SALMAN ALI

State of the Rockets: Still hazy, but trending upward

Gary Clark has been a find for the Rockets. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Due to early season inconsistency, the 2018-19 Houston Rockets have been a difficult team to analyze. Injuries and suspensions have prevented the Rockets from having a consistent rotation and forming an identity. What are the Rockets really good at this year or really bad at this year? It sounds like a dumb question, but it’s a question nobody really knows the answers to yet.

What we do know is the Rockets have taken very deliberate and decisive steps these past few weeks in trying to form that identity. After much early speculation, the Rockets chose to not abandon their switching defense, which ended up being the correct long-term play. NBA players are creatures of habit and changing the entire defensive scheme midseason could’ve proved to be disastrous. Over the past nine games, Houston possesses the seventh best defense in the league.

General Daryl Morey talked about how the Rockets are comfortable with the looks they are giving up when Houston was 4-7 and he is correct in thinking so. Houston is third fewest in the league at opponents attempted 3-pointers per 100 possessions. This is a telltale sign of a good, modern-day defense that chases opponent off of the 3-point line and forces them into long twos. Take for example the Warriors game in which the Rockets only allowed the Warriors to shoot 18 3-pointers (they shoot 29.1 3s on average) while Houston attempted 47. It doesn’t get any better than that for 3-point defense.

Here is a great example.

The Rockets have also started to show glimpses of last year’s offensive juggernaut over the past few games, scoring 123.5 points per 100 possessions (good for first in that span). What’s changed? Literally nothing except getting James Harden healthy and the team making shots. Prior to Houston’s four-game winning streak, they were shooting 34.0% on threes, good for 24th in the league. During Houston’s streak, they are shooting 38.8% which is good for sixth in the league. The number of wide open and open attempts are still the same. Houston functionally looks like the same basketball team it did a month ago, but with made jumpers and healthy bodies.

Another major change Houston’s made to help establish its burgeoning identity is shortening the rotation and establishing clear roles. Of the nine players used (James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker, James Ennis, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, Gary Clark, and Isaiah Hartenstein), seven played a major part in last year’s basketball team and have very good ideas of where they stand within their roles. The other two - Gary Clark and Isaiah Hartenstein - have caught on quickly as to what it takes to be a role player for the Rockets.

The talk of the town has been Gary Clark and rightfully so. The 24-year-old rookie out of the University of Cincinnati has been nothing short of a revelation for Houston. Clark’s tenacity has allowed the Rockets to be a facsimile of what they were last year defensively. Although he’s still coming along as an offensive player, he’s been good enough on defense for Mike D’Antoni to play him major minutes despite his shortcomings (and his rookie status). It’s also no secret that Clark’s emergence made it much easier for Houston to part ways with forward Carmelo Anthony. He also seems to have a good head on his shoulders.

As for Isaiah Hartenstein, he may not be a very good offensive player right now but the man just hustles on both ends of the court. Offensively, he’s an active screen setter who loves to clobber the offensive glass and dive for loose balls. And defensively, he’s good enough laterally to not be a complete liability in Houston’s switching scheme. Even though he’s struggling to finish around the rim right now, he just understands his role.

So what are the Rockets? Are they a good team again or is this just a good stretch for them? The truth is it’s way too early to tell and they don’t have a fully-formed identity yet, but they’re certainly headed in the right direction.

 

Deshaun Watson takes his act to New York. Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Texans Saturday play a lousy 4-9 Jets team Saturday now without its leading rusher (Isaiah Crowell) and leading pass catcher (Quincy Enunwa). Then they face a probably Carson Wentz-less Eagles team seeing its Super Bowl championship defense die away. Then the awful Jaguars come to Houston. 12-4 is right there for the Texans, but that will only be enough for the number three seed in the AFC and a Wild Card weekend home game unless the fading Steelers rise up Sunday to knock off the Patriots. That game is in Pittsburgh. The Patriots' final two games are both at home against the Bills and Jets.

With the Patriots losing their game to the Miami Miracle, on one hand you can say the Texans blew a massive opportunity in losing at home to the Colts. On the other hand the Colts were clearly the better team in ending the Texans' nine game winning streak.

The loss to Indy was a reality check. The Texans are a pretty good team, but glaring areas of weakness keep it from being a reeeeally good team. The offensive line is flat lousy in pass protection, though sometimes Deshaun Watson makes it look even worse by holding on to the ball too long. Pending free agent moves in the offseason, one of the Texans' top two draft picks next spring MUST be spent on an offensive lineman, the other on a cornerback (if not on another o-lineman). Even in their zone-heavy scheme, the Texans lack corners who run well enough. If the pass rush isn't raising hell, the secondary is Swiss cheesy. Remember, the Texans have an extra second pick this spring, acquired from Seattle in last year's Duane Brown trade.

If somehow the Texans chump up two of their remaining three games, as long as one of the losses isn't to the Jaguars they still win the AFC South even if the Titans or Colts win out.

Coogs' house

None of the Phi Slama Jama era Houston Cougar basketball teams started a season better than 5-0. Sunday Kelvin Sampson's Coogs go for a Bo Derek (perfect 10, anybody remember Bo?) start. Only UH team ever to open 10-0: the Elvin Hayes-led '67-'68 squad that went 31-0 and along the way beat UCLA in the Game of the Century before the Bruins obliterated the Cougars at the Final Four.

The new Fertitta Center is a modest-sized gem, and currently offers the hands down best sports environment in town. Non-Cougars are never going to embrace UH in big numbers especially not in a major league sports town, so UH's "For the City" slogan doesn't hit the mark. But so what? Drawing more of the Cougar base, plus any outside of it who might have some interest piqued by intensely played quality college basketball is good enough.

Rockets rumors

The Rockets have been vastly less excitement-inducing this season, though James Harden's closing brilliance in a 50 point explosion Thursday night to put away the Lakers was a doozy. Getting back to and then over ,500 is the Rockets' near term goal. A good month of sustained quality play is needed to restore credibility. Chris Paul's overall level of play remains a serious concern. The rumor this week of their interest in Cleveland malcontent J.R. Smith, egads! That would render Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey Desperate Daryl. Morey is trying to recover from his awful offseason, but I can't believe he sees J.R. Smith as worthwhile.

Speaking of Morey's offseason work, the Rockets Saturday gain the right to trade Carmelo Anthony. What a bonanza must await in return!

Astros still armed

Not a great look for the Astros that they tugged on their purse strings while the Tampa Bay Rays of all teams guaranteed Charlie Morton $30 million dollars over the next two years. The Astros did not err. Morton was on balance outstanding in his two Astro seasons but he wore down badly this year, and at 35 years old his arm is a ticking bomb. The Astros should add an established starting pitcher, but even if Jeff Luhnow doesn't, the Collin McHugh/Brad Peacock/Josh James/Framber Valdez quartet isn't an indefensible plan to cover three rotation spots while waiting on elite prospect Forrest Whitley's arrival during the 2019 season. If poor performance/injuries are issues, nothing precludes a notable in-season trade. That Verlander fellow worked out okay a couple of seasons ago. A left handed hitter is the obvious other logical Astros' target.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Pipe down Tony La Russa. Harold Baines making the Baseball Hall of Fame is ridiculous. 2. La Russa also used to lambaste those who dared to believe that Mark McGwire might have been a steroid guy. 3. Best teams in the AFC: Bronze-Patriots Silver-Chargers Gold-Chiefs (but barely post-loser Kareem Hunt).

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