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State of the Rockets: An Awkward Pause To The Season

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com)

As of February 24th:

Offensive RTG: 114.0 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 110.0 (15th)

Net RTG: +4.0 (7th)

As of this week:

Offensive RTG:113.6 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 110.2 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.4

Biggest developments:

1. NBA suspends game play to due coronavirus pandemic

Not only is this the biggest story in sports, it's the biggest story in the world without a close number two. People have been asked to work from home, school has been cancelled at the local levels, and universities have opted for online classes until further notice. Mass gatherings in New York, California, Washington, and many other states have been barred and before Wednesday night, the NBA was going to play the remaining games without fans. However when Jazz center Rudy Gobert was found to be infected with the virus on Wednesday night, the gloves were off.

As soon as the NBA had its own patient zero, the outside magnitude of the pandemic finally hit home. Worries about spreading the virus to other teammates, team personnel, media, and opposing teams became top of mind as the league pivoted to its next logical step - suspending game play.

2. An awkward pause

So, where does that leave the Rockets? Well, Houston was in a bit of a weird spot before Wednesday as they had just won their first game since late February. They had completed 18 games in the micro-ball era, going 12-6 (approximately a 55 win pace), and we had just started to see the adjustments from opposing teams (packing the paint, leaving shooters open, etc..). Heading into the Staples Center to take on the Lakers next, it was possible that they could have built upon their win over the Timberwolves and started another run, but that's purely speculative. James Harden had his first really good game in quite some time (37 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block on efficient shooting) and Russell Westbrook was still playing very well.

It's just strange in that if the regular season just ended at the drop of a hat (which is still possible), I'm not sure we have a clear handle on this Houston Rockets team yet. We know what their goal is and how they will go about trying to accomplish it. What we don't know is if they can properly handle adversity with their new adapted playstyle. It's also possible that we know exactly what the Rockets are and it's probably not good enough to win a title this season.

The final 18 games would have really helped clear some things up or at least help confirm what we think.

3. James Harden's struggles

As mentioned above, before the Rockets defeated the Timberwolves on Tuesday, James Harden was going through his roughest stretch season. During Houston's four-game losing streak, Harden was averaging 26.0 points and turning the ball over 5.3 times per game, all while shooting 32.5% from the field and 19.0% from three-point range. The Rockets did a lot of things wrong, but Harden's struggles were arguably the biggest reason for the losing. Again, it's possible he's turned things around after that win over the Timberwolves, but it's impossible to know because a one-game sample size is not enough to know.

4. Eric Gordon returns from injury

The elephant in the room for Houston's season is easily Eric Gordon's health. After the Clint Capela trade, Gordon is easily the Rockets' third most important player and he's already missed nearly half of the season (34 out of 64 games played). First, his right knee was bothering him enough to the point where he had to get arthroscopic surgery. Then he bumped that same knee on the 24th of February and tried to play through the pain on and off again. Finally, he agreed to sit out five days before returning on March 10th. Gordon had a rough first half (0 points, 0 for 6 from the field, -10 in 11 minutes) before exploding in the second half (16 points, 5 of 9 from the field, +14 in 18 minutes) and helping Houston secure their first win since February.

The extent of knee pain Gordon is still feeling is unclear and as most players, he won't admit to it in the moment. This month off could be really good or really bad for him depending upon how much better his knee was feeling when he returned. If Gordon was really around 70% and was expecting to get to 100% by the playoffs, this buys him some time to get the proper treatment and recover by the time games roll around (if they do). If he was truly pain-free, it may be better for him to get game-play and work through conditioning and rust issues. Then again, the entire league may be rusty after a month off so that point could be moot.

It seems like the Rockets had a maintenance plan for Gordon before Wednesday's league closure and it'll be interesting if they plan to stick with it when games theoretically return.

Final two week of games in review:

It would be naive to suggest that these couple weeks weren't really bad for the Rockets. Any hope of grabbing the second seed in the Western Conference is effectively gone, the Rockets briefly lost their sense of confidence due to poor shooting, and in general, losing to the Knicks, Hornets, and Magic is never good. However, I think a lot of people have taken Houston's losing streak and used it as proof as to why micro-ball is a failed concept.

As mentioned before, they're still 12-6 without Clint Capela in the rotation, which is about a 55-win team. For some context, the Rockets were on pace to become a 51-win team before they decided to oust Capela from the rotation on January 26th. It may seem like a lot, but 18 games is just not a big enough sample size to determine the sustainability of this. People making bold declarations one way or the other off of a winning streak or losing streak are playing into their own confirmation bias.

However, Houston's loss to the Los Angeles Clippers was particularly concerning. If the Rockets are going to make the Western Conference Finals, the road likely goes through the Clippers. The way Los Angeles completely shut Houston's offense down and the Rockets' inability to play Ivica Zubac off the floor was a little troubling. It's just one game, but at the very least, it should raise some eyebrows.

Pressing questions if the season resumes:

  1. Will Eric Gordon ever look like his old self this season?

As mentioned above, if the Rockets are going to win a championship this season, Eric Gordon is going to play a central role in getting them there. However, Gordon has never looked more old and ineffective than this season. He's averaging 14.5 points per game (lowest since 2014-15), shooting 37.0% from the field (lowest of his career), and 31.9% from three-point range (lowest since 2011-12) this season. His right knee has clearly been an issue all year, but Houston needs him to bounce back and bounce back quickly. He's famous for closing off the season really strong in his Houston tenure so it's possible that's what might've happened if game-play continued, but there's no saying for sure.

Offensively and defensively, he's so important to what the Rockets want to do and his value to the team has even gone up since they've gone to micro-ball. Every player in Houston's locker room knows that, especially James Harden.

