It has been a season from hell for the Houston Rockets. A team expected to contend for a championship has been below .500 since Opening Night. They have already fired their head coach and even that hasn’t really lit a fire under some of their players. Their main offseason acquisition has backfired spectacularly and there has been a litany of embarrassing losses. It has gotten to the point where the entire philosophy of the franchise is in question even though they won 56 games and made the Western Conference Finals a season ago.
From the outside looking in, it’s hard to fathom what has gone wrong and how things have gotten to this point. Yet, for all the doom and gloom surrounding the team, their 10-11 record has them at No. 8 in the West and they are only 2 games of the No. 3 seed. I got a chance to watch them up and close and personal when they came into Dallas on Friday, and caught their narrow win over the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, and in those games I saw a few glimmers of hope for a franchise that desperately needs them.
1.) Patrick Beverley is knocking down 3’s: Beverley started the season on the bench and then missed a chunk of games with an ankle injury. They have been 5-1 since he returned to the starting line-up and they have found some of their identity from last season by putting two hard-nosed defenders who can space the floor around Harden. Beverley has been the Rockets heart and soul ever since emerging from obscurity in Europe to become one of the best defensive PG’s in the NBA - he sets the tone defensively and he brings toughness and grit they desperately need. The key with him is his three-point shooting and he’s 12-21 over the last 6 games.
2.) Splitting up Harden and Lawson: Beverley’s return is important not just for what he brings but because it minimizes the disastrous pairing of Harden and Lawson. Neither guy could get into any type of rhythm playing with the other and they seemed to be in a competition to see who could take worse shots off the dribble and who could give less effort on defense. They both need the ball in their hands and need to be hidden on defense so it’s not a huge surprise they have a net rating of -5.3 together (as opposed to +3.8 for Harden and Beverley).
3.) Donatas Motiejunas: The 7’0 Lithuanian made his return to the floor on Saturday after missing the last eight months with a back injury. He’s not going to save the season by himself but his skill-set and his ability to stretch the floor from the three-point line is exactly what this team needs. He should be a good complement to the three other big men in the Rockets rotation - Dwight Howard, Clint Capela and Terrence Jones - all of whom are most effective playing in max space and operating in the paint.
4.) No Montrezl Harrell: The return of Donatas effectively removes Harrell from the rotation, which couldn’t come soon enough. The Louisville rookie’s energy was a pleasant surprise the first few weeks of the season but the book on him is out around the league and he has just been killing the Rockets. He can’t space the floor and he has no idea how to play acceptable NBA defense, which is a deadly combination for a big man in the modern NBA. Houston’s offensive rating is 4.9 points better without him on the floor and their defensive rating is 14.2 points worse when he is. Not playing a guy with a net rating of -19.3 is a pretty easy way of improving a team.
5.) The Howard + Capela combination: The Rockets busted out a starting line-up featuring both C’s in their win over the Kings and it looked pretty good. One way to improve the defense is to flood the court with length, athleticism and shot-blocking and that’s what those two guys can do. Capela is quick enough to guard on the perimeter and he might have just enough passing and cutting ability to make the tight spacing upfront work on offense for limited stretches. Playing those two together could be the Rockets twist on the Derrick Favors + Rudy Gobert tandem except they have two stretch big men to bring off the bench to prevent teams from packing the paint for all 48 minutes.
6.) I still believe in Terrence Jones: Jones has had a really tough start to the season and he has never been able to put it all together in Houston but he still has a very interesting combination of skills and he’s coming off two strong games against Dallas (17 and 9 on 12 shots) and Sacramento (16 and 5 on 9 shots). A lot like what happened with Victor Oladipo in Orlando, losing his starting spot could be the best thing to happen to Jones in terms of jolting him out of any sense of complacency. His skill-set means he could fit with any of the other 3 big men and even play as a small-ball 5 so he will get plenty of opportunities even if he is coming off the bench.
7.) Whither KJ McDaniels? One of the oddest things about the Rockets difficult start is that it still hasn’t removed the glue from McDaniels spot on the bench with both Kevin McHale and JB Bickerstaff even though the front office gave him a 3-year, $10 million contract in the offseason. McDaniels ability to guard multiple positions on the perimeter and protect the rim seems like the perfect fit for the modern NBA and it’s not like the guys ahead of him have been playing well. Corey Brewer is shooting 22% from 3 and he has a net rating of -16.3 on the season - putting just about anyone in his spot would improve the team and at some point the Rockets have to see what they have in McDaniels.
8.) Professional pride: Harden has (rightly) gotten a lot of the blame for the Rockets poor start as he seemed to come into the season out of shape and his defensive effort has been downright embarrassing. He might want to front in his commercials that he doesn’t care about his reputation** but anyone getting paid $200 million by a shoe company has a lot of reasons to care. He knows he can’t be a superstar and miss the playoffs and he’s capable of playing better than he has shown on defense. You have to think at some point he’s going to buckle down and the same can be said for the rest of the team - there’s no reason for a team with this much length and athleticism to be playing defense this poorly and they all know their reputations (and their money) is on the line if this continues all season.
** That’s an easy thing for a lot of NBA stars to claim but they all check social media and they are all up on what people say about them. You know who actually doesn’t care? Tim Duncan. You know why we know that? Because he’s not constantly on our TV’s trying to leverage his image in order to get us to buy overpriced garbage that we do not need.
9.) All these guys are in their prime: Harden is 26. Howard and Ariza are 30. Brewer is 29. Lawson is 28. Beverley is 27. Motiejunas is 26. Jones is 24. They didn’t all get old over the summer and they didn’t all forget how to play basketball. It kind of feels like they had the championship hangover (especially with Harden dating a Kardashian and hanging out in LA all summer) while the Warriors came back hungrier than ever. That’s obviously not ideal but they have received a cold slap of reality from the rest of the league when it comes to thinking they could win on talent alone. The good news is there’s still time for them to get it together.
10.) The middle of the West has fallen back: The Warriors and the Spurs have lapped the field and only 3.5 games separate No. 3 from No. 11. At the moment, the only team in the middle of the pack that looks capable of pulling away are the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have a +5.5 point differential and a healthy Kevin Durant. Age has caught up to the Memphis Grizzlies a bit, the Los Angeles Clippers are barely playing better than the Rockets, Rudy Gobert is out indefinitely and the two highest paid players on the Dallas Mavericks - Wesley Matthews and Chandler Parsons - are shadows of themselves as they come back from offseason surgeries. None of those teams has a point differential higher than +1.4 and the Rockets are one hot streak away from being a Top 4 seed out West.
Houston isn’t as good as people thought they would be coming into the season and they aren’t as bad as they have played in the first month. It’s just hard for me to believe a team with this much talent and with a first-team All-NBA guard in the prime of his career is going to miss the playoffs, no matter what the numbers say. And once you get into the playoffs, you never know.