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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
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:
- 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.
- 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.