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State of the Rockets: Rockets waive Gary Clark, Ben McLemore joins starting unit, and more
Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com):
As of last week:
Offensive RTG: 114.1 (3rd)
Defensive RTG: 109.2 (17th)
Net RTG: +4.9 (7th)
As of this week:
Offensive RTG: 113.8 (3rd)
Defensive RTG: 108.7 (15th)
Net RTG: +5.1 (6th)
1. Rockets waive second-year forward Gary Clark
January 7th was the final day before Gary Clark's contract became fully-guaranteed and he was waived shortly before that could happen. The logical conclusion to draw from this is that after months of speculation, the Rockets have indeed left themselves a window to get under the luxury tax and this year's trade deadline again. Clark wasn't a world-beater, but it would have only cost Houston breathing room from the luxury tax to keep him. Although Rockets' GM Daryl Morey was "given the green light" to pay the luxury tax this summer by owner Tilman Fertitta, he also made these comments before acquiring guard Russell Westbrook, which made it harder for Houston to dodge the repeater tax if they were to become a tax team this year
Now, to be completely fair, it doesn't look like the Rockets will lose any sleep over Gary Clark and they've now left themselves an open roster spot for buyout candidates later this month or in February. Per 36 minutes, Clark was averaging 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 0.3 steals and was shooting 35.3% from three-point range. Clark possessed good length and had his moments defensively, but the prospect of him becoming a key NBA rotation player was shaky at best. This wasn't great optics, but it probably won't come back to bite the Rockets.
2. Mike D'Antoni moves Ben McLemore to the started lineup and Danuel House to the bench
To say that Danuel House has been in a slump would be putting it generously. Over his last five games, House has been averaging 5.4 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game, 1.2 assists per game, and 0.4 steals per game on 48.6% true shooting. House has been bad and it's unknown why he's struggling after coming out of the gates hot this season (averaged 12.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.5 steals on 66.1% true shooting in November).
However, starting a 6'5" Ben McLemore at small forward alongside 6'5" P.J. Tucker at power forward is still a bold decision. The Rockets believe this will free up more minutes for Austin Rivers at backup point guard as it allows them to cleanly play Eric Gordon and Rivers at the backup guard positions. This also allows Tucker, who'd been averaging a career high 35 minutes per game to this point, to get some rest with House backing him up at backup power forward. The indecisiveness at starting small forward does indicate one thing though - the Rockets need wing help and they need it badly. They've now alternated between James Ennis, Eric Gordon, Danuel House, and Ben McLemore at starting small forward over the past two years.
This may be a decent temporary solution, but long-term, Houston needs more duct tape at the forward spots. For what it's worth, McLemore has played really well with the starting unit.
3. P.J. Tucker's shooting slump continues
One of the underrated storylines for the Rockets this past month has been P.J. Tucker's shooting slump. Over his last 9 games, Tucker has shot a measly 12.5% from three-point range on 2.7 attempts per game. Before the slump, Tucker was a near-40% three-point shooter and his slump has really damaged the Rockets offense (down 0.3 points per 100 possessions from last week alone). The Rockets like to play with a spaced floor and Tucker's emergence as an elite three-point shooter has been one of the reasons they've been able to make defenses pay for doubling James Harden.
Now, Tucker will almost assuredly bounce back from this based on his Houston three-point percentages (37.4%). However, it is definitely something to monitor going forward, especially with the recent injury to Tucker's shoulder suffered against Minnesota.
Week of games in review:
This was a weird week for the Rockets as they've had just about every kind of game on the spectrum. They had a bad loss in Oklahoma City, a mediocre victory against the Atlanta Hawks on the road, and an impressive blowout victory against the Timberwolves in Houston. On the whole, this week tracked with their season long theme - good with room for improvement.
It's consistency that's really plagued the Rockets. For example, in Atlanta they came out to a 45-29 lead where they looked as dominant as ever before fumbling the rest of the game and escaping with a narrow 122-115 victory. When they get large leads, they've struggled to put teams away - a hallmark of true tier one championship contenders. However, it is encouraging that their defense is starting to get better (up 0.5 points per 100 possessions from last week).
Questions for the coming week:
1. How do the Rockets match up with the class of the West on Saturday?
Saturday is as big of game as the Rockets are going to play all season. Through 40 games, the Lakers are clearly the gold standard of the Western Conference (33-7 with a net rating of +8.2). There are so many important questions to be answered here:
a) Do the Rockets have enough quality defenders to throw at LeBron James?
b) How does Houston handle the size discrepancy in dealing with the Lakers' fairly big front court?
c) Can the Rockets score consistently enough against one of the best defenses in the NBA (4th per cleaningtheglass.com)
P.J. Tucker will obviously handle the initial assignment on LeBron James, but how the secondary defenders handle mismatches and crossmatches against James is something to watch for. How a defense like Los Angeles defends James Harden will also give some important insight for a possible playoff matchup between the two teams. For the most part, this is a completely new matchup as the two teams have not faced each other in their new iterations. How all these questions get answered will be fascinating.
2) How does Houston look defensively with Ben McLemore in the starting lineup?
Offensively, the Rockets should hum with Ben McLemore in the starting unit as McLemore offers a spacing element that was starting to get lost with Danuel House. However, it's defensively that'll be the most interesting quandary for Houston. McLemore, to his credit, gives a lot of effort when defending on-the-ball. It's off the ball where his issues lay as McLemore gets beat on back cuts fairly easily and can get lost in Houston's scheme. You can survive one, maybe even two sub-par defenders in the starting unit, but three sounds like it could be a breaking point that opposing defenses can exploit. This is something the Rockets will need to think about when evaluating this unit now as it could become a concern come playoff time.