Paul returned to the lineup Friday after missing the previous three games and the Rockets shelled the San Antonio Spurs by 31. The momentum carried into the following night, and Houston dispatched the lowly Chicago Bulls by 16.

Houston is now 11-11, fourth in the Southwest Division, and tenth in the Western Conference.

Depth Issues

This past week was essentially a microcosm of the Rockets season as a whole so far. When healthy, they’ve proven that they can compete with any team in the league. The difference between this year and last is that when they weren’t completely healthy last year, they were still fully capable of competing at a championship caliber level. The Rockets have nowhere near that level of depth at the moment this year, and when a guy like Chris Paul or James Harden is out, Houston’s bench simply isn’t good enough to pick up the slack.

To put how much of a liability their bench is at the moment, consider this: when it was discovered that Gerald Green and Chris Paul would miss multiple games, the Rockets elected to promote journeyman Danuel House Jr. from the G-league rather than distribute those minutes to Michael Carter-Williams (who has all but replaced Bobby Brown as this year’s human victory cigar/white flag). House Jr. was fed 28 minutes in his first game as a Rocket on Monday and has since averaged 23.3.

Fortunately, the Rockets are as healthy as they’ve been all season, as not only did Green and Paul return, but Saturday marked the season debut of Nene, who’s return helps boost a woefully thin front court lineup outside of Clint Capela. Guard Brandon Knight also saw some action with a Rio Grande Valley assignment during the week, so there’s progression towards his debut as a Rocket as well.

Chris Paul’s Impact

Dropping Wednesday’s game to the Mavericks was an absolute heartbreaker. The loss dropped Houston to two games below .500 and left many wondering if the Rockets just simply weren’t a good team this year. When Paul’s return was announced on Friday, it was generally expected that the Rockets would play better, but hardly anyone predicted the absolute blowout that was handed out in San Antonio. Saturday’s game was more of the same, as Houston led by 10 or more throughout the contest.

We could do a deep dive into the numbers behind what the Rockets look like with Paul versus without, but the bottom line is that when Paul isn’t in the lineup, Houston is winless. When Paul plays, the Rockets are 11-6, and that win percentage (.647) would be good for 5th in the Western Conference.

Harden’s doing Harden things

So far the early season MVP discussions have centered around Stephen Curry and my basketball man crush, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Meanwhile, James Harden continues to play out of his mind, with or without a headband. Despite missing three games early in the season, Harden is sixth in the league in points with 582, and leads the league in points per game at 30.6. This past week saw Harden add a 50-point game and a triple-double to this season’s resume. For the week, Harden averaged 33 points, 11.8 assists, 8 rebounds, and 2.5 steals. Just another day in the office.

Up Next

The Rockets begin a winnable three-game road trip on Monday against the now Jimmy Butler-less Minnesota Timberwolves before travelling to Utah Thursday and Dallas Saturday. Houston will take on Minnesota for the first time since last year’s first round playoff matchup, and while the Timberwolves have won 4 out of their last 5, the competition has been poor, and Minnesota is still 11-12. Utah is in the midst of their own woes as well. So much so that Kyle Korver was dusted off and traded for in an attempt to jumpstart an offense that ranks 27th in the league. Saturday’s tilt against Dallas is the only game this week featuring a team that currently owns a winning record, even if they are only a game above .500.

The healthy Rockets are a night and day team compared to the injured Rockets, and right now they’re healthy. I’ll double-down on last week’s whiff of a prediction and call wins in each game as Houston slowly climbs back into contention.

 

Photo credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

According to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Rockets are opting not to renew associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik's contract for next season. Bzdelik was brought to Houston in 2016 to be a defensive counterpart to head coach Mike D'Antoni and briefly left the team for personal reasons this year before returning in late November. It is unknown the official reason he was let go, but Bzdelik was famously non-committal about returning to the Rockets next season.

"That's a really good question. I don't know the answer to it," Bzdelik said to Feigen last month. "First of all, none of us have any guarantees on tomorrow. Second, you have to ask my wife. I don't think it's that big of a deal."

When asked why Bzdelik was let go, Morey told Feigen, "We're looking for any way to improve. That goes for players, coaches, front office, everything."

So while Morey acknowledged that Bzdelik did a "fantastic job" with the Rockets, it seems that the organization wants to make a meaningful upgrade at associate head coach. Not renewing Bzdelik contract is quite the move, but this is an organization known for their careful decision making (Bzdelik himself was hired after a month-long coaching search). Given their track record, it's likely the move wasn't made hastily. Trying to discern how much credit Bzdelik should be given for Houston's turnaround defensively this season is difficult as the Rockets were largely the same defensively after he returned to the bench.


Houston Rockets Defensive Rating:

Before Bzdelik Returned: 109.8

After Bzdelik Returned: 110.2


However, ignoring the impact that Bzdelik had on Houston's defensive culture would be naive. Bzdelik had a large part in implementing Houston's switch-heavy scheme over the past couple seasons that kept Houston competitive against the Golden State Warriors. The Rockets now have a large hole in Bzdelik's absence at associate head coach that needs to be filled and it'll be interesting to see which direction they go in. There are a couple candidates that stick out though based on Houston's prior dealings.

1) Roy Rogers (current Houston Rockets assistant coach)

The Rockets are no strangers to promoting from within and Rogers took the interim associate head coach job in Bzdelik's absence this season. While the Rockets were fairly mediocre defensively in that time, Rogers was given short notice to prepare for the role and responsibilities that came with it. With ten years of NBA coaching experience under his belt and three with the Rockets, Rogers profiles as an obvious candidate to take over the position should the Rockets choose to give it to him. Rogers has seen time in New Jersey, Boston, Detroit, Brooklyn, and Washington before he took the position in Houston in 2016. He stems from the Lawrence Frank/Doc Rivers coaching tree and played professional basketball for eight years (four of those in the NBA) so his ability to relate to players has always been an asset.

2) Lionel Hollins (former Brooklyn Nets head coach)

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has considered hiring Lionel Hollins at several points in the past decade. In 2014, Houston wanted to add Hollins to Kevin McHale's coaching staff as an assistant, but he was hired by the Nets to be a head coach soon after. Two years later, they were interested in bringing Hollins on as a lead assistant for Stephen Silas, but opted for the pairing of D'Antoni and Bzdelik instead. Hollins has decades of coaching experience under his belt and is known for placing a heavy emphasis on the defensive side of the ball.

3) Jeff Hornacek (former New York Knicks head coach)

It's likely Hornacek wants a shot at being a head coach again, but the 56-year-old is no stranger to being an assistant coach. Hornacek saw time in Utah and Golden State as an assistant and sitting on the bench for a team like Houston could help raise his profile when another head coaching opportunity opens up elsewhere. Hornacek was also a candidate for the Rockets head coaching job in 2016.

4) Ime Udoka (current San Antonio Spurs assistant coach)

Udoka has been with the Spurs for seven years and in that time he has earned a sterling reputation around the NBA for his ability to communicate with players. Udoka may still be a few years away from landing interviews for a head coaching position, he may be seasoned for a shot at an associate head coaching job.

"He exudes a confidence and a comfort in his own skin where people just gravitate to him," Popovich said of Udoka in 2016. "He's a fundamentally sound teacher because he's comfortable with himself, he knows the material and players read it."

5) Stephen Silas (current Dallas Mavericks associate head coach)

This may seem like a bit of curveball (and difficult to pull off), but Silas was actually a finalist for the head coaching job in 2016. Silas came away impressing the Rockets enough to earn a second interview and the Rockets even considered making Silas the lead assistant for D'Antoni. It would be tricky to lure Silas away from Dallas as he would essentially be signing on for a job he already has and the Mavericks were able to secure him to a multi-year deal back in May. It would likely require the Rockets seeking permission from the Mavericks.


There is no shortage of coaching talent around the league and the Rockets will have a lot of time to replace Bzdelik's services before training camp this August.

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