The beginning of the season hasn’t exactly gone as planned for the Houston Rockets. Here are five takeaways from the first 25 games.
Frustrating. That’s the first word that comes to mind when thinking about the Houston Rockets season thus far.
The team’s roster hasn’t been healthy for most of the season. The new pieces Houston added don’t quite fit like a glove. Eric Gordon and Gerald Green have been completely cold from 3-point range for long periods of time. Chris Paul hasn’t consistently looked like himself. The Rockets’ defense can’t stop anyone.
Over the last 11 games, the Rockets have played the Kings, Cavaliers, Wizards, Spurs, Bulls, Timberwolves and Jazz, and they saw Dallas and Detroit twice each. Of those teams, only the Mavs and Pistons would qualify for the playoffs if the postseason ended after their matchups with Houston. Even against average and below average teams, the Rockets won just four of those 11 games.
The Rockets have also struggled during key moments in games this season. In clutch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the game with the score within five points, the Rockets are just 5-6. They’ve shot just 21.6 percent from the 3-point line in the clutch, and have just 13 assists compared to 11 turnovers.
This season has indeed been very frustrating and we’ve learned quite a bit about the Rockets over the first 25 games. Here are five takeaways from Houston’s season so far.
Next: No. 5
5. Defense still wins championships
The old sports adage, “defense wins championships” is still true. Offense, particularly in the NBA, is growing more and more important, but it’s hard to win games when Houston is allowing opponents to score so easily.
The Rockets are just 25th in defensive rating this year. They’re the worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA and they’re giving up 14.1 second chance points per game, which is just 22nd in the league.
Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute definitely hurt Houston’s defense and their switching scheme is now much less effective. Nene has also appeared in only four games, leaving Capela as the only rim-protector on the team for most of the season. As a result, Houston’s defense usually took a nose-dive whenever Capela left the floor and the Rockets played small.
Last season, the Rockets finished 7th in the league in defensive rating, which certainly helped them on their way to 65 wins. Houston can certainly improve on their 25th rated defense this year, but it’s hard to see how they’ll crack the top seven again. They just don’t have the same personnel.
Next: No. 4
4. Houston’s new acquisitions haven’t fit in
The Rockets tried to make up for Ariza and Mbah a Moute’s departures by making a trade and signing a few free agents, but those guys haven’t made much of a difference.
James Ennis, who is Ariza’s replacement at the small forward position, should probably be a rotational player and not a starter. The Rockets are being out scored by 5 points per 100 possessions when Ennis is on the floor, and he tends to pick up a lot of avoidable fouls.
Michal Carter-Williams and Marquese Chriss were supposed to bring some youthful energy to this veteran team, but neither player has received many minutes in recent weeks.
MCW played a lot of minutes earlier in the season when Houston was plagued by injuries and he played himself right into a bench warmer’s role. The former Rookie of the Year winner is shooting just 40.4 percent from the floor (which is somehow way higher than his field goal percentage from last year) and his defense has been absolutely horrendous. Not to mention, the Rockets have been out scored by 19.7 points per 100 possessions when Carter-Williams is on the floor.
Chriss has only appeared in 9 games for a grand total of 53 minutes this season, so we haven’t seen much from him. However, in that time the Rockets have been out scored by 22 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor, so it’s easy to see why he hasn’t played much.
Gary Clark and Danuel House Jr., who both started with Houston on a two-way contract, have both given the Rockets what you would expect from two players that were undrafted and have very little NBA experience. Clark’s defense won him a spot on Houston’s roster, but he is averaging just 3.4 points on 28.9 percent shooting this season, so he isn’t an offensive powerhouse. Danuel House is averaging 7 points a game, but he’s shooting just 25 percent from 3-point range and the Rockets are giving up 115.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, so his defense is less than stellar.
The Rockets acquired Brandon Knight in their trade with Phoenix, but the combo guard has yet to play as he recovers from a torn ACL. Knight did play well in a recent appearance for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Houston’s G-League affiliate, so he is close to returning. However, Knight hasn’t played in the NBA since February 15, 2017, which is a long time to be off for an athlete. To make matters worse, Knight averaged career lows in minutes, points, field goal percentage and assists in the 2016-17 season. In summary, it’s unlikely that Knight’s return will have a major impact on Houston’s season.
