The Houston Rockets have been red-hot but, like everyone else, have their share of players that are struggling. Here’s a breakdown of one player from each team in the Southwest Division that has gotten off to a rough start.
The Houston Rockets are firing on all cylinders heading into their 15th game of the season. After a dominant 132-108 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, Mike D’Antoni‘s club is now an impressive 11-3 and winners of eight straight.
James Harden has led the team to their hot start with MVP-like performances on a nightly basis while Russell Westbrook is already establishing himself as the Robin to his Batman. While the superstar backcourt can be relied upon to bring it each and every night, that hasn’t been the case for some other important players on the team.
While it’s hard to nitpick a team that’s won 11 of its first 14 games, there are always areas that can be improved for a team with championship aspirations. Of course, role players are role players for a reason. They can be inconsistent one night and on fire the next. Clint Capela is an example of someone that got off to a fairly slow start but has turned things around as of late.
While superstars are the engine that powers a team, the reliability of the “other guys” can often be the difference between being a high-seeded playoff team and an underachieving disappointment. Looking at the competition in the Southwest Division, every team has that one guy that just cannot seem to find a groove so far this season.
Whether it be due to a nagging injury, lack of motivation or just plain forgetting how to play basketball, these five guys have some work to do if they want to help their team be successful this season.
Here they are, ranked from pretty bad to worst of all, starting with number five.
Next: No. 5
5. Jae Crowder – Memphis Grizzlies
39.4 percent FG shooting 1.6 turnovers per game 9.5 points per game
Known mostly for being a utility guy that can bring toughness and intangibles, Jae Crowder had his best individual stretch as a member of the Boston Celtics from 2015-17. In Boston, Crowder put up 12.8 points per game to go along with 5.2 rebounds. His accuracy from 3-point range was also the highest he’s shot for any of his five teams so far, at 35.3 percent.
After a brief stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers and two decent seasons with the Utah Jazz, Crowder was involved in a July deal to acquire Mike Conley Jr. that sent him to the Memphis Grizzlies. In his two seasons with the Jazz, Crowder averaged 11.9 points and 4.5 rebounds on 39.6 percent shooting from the field.
As the veteran member of a young Memphis club, Crowder has had some good moments, such as the game-winning buzzer-beater he knocked down to defeat the Brooklyn Nets. As a whole, however, Jae has underperformed for the Grizzlies.
Crowder is currently hitting 39.4 percent of his overall shots. The only time he finished a season with a worse shooting percentage was his rookie season with the Dallas Mavericks, at 38.4. He’s also committing 1.9 turnovers per 36 minutes, which so far would be the worst in his eight-year career.
Since Crowder is a new addition to a young ballclub, it’s hard to fault him for starting off slowly as he learns an entirely new system, so he lands at number five on this list.
Next: No. 4
4. Jrue Holiday – New Orleans Pelicans
39.4 percent FG, 32.2 percent 3-point shooting 3.5 turnovers per game -0.8 box plus-minus
It’s not easy to put a team’s leading scorer and assist-man on this kind of list, but that says more about the state of the New Orleans Pelicans than it does for Jrue Holiday‘s season so far. The Pelicans have won two of their last three, however, are still 4-9 this season and clearly still trying to find their identity without their star Zion Williamson.
While he’s still putting up 17.7 points and dishing out 7.1 assists per game, Holiday’s efficiency has significantly dipped. Last season, Jrue shot 47.2 percent from the field, which was the second-highest shooting clip he’s averaged in his career (49.4 in 2017-18).
So far this season, the veteran guard is shooting just 39.4 percent, which is his lowest percentage by far. As the number one option on the Pelicans without Williamson, Holiday’s rough start shooting the ball is a big reason they have been unable to make much noise in the Western Conference so far.
Holiday is also shooting just 32.2 percent from the outside so far, which his down considerably from his career average of 35.4 percent. His average of 3.5 turnovers per game is also worth noting since he’s only averaged more than that one time in his 10-year career.
As New Orleans looks to stay afloat while they await the highly anticipated debut of their first overall draft pick, Jrue will need to improve his shooting and protect the ball better going forward.
Next: No. 3
3. Tim Hardaway Jr – Dallas Mavericks
35.7 percent shooting, 30.7 percent 3-point shooting -5.0 Defensive box plus-minus 11 points per game
This past January, Tim Hardaway Jr. was involved in a multiplayer deal that landed him on the Dallas Mavericks along with Trey Burke, Courtney Lee and Kristaps Porzingis. The deal would form what has become a dynamic duo so far, with the Latvian, Porzingis and Slovenian sensation Luka Doncic off to hot starts so far.
