The Houston Rockets were expected to turn a corner into true championship contention this NBA season.
After an impressive 56-win season that saw them make it to the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets were considered a true challenger to the Warriors, especially after adding point guard Ty Lawson.
Instead, through 26 games, the Rockets are a far cry from their preseason expectations.
At 12-14, the Rockets still sit in seventh place in the Western Conference, but their play has been uninspiring, borderline saddening.
Seven of the Rockets’ 12 wins have come against teams under .500. There’s an argument that those are games the Rockets should win and rightfully did, their losses are more troubling — they have dropped seven games to teams under .500. According to ESPN, the Rockets have had the easiest schedule in the league.
This is a team that got its longtime head coach, Kevin McHale, fired 11 games into the season — a move that many agreed was because of Houston’s lacklustre effort, not tactical missteps. Things haven’t gotten much better under new coach J.B. Bickerstaff. They’re 8-7 and have only beaten one team above .500 during this stretch.
A team with James Harden, last year’s scoring champion, is 14th in offensive rating, while they’re just 27th in defensive rating despite being anchored by Dwight Howard. In general, this is a star pairing that should be producing better results. Instead, something appears to be off with both of them, and it’s affected the whole team.
After a near-MVP season last year, Harden has been uninspiring. Yes, he’s averaging 29 points per game, but he’s doing it while shooting just 42% from the field and 34% from three. Harden isolates on offence more than any player in the league, but shoots a far lower percentage on isolation shots than the next closest players, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
Moreover, Harden has regressed as a defender. Last year, after making noticeable improvements to his attentiveness and effort on defence, Harden has turned back into a ball-watcher who flat-out gives up on plays. With Harden on the floor, the Rockets’ defensive rating gets worse. When he’s on the bench, the Rockets’ defensive rating improves by six points!
Plays like this are inexcusable:
Harden doesn’t have to be Houston’s best defender, given his burden on offence, but effort like that doesn’t inspire anyone.
Howard, meanwhile, is one of the NBA’s great mysteries. When healthy, he’s a force on both ends of the floor. While injuries undoubtedly affect his impact on the game, Howard seems both disillusioned and discontented.
Howard is reportedly unhappy with his role in Houston, which has led to speculation that the Rockets will look to trade him before he has a chance to opt out and become a free agent this summer. USA Today’s Sam Amick said Howard is likely to opt out for financial reasons, but the Rockets aren’t considering trading him.
Howard shot down the report about his unhappiness and the Rockets shot down the idea that they would trade him. ESPN’s Calvin Watkins paints a dimmer picture:
A source on Dwight Howard being unhappy: “Everybody is unhappy.”
— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) December 15, 2015
Even if the idea that Howard is unhappy is exaggerated, it wouldn’t be the first time Howard felt he should have a different role. During Howard’s stint with the Lakers, he reportedly didn’t want to buy into Mike D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll-heavy system, insisting he needed post-ups.
The Rockets, at times, have catered to this desire, despite Dwight being a poor post player. According to NBA.com/Stats, Howard is 22nd in the NBA in post-up possessions, which he goes to 28.9% of his possessions. He averages just .7 points per possession on post-ups, second-worst among those 22 players, meaning he’s scoring on only slightly more than one-third of his post-up attempts.
Meanwhile, Howard averages 1.03 points per possession as a pick-and-roll roll man, which makes up 13% of his possessions. He has only 36 plays as a roll man, compared to 77 post-ups. Some of this can be blamed on Houston’s play-calling, but it’s also a reflection of Howard’s unwillingness — as he has proven in the past — to focus on his better skills, even if it means playing a different style.
Worsening matters, the Rockets’ big trade for Ty Lawson looks like a disaster so far. Though Lawson was dealing with two DUIs when he was traded to Houston, the belief was that Lawson would thrive on a contender in a new setting. Instead, Lawson’s minutes have decreased by the month, currently averaging 19 minutes per game in December. He’s shooting just 33.5% from the field and has a -5.9 net rating on the court, third-worst among regular rotation players.
This all adds up to an underwhelming mess of personalities and lacklustre play. The Rockets play uninspired, largely joyless basketball. Harden’s worst traits have resurfaced; Howard is, if not actually unhappy, dealing with swirling off-court rumours; and the Rockets’ biggest offseason acquisition makes the team worse.
These things could turn around, particularly because Houston is such a deep, talented team. Currently, though, the situation looks bleak, and finding an answer to any of these problems seems complicated.
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