Last but not least, Carmelo Anthony, Houston’s most notable offseason acquisition, parted ways with the team after just 10 games. Anthony averaged 13.4 points on 40.5 percent shooting during his short tenure with Houston. The Rockets were out scored by 9 points per 100 possessions when Anthony was on the floor, which is probably the main reason the Rockets split with him so soon. As Daryl Morey recently explained, he just didn’t fit in well with the team.
Although, since Melo was just on a minimum contract, I wish the Rockets would’ve kept Anthony and cut Michael Carter-Williams. Anthony can still score 20 points on a given night and help any team win a game, whereas MCW doesn’t excel in many categories on the basketball floor. Melo wasn’t a perfect fit and there are some nights where he shouldn’t play much, but there’s no doubt he could contribute more than Carter-Williams.
Next: No. 3
3. This could be the start of Chris Paul’s decline
After signing a massive contract over the offseason, Chris Paul’s production has been disappointing this season. He’s averaging just 16.7 points per game, a decline from his 18.6 scoring average last season. His field goal percentage and 3-point percentage are down and he’s averaging exactly one turnover per game more than he did last season. Paul is even struggling from the free throw line, shooting just 77.8 percent after averaging at least 89.2 percent from the charity stripe over the previous four seasons.
Paul missed a few games earlier in the year as he dealt with that pesky hamstring of his, but he’s actually been much healthier to start this season than last season. Everyone expected Paul to take a step forward coming into his second year with Houston, not a step back.
Don’t get me wrong, the Rockets are still better with Paul on the floor than on the bench. Paul has the fifth highest net rating on the team, even higher than James Harden. The Rockets are also much better defensively when Paul is on the floor, which has been the trend for whichever team he’s been on for his entire career. Houston is 0-5 in games without Paul and 11-9 with him on the floor.
However, Paul just hasn’t been able to take over games in the same way that he has in the past. He’s averaging a career low in free throw attempts and he hasn’t burned defenders in one-on-one situations as consistently as we saw last season.
Is Paul declining or is he just in a rut? Quite frankly, it’s hard to say and might be too early in the season to make an accurate assessment. But Paul is 33 years old and he’ll be turning 34 in May. As far as being a star, Paul’s window is starting to close, so the Rockets need to capitalize on Paul’s time here while they can.
Next: No. 2
2. The Rockets need to make some moves before the trade deadline
This current Rockets team is not as deep as the team they had last season. At this point in time, it’s hard to imagine this current roster returning to the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets need to make some changes and they know it.
Last Friday, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the Rockets were looking to move Brandon Knight. The team also went after Jimmy Butler and showed they were willing to split with Eric Gordon and/or several first-round draft picks for the right player.
The Washington Wizards are just 11-15 this season, although they have played better in recent weeks. Earlier in the season, the Wizards made every player on their roster, including John Wall and Bradley Beal, available for trade negotiations. Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre and Bradley Beal are all players that could help the Rockets improve.
The Suns are also shopping Trevor Ariza in trade talks and the Rockets could definitely use his services again. As the season goes on and the trade deadline approaches, more players should become available. The Rockets need to jump on those opportunities and take chances if necessary to improve this team.
Next: No. 1
1. The Rockets still have time to turn the season around
One good thing about the NBA is that the seasons are long. Houston has already played 25 games, but they aren’t even a third of the way through the year.
The Houston Rockets still have 57 games left to play and that’s more than enough time to turn this season around. Houston is the 14th team in the Western Conference, but they’re just 6 games back from the first seed. To put that into perspective, the Warriors finished with the second best record in the Western Conference last year, but they were seven games behind the Rockets.
Houston is also just 2.5 games behind the eighth seed. A five or six game win streak could put Houston right back in the thick of things, and if they can get hot over the next 20 games or so, they can really rise in the standings.
Houston still has a window to make this season a success, but the longer they struggle, the smaller that window gets. James Harden and Chris Paul have to step up as leaders and rally this team behind them now. Houston’s biggest obstacle at the moment is none other than themselves.