  1. Does Houston have it in them to be a good defense?

They've had their highs and lows, but overall, Houston has returned to where they've been defensively all season - middle of the pack. At this point of the season, teams are what they are and the most likely answer here is that they stay middle of the pack until the playoffs. That does bring up a question central to their title hopes: does Houston have another gear defensively or are they just going to be sporadic night-to-night and week-to-week? If the answer is the latter, then unless Houston hits their stride at the exact right moment in May and June (assuming everything is pushed back a month), they have a very clear playoff ceiling.

If the former is true, then man, they have to show it to close this season off. At this point, the Rockets have to hit a point where they're holding opponents to 100 points per 100 possessions for the rest of the year for them to climb into the top ten defenses. That's a high bar to climb, but historically, that's what's necessary to make the NBA Finals.

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The power struggle continues. Photo by Getty Images.

Boy, with the recent blizzard of negative publicity – searing magazine cover stories with headlines blasting "Houston Has a Problem" and "The Chaplain Who Won a Power Struggle and Plunged a Franchise into Chaos" – I'll bet the Houston Texans wished they had a seasoned, respected and award-winning media director to handle damage control.

Oh yeah, that's exactly what they had in Amy Palcic, but she was fired last year. Reason: she "wasn't the right culture fit."

What exactly is the Houston Texans culture these days? Apparently the culture is players disliking and distrusting the team executive specifically charged with managing the team's culture. It's that same executive whose resume has more fudging than the Keebler Cookie Company. It's that executive who's accused of authorizing illegal practices and hiring private eyes to follow players in their private activities. It's that executive who's accused of intimidating employees who trash him to the media and threatening to sue media outlets. It's that executive who imposes his religious fervor on lower-ranked employees. It's that executive who has created a culture where gifted quarterback Deshaun Watson is said to want a trade out of Houston.

That executive is Jack Easterby - the backstabbing, butt-smooching BS'er who seems to have a Svengali hold on Texans chairman Cal McNair.

If it comes down to one stays and one has to go between Watson and Easterby … hmmm, let's see. Deshaun Watson threw for 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns last season. Jack Easterby, zero and zero.

Last week, Texans legend Andre Johnson, who usually speaks up less than the magician Teller, tweeted: "Since Jack Easterby walk into the building nothing good has happened. For some reason someone can't seem to see what's going on. Pathetic!!!"

That "someone" would be Texans chairman Cal McNair, who continues to support Easterby despite all the accusations and revelations hurled Easterby's way.

By the way, Easterby has not sued any media outlet that is publishing stories about his bullying and sneakiness. And he won't sue because that last thing he wants is to be put in a witness chair and swear to tell the truth.

In the past 12 months, with Easterby sticking his nose in McNair's ear, the Texans have managed to alienate and infuriate superstar Watson: trade All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and create a losing, uninspired clubhouse that has favorite son J.J. Watt wanting a trade to leave his beloved Houston.

It's not like Easterby is some mad genius who somehow produces spectacular results despite his unorthodox tactics. The Texans finished 2020 with a disastrous 4-12 record, with little to show for it, not even a top draft pick to honor their futility. The Texans are clearly in need of divine intervention, and not from huckster Easterby, whose degree is in sports management from Newberry College. Easterby is only dimples and wavy hair short of being a TV preacher.

You can't deny that Easterby is inspiration. He recently inspired a public protest on the sidewalk outside NRG Stadium and signs swaying over Southwest Freeway with the same message: #FireJackEasterby. Watson asked his supporters not to attend the rally due to COVID precaution.

Then there's the case of Deshaun Watson v. Cal McNair.

Watson was born into an economically disadvantaged family and has worked for, and deserves, every penny he is paid. He is a champion.

Cal McNair found the Houston Texans under his Christmas tree in 2018 after his father Texans original owner Bob McNair died.

Watson is an extremely bright and sensitive man who is deeply involved in social issues off the field. Last year, during the summer of racial upheaval in America, he led the charge to have the name of a former slave owner removed from a building on his alma mater Clemson's campus.

McNair hardly ever speaks in public and his stumbling, confused performance at a press conference to announce the hire of general manager Nick Caserio showed why. It's rare when a team owner has to apologize after making what should have been a happy statement promising fans a better future. However, if a stage production of the Beverly Hillbillies ever goes to Broadway, we've got our Jethro.

Many times when a player gets into a public spat with a team owner, it's a dumb jock player vs. the super-smart businessman who owns a billion-dollar company. It's usually over money. And the public typically thinks, "just get rid of the ungrateful, overpaid and greedy player."

Not this time. Watson already got his – four years at $156 million. This is a war of morality. Watson is the hero here, McNair the fool being played by Easterby, who like Cassius is Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, "has a lean and hungry look."

If it came to a public vote between Watson and McNair (Easterby), Watson's landslide win would rival Kim Jong-Un in North Korea … or LeAnn Rimes on The Masked Singer.

It's unfair to call McNair and Easterby polarizing figures because polarizing implies that there are two sides to the issue.

There is only one side. Houston loves Deshaun Watson and wants McNair to sell the team, right after he fires Easterby.

Seemingly the only defender rushing to Easterby's side is a Twitter account allegedly owned by Easterby under a fake name. If it is a burner account, Easterby has a whole lot of faith in himself.

Although football insiders say that Watson is all but out the door at NRG Stadium, there is still a chance that McNair could save the day, and do what is needed to keep Watson in Texans' gear. And that would be to fire Easterby. Now.

Sadly, given McNair's repeated pledges of loyalty to Easterby and insistence that criticism of Easterby is unwarranted, Watson's leaving Houston gets more likely each day. Andre Johnson had it right … "pathetic!!!"

Three exclamation points.

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