COMMENTARY | Despite posting just a 4-3 record in their first seven games, the Houston Rockets are still on their way to contending for a championship.
If you disagree, you must have disagreed two weeks ago, which kind of proves my point: There are no answers in the first month of the season.
Now, all the Rockets need is time, practice and a boatload of adjustments.
So far this season, we've seen segments of brilliance on a personal level, but, more importantly, to the franchise, we've seen patches of cohesion from the team as a whole. With all the talent on this roster, everyone needs to be on the same page. At this point, James Harden is on the last chapter, Jeremy Lin is somewhere before the rising action, Patrick Beverley is just staring at the cover, Dwight Howard keeps stuttering over words like "free" or "throw," and Kevin McHale lost his bookmark.
Extended metaphors aside, the Rockets have a lot of jelling to do, and each one of the aforementioned guys plays a major role in the team's collective improvement (Chandler Parsons will look good when everyone else is playing team ball, that's why he wasn't mentioned).
As a team, the Rockets have put together entire quarters or halves that have provided hope for a brighter future. We saw them collectively catch fire in the first quarter against the Dallas Mavericks, exploding for 38 points. We saw them slam the door shut in the fourth quarter against the sharp-shooting Portland Trail Blazers. We saw them outscore the Utah Jazz 64-37 in the second half of their matchup, but only after looking like the living dead in the first half.
Obviously, with the flashes of brilliance, have come spurts of incompetence. Why have we seen so many moments of ineptitude from the Rockets this season? I believe it's a combination of these four things (among countless others, but, hey, there's only so much time in the day):
1. James Harden's Injured Left Foot
So far this season, Harden hasn't been himself. It seems laughable that a guy who's averaging nearly 25 points per game is "struggling," but if you've watched Harden this year, you know what I mean. His first step isn't as explosive. His three-point shots are consistently short (27%). He's turning the ball over more than ever (4.2 per game).
Like everyone else on this team, Harden needs to adjust to both new systems (we'll get to that soon), but what separates Harden from the rest of the roster, is that while most players are being asked to do more, Harden is being asked to do less. The Beard doesn't need to take over the way he did last year, and although he may realize that, he has yet to adjust his game accordingly. I have all the faith in the world in Harden, and I believe he's a top-notch superstar who, given time, will be the backbone of this championship-contending team.
2. Offensive Flow
After seven games, the Rockets are 27th in the league in assists per game, averaging just 18 a night. Who is worse than them? The Rajon Rondo-less Boston Celtics, the Kyle Lowry-led Toronto Raptors (looks like he hit his stride in Houston for half a season), and the Charlotte Bobcats, who have been playing without their projected top scorer for most of the season (Al Jefferson). Pretty bad company for Houston, right?
Part of the problem for the team is that they shoot so many free throws, part of the problem is that they have below-average starting point guards (that isn't a dig on Lin or Beverley; point guard is the deepest position in the game today), and part of the problem is the team's lack of...
3. Offensive Consistency
It's hard to get used to playing in an offense that changes according to the personnel on the court. To some extent, bench units and starting lineups always have a different dynamic, but, for the Rockets, it's two completely different brands of basketball.
The Rockets start each half with their big lineup, which has been successful on the glass and semi-successful defensively. After six to eight minutes, McHale gets bored (and usually a little angry by being down double digits), and he replaces Omer Asik with Omri Casspi, who has been the most pleasant surprise for Houston in this young season. Then, the Rockets jump into run-and-gun mode, using four shooters to spread the floor for Howard on the inside, and Lin, Harden, Beverley, Parsons and the rest of the wings on the outside. Essentially, McHale wants his team, which has played a grand total of seven games together, to change their offensive identity four separate times in each game. Does that sound ridiculous to anyone else?
I know there are greater forces in play here, and I realize that throwing Asik on the bench might decrease his trade value, but if you want to play a certain brand of basketball, you have to work at it. Mentally, it's a serious challenge for everyone to switch his offensive mentality and approach in the middle of the game, but, hopefully, that isn't something we'll have to put up with much longer.
4. McHale's Lack of Faith in his Personnel
I don't want to bash on McHale, but can anyone tell me why the Rockets are still playing college-sized lineups? Last year, Houston commonly played Lin, Harden, Parsons, Delfino and Asik at the end of games, and that was fine because they were about three guys short last season.
However, this year, they have improved big men, serious depth at every position, and legitimate size. So, why are they still resorting to these gimmick lineups for production? I am aware that the NBA is going through a trend of each team playing without a true 4 or without a true 5, but you need the right kind of personnel to make it work, and Houston doesn't have that (yet).
Do we really expect Francisco Garcia to guard 4s sometimes? McHale has been consistent in his belief that Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas don't get chances to prove themselves, but I think that's really a shame. The bottom line here is that the Rockets big lineup and their small lineup(s) both provide the team with limitations and weaknesses that are hard to cover up, and if this team wants to take the next step, it'll need to find a solution at the 4 that doesn't consistently put it at an obvious disadvantage.
M. De Moor is an NBA junkie who thinks the runner is the most beautiful shot in basketball. He has followed the Rockets from the championship days of Hakeem Olajuwon, to the years of Francis and Mobley, to the McGrady and Yao era, and will continue to follow them through Harden and Dwight's reign of destruction.
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