The Rockets Report

Rockets stumble through a winless week, continue to plummet in standings

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.



It started out easily enough. Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted out support for protestors in Hong Kong, a since-deleted missive that stated "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong."

The reaction was immediate. Owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted out his own response: "Listen....@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization. @espn https://twitter.com/dmorey/status/1180312072027947008"

James Harden apologized. The NBA apologized in its own statement, saying Morey's comments "have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable."

Their statement added:

"While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together."

Morey himself had to dial it back. In a two part tweet, he said: "I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives. I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA."

That, of course, would not be the end of it.

Swift response

The Rockets immediately lost Chinese sponsors. Their games have been dropped from Chinese TV. The Chinese consulate in Houston weighed in. "We have lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact,'' the office said in a statement.

Even more backlash

After the NBA apologized, the issue got political in the U.S. It even managed to unite politicians on the opposite side of the spectrum.

Republican Ted Cruz tweeted out this:

"As a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see @dmorey call out the Chinese Communist Party's repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong. Now, in pursuit of big $$, the @nba is shamefully retreating."

Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke, who ran against Cruz for senator in Texas, tweeted: "The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights. What an embarrassment."

Imagine an issue where these two are on the same side.

Political firestorm

Nets owner Joseph Tsai ripped into Morey as well. "When I bought controlling interest in the Brooklyn Nets in September, I didn't expect my first public communication with our fans would be to comment on something as politically charged and grossly misunderstood as the way hundreds of millions of Chinese NBA fans feel about what just happened." He said expressing one's opinion "is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues. The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities. Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China. The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country's sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable."

The Chinese market is very important to the NBA and its ownership, as the league is heavily invested. China pulling out of the league would be damaging. The NBA knows this. But many see the league's backtracking as a way to preserve the business relationship, a move that seems to contradict most of the league's political stances in the United States, hence the responses from U.S. politicians.

The Chinese government has been very sensitive to the outside interpretations of the protests, and their response to this is in no small part due to that.

What does it all mean?

There are many on the Chinese side calling for Morey to be fired in order to do business with the Rockets again. This won't happen; as much as Fertitta was displeased with the tweet, he is a big Morey supporter. And to fire him would likely cause a serious backlash in Houston, where Rockets fans revere Morey. It would also give the impression that he is siding with Chinese interests over the United States, fair or not. Fertitta is too smart for that. Morey in no way intended to cause such a firestorm. Had he known the response, he would have never tweeted that out.

The problem is, the freedoms we enjoy in the United States do not translate to other countries, especially China, where social media and political views are restricted.

Now what?

Realistically, sports fans - especially the ones in Houston - don't care about any of this. It will only matter to them if Morey were fired, which is not going to happen. Fans care more about the Astros playoffs, Texans with a big win, and how the Rockets will look with Russell Westbrook and and James Harden. The problem is the story has gotten outside the realm of sports, with politicians weighing in and CNN reporting on it. When that happens, hyperbole and political stances become the order of the day. You would hope it would blow over, but time will tell.

One thing is for sure: Morey did not want this. Fertitta and the NBA did not want it. But it has become a firestorm, one that has a lot of levels.

It also goes to one of the dangers of social media; a high-profile person might have a personal Twitter account, but you also represent your organization, and your tweets reflect on them. It also shows the danger of "bumper sticker" tweets, where complicated issues are often foolishly reduced to buzz words. If there is a mistake here, it's that Morey did not recognize he represents the Rockets and NBA. It's obvious he does now.

What happens next is anyone's guess. But if this is like other politically charged topics, it probably will not go away anytime soon.

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