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.

 

Things are not going well, even when Paul and Harden are both healthy. Tim Warren/Getty Images

Sometimes sports do a great job of making people look silly. Take, for example, last week when I predicted that the Rockets would go undefeated this week. With a slate of just near .500 or below teams, a fully healthy Rockets squad, and a group that had just recently embarrassed San Antonio and Chicago, it seemed like a safe call. What I've learned from the past three games, however, is that there is nothing predictable about this Houston Rockets team, as constructed.

Instead of a sweep, the Rockets were swept.

Tuesday night the Rockets were completely dismantled by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Leading 62-48 at the half, Houston imploded and followed with a 29-55 second half. James Harden would lead the Rockets as usual with 29 points, but beyond himself and Capela's 24 points, there was zero support as the next highest scorer was Eric Gordon with 10. The loss dropped Houston to 11-12 for the season.

Thursday gave the Rockets yet another opportunity to climb back to .500 against an equally underperforming Utah Jazz team. It looked as though fortune was swinging Houston's way when Utah's defensive anchor, Rudy Gobert, earned an early ejection, but instead it seemed that the send off galvanized Utah fans and Jazz alike. The result was a very thorough dusting of the Rockets, behind a 24 point, 10 rebound performance from Derrick Favors. Houston saw five separate players in double digits, but none higher than Harden's 15. Houston shot 8-36 from 3-point range as they fell to 11-13 on the season.

Saturday the Rockets traveled to Dallas for a quick rematch following last week's blowout defeat. It looked like Houston would finally be off the schneid until the dad-bod himself, Luka Doncic fired off 11 straight points to leapfrog the Rockets late in the fourth. Doncic would finish with 21 points against the Rockets. Harden would once again lead Houston in scoring with 35 points and 8 assists. Chris Paul followed with 23 points and 8 assists. Their third straight loss would drop the Rockets to 11-14. After 25 regular season games, Houston is now 14th out of 15 Western Conference teams.

Short on Excuses

Until now, there's been an easily explainable reason behind Houston's slow start. At first it was a matter of missing either Harden or Paul. Then it was a matter of health. Then their defense. And then their poor shooting.

The issue now is that every one of those excuses is null. The team is as healthy as it's been this season. Rockets' defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik has returned to the sideline. Houston's offense remains rated one of the best in the league prior to this week.

There comes a point in the season where, despite the team's potential, you have to begin to judge a team based off of their record. And at this point in the season, Houston just doesn't look good.

Looking ahead

Houston had their chance to notch a few victories and they squandered it. Now they get to face the meat of the conference, with matchups against the Trail Blazers Tuesday, the Lakers Thursday, and Memphis Saturday. What you have there is competition against the 5th, 6th, and 7th seeds, which doesn't bode well after being stomped by the 11th and 13th seeds just this past week. Nothing about the Rockets makes sense anymore and until there's any semblance of inspired play, I don't expect Houston to win any of these contests.



SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome