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A Closer Look at the Rockets’ Recent Struggles

Jan 17, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts to a call during the second half against Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 109-103. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 17, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts to a call during the second half against Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 109-103. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
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The Houston Rockets have the fourth best record in the NBA, but have struggled significantly over the past few weeks. Things will have to change before playoffs if the team is to avoid a disappointing first round exit.

Before we look at how poorly the Houston Rockets have played over the past three weeks or so, let’s remember how dominant they were in December. During the last month of 2016, Houston was the winningest team in the NBA, only losing twice. They scored more than anybody, putting up over 120 points per game, and were a top 5 team in rebounds, steals, and assists per game.

Surprisingly enough, given their reputation, they weren’t bad on defense either. In a season where they weren’t expected to pay defense any mind, they finished December with the 6th best defensive rating.

To cap off 2016, James Harden put up 53 points, 17 assists, and 16 rebounds in a win against the New York Knicks on New Years’ Eve. Heading into 2017, it looked as if the Rockets were a real contender.

Fast forward 35 days, and fans are starting to have their doubts. Since their second winning streak of nine games or more ended on January 11th, the Rockets haven’t looked like the same team. They’ve regressed in nearly every statistic since December’s stunning output. There have been times when the team has looked eerily similar to last year’s 41-41 squad, losing games due to lack of effort.

Any Rockets fan could tell something has been off, but I did some research to see just how bad things have been.

Assessing Current Struggles

First off, over the past 15 games, Houston has had the 17th best record in the league. Had the season started on January 10th (the last day of the nine game winning streak), the Rockets would be sitting at the 10th seed in the Western Conference. Teams ahead of them during this stretch include, but are not limited to, the Dallas Mavericks, the Denver Nuggets, the Detroit Pistons, and should-be-struggling-but-have-won-10-straight Miami Heat.

One could blame the current rut on many things, but truthfully, the Rockets just haven’t played well. It’s not always clear to the naked eye when a team isn’t working cohesively, but the statistics are fairly damning.

The Beard and company have been tossing up over 40 threes per game, a league high by a large margin. However, they’ve only connected on about 33% of them over the past 15 games, low enough for 28th in the NBA during that stretch. Perhaps it just so happens that the shots haven’t been falling, but there could be more to the story.

James Harden’s always been an elite offensive talent, but the difference this year is his willingness to pass up shots to find the open man. However, that attitude hasn’t been quite as prevalent as of late. In December, the Beard was 13th in the NBA in field goal attempts per game despite placing in the top 5 in usage rate. Conversely, over the past 15 games, he’s been 7th in field goal attempts. He’s been even more trigger-happy over the past 5 games, ranking 4th in the league in shots taken.

Because he’s been shooting more, Harden hasn’t been creating for his teammates as often as he did earlier this year. There are times when he passes up an opportunity to create, settling for a contested triple early in the shot clock.

The play below is something that didn’t happen often during the first quarter of the season. Lately, however, it’s been a staple of Houston’s offense, just like last year. Had Harden been seeking opportunities for his teammates more often, setting up good looks, the team as a whole could have shot the ball more accurately.

In addition to shooting the ball poorly, the Houston Rockets’ rebounding has taken a nose dive. Despite not having an elite rebounder on the roster, Houston finished December at 3rd in boards per game. Their effort and insistence on fundamental box-outs made them an elite rebounding team.

As has become usual, it’s been a different story over the past three weeks or so. The Rockets have gotten complacent on the boards, opting to leak out for a fast break or simply watch the opponent grab rebounds. The consequences for their lack of effort are that they’ve been a bottom 5 rebounding team over the past 15 games.

A perfect example of this issue was the contest against the Atlanta Hawks last week. They allowed Dwight Howard to come away with 23 rebounds in his first trip back to Houston. In the play below, notice how little effort every Houston player gives to rebounding. Nene, the man supposed to be keeping Dwight off the glass, turns to run downcourt as the shot goes up, allowing three Hawks to be in perfect position. This has become commonplace.

When it comes down to it, laziness is the cause of most of the Rockets’ current struggles. They simply haven’t been trying as hard as they were before, and the loss column has been growing accordingly.

Looking Ahead

There might be no team that benefits more from the All-Star break than the Houston Rockets. It could serve as a time out on the season. When a team is playing poorly during a game and lets a lead slip, the coach will usually call a time out. They’ll talk things over, catch their breath, and even out the momentum. The All-Star break has the potential to be that same thing for Houston, only on a larger scale.

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The good news about the Rockets’ recent struggles is that they still hold the 3rd seed in the West by a large margin. They sit 3.5 games ahead of the Utah Jazz, who recently passed up the Los Angeles Clippers. This makes the gap between the 3rd and 4th seed larger than the gap between the 4th and 7th seed.

Houston’s upcoming schedule could also work to their advantage in stopping the skid. The next time the team plays a playoff-seeded team is on February 27th, when they take on the Indiana Pacers.

Their schedule this month is easier than just about anybody’s and they’ll play the large majority of games at home. So far, the Rockets have played the most difficult schedule in the league, but it will even out eventually.

Because there’ll be so many chances to bounce back, it’s not time to panic for Rockets fans yet. As long as they peak at the right time, it won’t matter much how January and February played out. Teams determine their playoff seeding throughout the season, but playoff success depends on how they play in April and May.

Next: Yao's Legacy in Houston

The season that the Houston Rockets are having exceeds every expectation, despite the current struggles. They’ll be in position to fight for a championship this postseason as long as they right the ship this month. Nobody, not even the most optimistic of fans, predicted the Rockets be where they are now.

Stats are courtesy of nba.com and espn.com.  Standings are accurate as of Saturday, February 4th, 2017.

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