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Houston Rockets: Bickerstaff Rotations Are Major Issue

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Immediately after the Houston Rockets surprising road loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff most likely angered by a previous referees no-call on a clear foul on James Harden, blasted his players attitude as well as misplaced priorities and disrespect for the game.

Once again after Atlanta Hawks game at home, the Rockets displayed the same sloppy basketball that led them to another loss.

While many fans and critics lauded Bickerstaff’s attitude holding the players accountable for the loss and calling for improvement, which at worst is refreshing, considering his predecessor Kevin McHale just didn’t have it in his style; some of us were left wondering about a couple issues in his statement.

First: Who exactly was he referring to?

Second:  What if the Rockets had knocked down the last game possession and won the game?

Third: How the players will respond to Bickerstaff’s comments in the long run?

Whereas I can’t fault J.B. for trying all he can to hold his job down the line, I don’t feel this is a team that reacts well to criticism, but most importantly I take Bickerstaff’s comments with a pinch of salt when looking back at some of his decisions and plays over the last month.

Despite everything that’s been said a lot of elements point to the fact that either Bickerstaff has no idea what he is doing, or he is desperately trying everything until finding something that works. There is a problem with the last assumption as it seems that when J.B. finds something that works but that doesn’t function in the next game for some reason, he reverts back to something else.

Summing up: I’d say that when you look at some aspects of the Rockets rotation, it becomes hard to advocate in Bickerstaff’s favor.

We’ll get to that in a minute, but first there are two things that also need to be addressed:

  • I know it seems a vast improvement since the Rockets swapped McHale for Bickerstaff, but despite what the numbers says, on court the Rockets keep playing the same “ugly basketball” that has already been referred to even by Bickerstaff. Take a look below at some revealing wins and losses by both coaches:

Kevin McHale – Record: 4 W 7 L

Key Wins: Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers

Key Losses: Denver Nuggets (twice), Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics

J.B. Bickerstaff – Record: 12 W 10 L

Key Wins: Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks

Key Losses: Denver Nuggets, Brooklyn Nets, New Orleans Pelicans

What I’m trying to highlight here is that the Rockets were already able to win big games with McHale and while an improvement with Bickerstaff is undeniable, the incomprehensible losses remains.

And while I feel safe to say now that the Rockets could win or lose to any team at any given night, this also paints the picture of an unreliable team. Against the Atlanta Hawks for example, the Rockets lost after dropping a 19 point lead at home.

There is absolutely no reason for the Rockets to drop 5 games to the Nuggets and the Nets, no matter who the coach is.

  • Bickerstaff sems to have no problem calling out his players but for some reason is unable to call his timeouts. In the Rockets last two road defeats (Orlando Magic and New Orleans Pelicans) the team wasn’t even able to inbound the ball for a last possession.

This has to fall under Bickertaffs’s authority. Even though many have said that the inbounder (Trevor Ariza) clearly must know better than to throw the ball to Dwight Howard in the three-point line with 1 second remaining on the clock, the main problem was the lack of movement.

The call was so blatantly pathetic that even New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday had a comment about it:

"“They threw it into Dwight, If he’s going to make the shot, we were supposed to lose.”"

The team goes to the last possession having absolutely no idea what to do, no screens, no runs and everyone waiting for James Harden to get unmarked – magically?

Still Bickerstaff refused to call for a timeout despite having one to spare – twice.

That all leads us to the main point here: Rotations – We’ll start by reviewing the most flagrant case: Marcus Thornton.

The curious case of Marcus Thornton’s minutes

Marcus Thornton arrived in Houston in the beginning of the season and wasn’t expected to get much playing time. However, due to great exhibitions and a reliable three-point shot, Thornton forced his way into the Rockets rotation and for a small period time he was even a starter.

After the Pelicans loss Marcus Thornton expressed frustration for not having a definite role or what to expect for most games. Thornton played in the fourth quarter against the Pels after coming off a DNP-CD in the Spurs game.

But if you take Thornton’s last month that’s when it gets scarier, take a look at his minutes this December:

Marcus Thornton Playing Time December
Marcus Thornton Playing Time December

It’s just all over the place. And it doesn’t seem to have any reasons for that.

I understand J.B. trying to figure out what works and then experimenting and adapting to get there.

But, shouldn’t he know by now who Thornton plays well with and how much time he should get each game?

For a player – especially a veteran – to have that much inconsistency is worrying as they expect some sort of stability at this point of their careers.

Moving on.

Who’s the backup Power Forward? Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas?

Here’s where Bickerstaff must make a decision fast as this might affect trades and future deals.

Although currently there might be room for both with them sharing the center position due to Clint Capela’s unexpected rise to the starting lineup, TJ’s recent spark coming from the bench seems to have relegated Donatas Motiejunas deep in the rotation.

Take a look at a comparison of both players’ minutes over the last 10 games (not counting the Hawks game as TJ was ruled out due to a illness):

TJ and DeMo Playing Time
TJ and DeMo Playing Time

From the looks of it, it seems Terrence Jones may have won the battle against D-Mo. The problem however lies in the fact that TJ started to eat up Motiejunas minutes when Jones started scoring and having overall better performances. What’s troublesome is if Jones starts going in a slump and Bickerstaff reverts back to Motiejunas.

There’s no player that could perform well in this sort of erratic environment. It already happened with D-Mo, after he played 23 minutes against the Hornets and scored just 6 points on a 2-of-7 shooting percentage he got buried deep in the bench.

I have trouble presuming the same won’t happen with Terrence Jones in the future.

Last but not least:

Does Corey Brewer deserves consistent minutes?

I believe this is a trend that might have started changing last game, but take a look at Corey Brewer’s last 11 games in terms of minutes versus production:

Corey Brewer Stats
Corey Brewer Stats

A lot of articles and post games have delved into this matter debating the reasons Brewer is perhaps not the same player as he was last season but is still getting about the same minutes.

There are five undeniable facts for me or my high-five if you will:

More from Space City Scoop

One thing that looks clear to me is that Brewer of all the players debated here, is the one that should have to earn his minutes nightly, but despite that he still looks to be almost untouchable in the Bickerstaff’s rotation.

Two: I believe that until J.B Bickerstaff figures out exactly who is playing every night and gives them consistent minutes all he is doing is giving fans and pundits a greater belief he is winging it.

Three: It’s as important for the team to have Harden reduce his ISO plays and stop playing hero ball, as it is for him to have a reliable, competent scorer by his side that can contribute with wins.

Four: And whereas accountability and sharing the responsibility with the players is commendable, the Rockets head coach must also take a step back, look into numbers, minutes and evaluate his squad top to bottom trying to understand if his priorities perhaps are not misplaced as well.

Five: The bottom line is the teams who do well, know exactly what each players role is. Based on the up and down nature of the team, coaching staff and players comments it appears this is an area requiring clarification as well.

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