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Failure to Launch: The Rockets’ early season woes

James Harden of the Houston Rockets. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Expert
4th November, 2015
6

For a team that won 56 games last season and was three wins from the NBA Finals, the Houston Rockets have an uncanny habit of making atrocious basketball look like second nature at times.

When the Warriors are bad they just miss shots. When the Spurs are bad they look a little athletically overpowered. When the Thunder are bad it’s because they’re reckless. When the Lakers are bad it’s because they’re the Lakers.

There’s something different and more troubling about the Rockets when they’re off.

Any time Golden State, San Antonio or Oklahoma City struggle you can generally put it down to a statistical outlier, an athletic deficiency, or Russell Westbrook being over-competitive. When the Rockets struggle though, they look downright indifferent to playing basketball.

The offence stagnates to nothing, lazy passes sail into the crowd, careless blown defensive assignments lead to opposition layups, and Dwight Howard gets that ‘what, me?’ grin on his face after he commits a mindless foul away from the ball. For a team that hasn’t won anything since The X-Files was just starting to become popular, the Rockets carry themselves with a remarkable sense of entitlement.

Houston just became the first team in NBA history to open the season with three consecutive losses by at least 20 points. The loss to Golden State was understandable, if only because it’s starting to seem like Stephen Curry is going to find the cure to cancer before the end of this season, such is the halo over his head right now.

Losing by 20 points at home to Denver on a night Emmanuel Mudiay had 11 turnovers was not ‘understandable’ though, and neither was getting outscored 65-26 in the second half against Miami.

The Rockets righted the ship somewhat with an exciting win over Oklahoma City, a victory that saw MVP runner-up James Harden get back on track with 37 points. Through the first three games Harden was shooting 12 for 54 from the field and 3 for 32 from deep, an efficiency level that most of Texas’s homeless population could probably eclipse if given a pair of sneakers.

While reassuring, Houston’s first victory was hardly proof that everything is going to be okay. They won the game largely because Harden hit a ludicrous step-back three and Ty Lawson drained one of the more improbable (and marvellous) fadeaway twos you’ll see.

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On one hand, Houston are so talented that they’re going to win games all season because their freakish players hit freakish shots. But it’s not meaningfully sustainable, and it gets at the heart of what has plagued this team at the start of this season and for large chunks of last season.

For a progressive organisation at the forefront of the NBA’s modern statistical revolution, the Rockets tend to devolve into early 2000s hero-ball more than you would expect.

Time and time again, the Rockets offence falls into the trap of Harden going one-on-one at the end of the shot-clock, either taking a step-back jump-shot or driving into a crowd of people and hoping for the best, like Cosmo Kramer pushing through a mess of people on the subway and hoping to emerge with a seat.

Houston had a middling offence last season, ranking 12th in the league for offensive efficiency, but there was (and still is) cause to believe that it would improve this season.

Ty Lawson’s arrival was supposed to revolutionise Houston’s stagnant offence, taking the load off Harden and addressing this team’s biggest weakness from last season, which was the lack of a secondary creator who could penetrate the paint.

It’s far too early to make any judgement on Lawson but it hasn’t looked good so far, notwithstanding a strong game against the Thunder. Philosophically, it still makes more sense to have Lawson come off the bench, with the more complementary Patrick Beverley starting, someone who doesn’t need the ball like Harden and can compensate for the Beard’s defensive shortcomings.

Houston’s other problem is that its vaunted depth – so imposing on paper that it had Zach Lowe wanting to make the Rockets his title pick – is already looking much shallower than expected.

This team really misses Josh Smith, which is a strange sentence to type in 2015. The frontcourt is already being exposed without J-Smoove. Dwight Howard can’t be counted on with his health, Clint Capela is promising but unproven, and Montrezl Harrell is cute but shouldn’t be playing 20+ minutes a game like he did against Golden State and Miami.

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Donatas Motiejunas still hasn’t been cleared to play, and despite all the noise and potential that defines him, there’s still little concrete evidence to suggest that Terrence Jones is a ‘good’ NBA player. There are a lot of names in the frontcourt rotation, but it speaks volumes that Kevin McHale was playing Corey Freaking Brewer at centre against Miami and Hassan Whiteside at stages.

Even after the Thunder victory, the Rockets have the 27th-ranked offence in the league and the 24th ranked defence. Four games into an 82-game season those stats are meaningless in one sense, but they’re illuminating in another. What they show is that Houston’s basement is still maddeningly low, much lower for a team with this talent level than it should be.

Houston will get better. Howard will play more, Harden will look more like the fifth best player in the league than the 405th, and – god willing – they won’t be starting Marcus Thornton for much longer.

But the biggest takeaway from the NBA season after its first week, along with the Warriors walking on water and the Lakers drowning in the misery of themselves, is that Houston has serious issues.

The team’s three best players are Lawson, Howard and Harden – a recovering alcoholic, an injury-prone center with a history of back and knee ailments about to turn 30, and an inconsistent star.

Harden is a bona fide superstar and one of the five to seven best basketball players on the planet – he’s not the problem here – but still questions persist about him as a leader.

As Nate Duncan regularly notes, Harden’s conditioning has never been great, and his defence will never be a strength. His playoff record is spotty at best – a debacle in the 2012 Finals and that infamous Portland series in 2014, yet phenomenal against San Antonio in the 2012 Conference Finals.

Harden’s Conference Finals last season against the Warriors was emblematic of his wider post-season resume – three transcendent performances of 28, 38 and 45 points all on above 50 per cent shooting, and two team-destroying duds of 17 and 14 points both on less than 20 per cent shooting, the latter with 12 turnovers.

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Harden is symbolic of Houston. Their best competes with anybody, but their worst is incomprehensibly bad. Inconsistency defines this team and a week into the 2015-16 season one fundamental ambiguity plagues the Rockets: are they the team that impressively came from 3-1 down to beat the Clippers in the playoffs?

Or are they the team that disgraced themselves to fall down 3-1 in the first place? Unless something significant changes, the answer is that they’re both, and in a conference with Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, that’s not going to be good enough.