For his career, the Michigan standout has averaged 13 points per game on 41.6 percent shooting, but that went up in recent seasons. While he was a throw-in piece to make the blockbuster deal work, Hardaway Jr. joined the Mavericks after a season in which he scored 18.1 points and shot 34 percent from downtown.
After 13 games for Dallas so far, Tim hasn’t been able to find the range from beyond the arc, shooting a career-low 30.7 percent. His 35.7 percent shooting through Monday is also a career-low mark; worse than his 31.7 percent finish in 2017-18 with the New York Knicks.
On the defensive end, Hardaway hasn’t been as active as he’s been in the past, whether it be getting steals or staying in front of his man. For now, strong guard play from others on the team has made up for his rough start, but he will need to pick things up to keep playing the minutes he’s getting so far.
Next: No. 2
2. Eric Gordon – Houston Rockets
30.9 percent FG, 28.4 percent from 3, 64 percent FT, 42.2 true shooting percentage -7.7 Box plus-minus Offensive rating: 83
Anyone following the Houston Rockets early in the season is aware of Eric Gordon’s struggles. From the jump, Gordon didn’t seem like himself on both ends of the floor. While he had some strong games in the preseason, he seemed to completely lose his outside shot once the games started to count.
While for his career he has shot 42.6 percent from the field, that number has taken a dive to 30.9 percent in nine games played for the Rockets so far. Within that number lies his shooting from deep, which is equally ugly. Gordon’s 28.4 percent shooting from 3-point range is easily on pace for a career season-low when you factor out his 2011-12 campaign in which he only played nine games.
Beyond just his shooting woes, E-Money has been ineffective on defense as well, being a major part of the Rockets allowing drives to the hoop at will early on in the season.
The good news for the Rockets regarding Gordon’s terrible start is that there may be an explanation. After nine games, it was discovered that he had considerable debris in his knee that needed to be cleared. After undergoing surgery to remedy the issue, Gordon was ruled out for up to six weeks as a result.
While Eric has had slow starts to seasons before, they were never this bad. Seeing how well he’s shot in the past, he deserves the benefit of the doubt that much of his play was likely due to him not being 100 percent.
Once Gordon returns to the team in a few weeks, I would expect Gordon to show signs of his former self sooner than later.
Next: No. 1
1. Marco Belinelli – San Antonio Spurs
25.3 percent FG, 26.8 percent from 3, 31.6 effective FG percentage, 34 percent true shooting -9.1 Box plus/minus 2.4 Player efficiency rating Minutes per game: Too many
It’s tough to question one of the greatest coaches in NBA history in Gregg Popovich, but I’m not quite sure what he’s doing playing Marco Belinelli 16.9 minutes per game. Marco is having a nightmare start to the NBA season, averaging career lows in multiple categories.
The Italian has made a career of being a sharpshooter from the outside, even winning the 2014 NBA three-point contest during his first stint with the San Antonio Spurs. This season, however, he’s shooting brick after brick, and it’s costing the Spurs important close games.
Belinelli is shooting a meager 25.3 percent from the field and 26.8 percent from the outside, both career-lows. His effective field goal percentage of 31.6 and true shooting percentage of 34 are also both career-lows and it’s not even close.
If you’re thinking maybe his defense is keeping him on the court, think again. As bad as Belinelli has been on offense, he’s been equally bad or worse on that end of the floor. Marco has never been close to an elite defender, but he’s demonstrating traffic cone defense on a nightly basis against the quicker guards he’s being assigned to.
The Spurs fan community has even gone as far as to create detailed analyses of Marco’s defensive shortcomings, of which there has been a lot of this season.
What’s even more puzzling about Coach Popovich continuing to give the 14-year veteran regular minutes is the fact that the Spurs acquired the services of DeMarre Carroll and have a promising young guard in Lonnie Walker waiting in the wings. Carroll, who signed a $13 million deal with the Spurs, is playing only 9.4 minutes per game, and there is no explanation for that as far as I’ve seen.
Lonnie Walker is definitely a raw talent that needs some work to be able to see heavy minutes, but given how badly Marco and the Spurs are struggling, there’s no way he’d be a worse option at this point.
Belinelli has had his great moments with the Spurs, particularly on their “beautiful game” championship team in 2014, but so far for this season’s 5-9 squad, he’s been a disaster. If he doesn’t improve soon, San Antonio could be looking at their worst season in 20-plus years.