4 reasons the Rockets are slumping, and why it’s worrisome
Houston has a number of problems and no easy fix. A blowout loss to a Russell Westbrook-less OKC team proved that. The Houston Rockets don’t just have one problem, they have a damn collection of them as the first month of the season comes to a close. When Houston let both Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard a Moute, its best defensive players, leave in free agency the team’s glaring flaw felt obvious. But at 4-6, with a bottom-end offense as well, the Rockets have a whole lot to fix — and nothing’s simple. Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system was the most exaggerated adherence to modern basketball analytics to date a season ago, and it nearly paid off as his less talented team nearly knocked off the Warriors in the Western Conference. It’s no surprise the same mindset is in tact this year, but the problem is that the same talent isn’t. It’s older, injured, and frankly, not as skilled as it once was. And that’s not all that was obvious in an 18-point loss to an Oklahoma City Thunder team without Russell Westbrook on Thursday night. Let’s try and diagnose the battered contenders. 1. The Rockets stars have all missed time The most obvious causation for Houston’s slow start is that James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon have combined to miss eight games — eight different games. The team is 2-1 without Gordon, 1-2 without Harden and 0-2 without Paul. Three of the best four players on the team missing time is 100 percent a valid reason for a team floundering, but it isn’t the only one. 2. Chris Paul might be feeling his age for the first time It’s a small sample size, but it’s possible that 33-year-old Paul could finally start regressing. Going into Wednesday night’s game, he was averaging his fewest points per game in 12 years (17.7) on the worst shooting of his life from the field (39.6 percent), and from three (29.5 percent), and was also turning the ball over more frequently than ever (4.4 times per 100 possessions.) This was always the risk Daryl Morey and co. ran by signing an aging superstar to a big money deal, but one it can’t afford. For Houston to win, it needs everyone at the top of his game by May. If not, they don’t have spare 20 points per night players like the Warriors. The Rockets are, and have always been, operating in a tight championship window. Of course, playing only nine games so far, Paul could recover just fine. It’s something to monitor. 3. Shocker, there’s a Carmelo Anthony problem looming One of the most surprising offseason moves Houston could’ve possibly done, it did in signing a mid-range happy, no-defense-playing 34-year-old Melo. And just like the Thunder, and the Knicks before them, the Rockets have an Anthony problem. Houston’s gotten Anthony to accept a bench role, which is more than his previous bosses can say, but even in more limited minutes, it’s getting harder and harder to justify him playing at all. In 37 minutes alongside the team’s best two players — Harden and Paul — Houston is outscored by 14.8 points per 100 possessions. Anthony shoots just 44 percent from the field, wavers in and out of the team’s conscious effort against long two-point shots, and even more crushingly, hands over points on the other end. It turns out he wasn’t a viable Mbah A Moute or Ariza replacement. 4. There’s nobody to defend opposing wings — the most versatile position in the NBA I keep harping on those two missing pieces in Mbah A Moute and Ariza, but it’s hard to understate how important they are. The league is depending more and more on its 6’5-to-6’9 guys to shoot, score and create to lead an offense, and Houston let go of its best answers for those talents. In a 19-point loss to the Pelicans, Nikola Mirotic scored 30 points on 20 shots (6-of-8 threes.) In a 3-point loss to the Clippers, Tobias Harris scored 23 points on 15 shots In an 11-point loss to the Jazz, Donovan Mitchell scored 38 points on 25 shots In a 20-point loss to the Clippers, Lou Williams scored 23 points on nine shots Shooters and slashers are having their way, and that’s alarming. It’s too early to go into a full panic, but soon it won’t be It’s just 10 games now, but if a similar level of play persists into the holidays, the Rockets are in deep trouble. They’re in Win Now mode with a pair of in-their-prime stars and a maxed out budget. Coming out of a hole like that won’t be simple. If there’s anyone to solve the issue, it’s a mastermind like Morey. The obvious move would be a trade for Jimmy Butler, but is there enough to offer? And what’s the backup plan? Houston has a lot to worry about, especially with its competitors getting better by the day.