Thus far in the 2015-16 NBA season, it's difficult to call the Houston Rockets anything other than disappointing.
After losing to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals last season, they come to Oracle Arena tonight just barely above .500 at 27-26 after having lost four of their last six games.
John Reese of The Dream Shake went in-depth to look at their problems, ranging from the struggles they've had in identifying a starting lineup to their defense "starting to be laughable". ESPN's Kevin Pelton has described touched on one of the offensive problems, noting that Houston still needs to find a secondary playmaker next to Harden after the Ty Lawson experiment has essentially failed. And, of course, it's not exactly news that James Harden
can't won't play defense.
Defending worse than even the Lakers units is— Jeremias Engelmann (@JerryEngelmann) February 8, 2016
[Ariza, Beverley, Harden, Howard, Jones]
Probably can be blamed on Harden and Jones
However, Jordan M. Foley of Vantage Sports might have alluded to the biggest problem in describing why the Rockets are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league (currently 29th in defensive rebounding percentage) by writing, "When Rockets players get in position and chase after the ball consistently, they can get plenty of defensive rebounds. It is the combination of mental lapses in the paint and lackadaisical pursuit of boards that sucks the life out of Houston’s ability to crash the defensive glass."
I normally just poke fun at the Rockets, but with them coming into town to face the Warriors for a third time this season, I actually wanted to take a deeper look at not only what's plaguing them. So I contacted Darren Yuvan of SB Nation's The Dream Shake for some pre-game insight to explain some of these issues.
Q&A with The Dream Shake
GSoM: The Rockets have undergone a few changes since the beginning of the season, from the firing of Kevin McHale to moving Ty Lawson to the bench to bringing Josh Smith back. Whether one of those or something else, what has been the most significant in-season development to the direction of this team for the remainder of the season?
Darren Yuvan, The Dream Shake: It has to be the firing of Kevin McHale and the promotion of his right-hand man J.B. Bickerstaff in the hopes of sparking a turnaround after a lackluster start. The team has been better under Bickerstaff, though not by much, and many of the same issues that plagued the Rockets at the season's start still plague them today. Bickerstaff is a good guy by all accounts, and his skills as a communicator are supposedly his strength, but if team management were really looking to prompt some change, they may have done themselves a disservice by not looking outside of the organization. This is a team with strong personalities, and it doesn't appear that pushing a rookie coach into a challenging role with high expectations after the season had already started was the correct answer.
Bickerstaff was promised the remainder of the season and a full evaluation at the close of the campaign, but with nightly effort, chemistry and consistency all still lingering issues from the start under McHale, a new voice altogether may have been the better way to go. Barring some drastic turnaround after the break, expect the team to move on in the offseason, and expect Bickerstaff to deservedly land on his feet somewhere else. He's a sharp, young coach with a lot of potential, and he was thrown into a situation that would have been difficult for any coach, let alone a rookie. But the Rockets kept much of the same staff (assistant Chris Finch was also promoted) after firing McHale, and they're getting much of the same result.
GSoM: I've found the Rockets so hard to figure out this season because they'll come out and play a great game on the road and then take a big loss at home. Most recently, they've lost four of their last six. What have you been seeing as the biggest problem during that six game stretch?
DY: The same issues that have been plaguing the team all season: effort, energy and defense. Even in the games they've won, a lack of intensity has been an issue. For instance, in the win last week against Phoenix, the Rockets fell behind by double digits early, and the effort was so poor, coach Bickerstaff pulled all five starters just four minutes into the game. The Rockets did manage to turn it around and pull out a 111-105 win, but that level of inconsistency is the main reason the Rockets have lost 4 of 6 and have been hovering at or around the .500 mark all year.
The Rockets have given up 112 points per game over their past six, and that poor defense is a direct symptom of the lack of energy the team has had all season. They've defended well when they've put their mind to it, and they were a good defensive team last season with mostly the same group of guys, so we know they are capable of it. Which is largely what makes this team so frustrating to watch. We all know it's in there. They just haven't been able to put it all together on a consistent, every-day basis.
GSoM: Dwight Howard has been involved in trade rumors with the trade deadline approaching. Regardless of whether you think a Howard trade is feasible, do you think the team should be trying to move Howard and have you seen any rumors that are particularly appealing to you?
DY: Despite some national reports to the contrary, Howard has not been part of the problem this year in Houston. He's not the night-in, night-out offensive force he once was, though he's still capable of scoring explosions from time to time, and drama does seem to follow him wherever he goes (see the reports earlier this year that had him wanting out of Houston asap), but he's often been the only Rocket exerting any real effort on defense for large chunks of the season. With the Rockets stopping practically no one on the perimeter, Howard's had a lot of ground to cover, and he's mostly done it well.
That being said, I've been firmly in the camp that if the Rockets can move Howard before the deadline, they should. Howard likely has one, final mega-deal left in his career, and even with the pending cap increase, I believe Daryl Morey can find better things to do with the likely $25-30 million per year it will take to get Howard back in Houston after he opts out of his contract at season's end. With the team still underachieving, the prudent move would be to trade Howard for what they can get now, with an eye toward retooling the roster in the offseason with better shooters around James Harden and some perimeter defense. 30+ centers with a bad back and balky knees aren't exactly the shrewdest of long term investments.
Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like that's the Rockets' intentions, and there's even been some rumblings the team plans to keep Howard around as an enticement in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes in the hopes of creating a big three. If they pull it off, all's well that ends well. If they don't, any new max deal Howard signs in Houston will likely turn into an albatross in just a few seasons' time. If they fail to re-sign him and Howard leaves altogether, it becomes a huge set back. With a the team continuing to struggle, Howard's willingness to return is far from a guarantee despite both Dwight and the organization saying all the right things publically at the moment.
Again, in a season littered with issues, Howard's play has not been one of them, but with wholesale roster upgrades likely needed, I believe Dwight is a better asset moving forward in a trade, but only if they can get legitimate value. No use in moving him for pennies on the dollar.
GSoM: The Rockets are currently four games out of fifth place and 1.5 from missing the playoffs altogether. Given where they are now, what would you consider a "successful" finish to the season?
DY: The Rockets need to make the second round of the playoffs for this to be considered a successful season. For a team that came into this year with title aspirations, anything less should be considered a disappointment. Houston has to snag at least the 6th seed to have any shot at getting out of the first round, as a collision with San Antonio or Golden State would likely be disasterous, while the Rockets match up a bit better with Oklahoma City or the Clippers. If they fall out of the playoffs altogether, it's going to be quite an interesting offseason in H-town and all bets are off as to who actually returns in Rockets red.
GSoM: With the addition of Josh Smith and time under a new coach, what might give the Rockets a chance to beat the Warriors this time after the first two losses?
DY: Um... flu bug or food poisoning ravaging the Golden State locker room at tomorrow's shoot around? Seriously though, while Smith has been a nice re-addition - his willingness to pass has improved the offensive flow on a team that's stopped the ball way too often this year - he hasn't done much to help with the defense, which has been mostly abysmal all season. The Rockets have given up 109.4 points per game since Smith came back from his L.A. soiree, which is actually worse than their season average of 106.3.
Unless the Rockets can come out with a measure of defensive intensity much higher than we've seen from them at any point this season, it's likely going to be a long night at the Oracle. Even if the Rockets' offense is humming, they're going to have a difficult time stopping Golden State.
For more on the 2015-16 Rockets, check out SB Nation's Rockets site The Dream Shake.