What’s Wrong With The Houston Rockets?

54 points, 13 rebounds, 8 rebounds, and the Rockets still managed to lose to the lowly Washington Wizards. James Harden remains an animal on the court, but the Rockets just don’t have the same luster they had last year.

After a historic 2017–2018 season where the Houston Rockets won 65 games and grabbed the no. 1 seed over the Golden State Warriors, nobody expected the Rockets to slide to 9–11 this season. The Rockets are the 2nd worst team in the Western Conference. I know the West is tough, but I mean, c’mon.

NBA fans have been in awe at how bad Houston is this season. What everyone wants to know is, what’s wrong with the Rockets?

“The” Houston Rockets

When Mike D’Antonio was hired to be the head coach of this talented Houston Rockets team in 2016 people knew what to expect. Offense, offense, and some more offense. But more importantly, fans were ready for a severe lack of defense. A trend commonly found in D’Antonio coached teams.

D’Anontio constructed the perfect offensive system for the Rockets. He made James Harden the de facto point guard, running a smooth P&R offense with Harden and young big man Clint Capela. A team with A+ floor spacing and godly shooting ability, this was a team built for the modern NBA.

The Rockets went 55–27, fueled by their no. 2 rated offense. And predictably, the Rockets ranked 18th in defensive rating. A metric which ultimately spelled their doom dropping in the 2nd round of the NBA playoffs. Houston was an entertaining team, but they needed another piece to really contend.

In 2017 the Rockets got that piece. Houston made acquired star point guard Chris Paul in a blockbuster trade. The idea of pairing Paul and Harden in this backcourt created a deadly duo that would keep opposing coaches up at night.

Despite the glamour, there were genuine concerns about how Paul and Harden would mesh together, but D’Antonio countered that by staggering their minutes. Everyone got a chance to touch the ball. The Rockets were sensational on offense, the no. 1 rated offense in the NBA. But it was their no. 6 rated defense that vaulted this team into the elite squad they were.

The Rockets had the formula to beat the Warriors. A record-breaking amount of three-pointers made aided by tough, physical defense had Golden State in their grasp, down 3–2 in the Western Conference Finals. The dream evaporated quickly when the Rockets lost Paul to a hamstring injury Games 6 and 7. An injury that ultimately led to the Warriors coming back from that 3–2 deficit and winning the series.

A Few Regretful Moves

With the Rockets coming so close to NBA Finals they went searching for that last piece that would complete this team. Houston set their eyes on Carmelo Anthony, one of the best pure scorers in NBA history. Anthony was a misfit in Oklahoma City the year before, pairing Melo with his close friend Chris Paul seemed to be the right move.

To make this happen, the Rockets needed to get rid of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute. Ariza and Mbah A Moute were nothing more than role players, solid 3 and D players. But their impact was bigger than that, they were integral to the identity of this tough-minded Houston team.

Houston believed the addition of Melo would outweigh the losses of Ariza and Mbah A Moute. That was the first miscue for the Rockets.

Jeff Bzdelik’s Retirement

You probably have no idea who Jeff Bzdelik is. Why would you, assistant coaches get no glamour. Bzdelik was key to the Rockets 65 win season last year. He was the architect of this Houston defensive system. Bzedlik had a handful of first-class defenders, but it was his help defensive system that brought the best out of this team.

In the 2018 offseason, Bzedlik announced his retirement from the NBA. After Houston struggled on defense the first few weeks of the season, Bzedlik agreed to come back to the Rockets on November 5th. With invaluable defenders and Brzedlik’s presence missing, Houston finds themselves amongst the worst defensive teams in the NBA, the 28th rated defensive team.

The Melo Effect

While some drop in defense was expected this season, nobody thought it would be this bad. But still, the addition of Carmelo Anthony was expected to keep boast this offense and offset the difference. Anthony never adjusted in OKC next to Russell Westbrook and Paul George, but the hope was he could alter his style to a catch and shoot three point shooter in Houston.

Just as he has done all his career, Melo has been a ball stopper who tanked the efficiency of this 2018 Houston offense. A typically an up-tempo Houston team, the Rockets have dipped all way down to 29th in pace, a far cry from their 13th ranked pace last year. Carmelo Anthony was once an athletic star who dominated in transition, it’s nice to dream.

Melo struggled to transition into a spot-up jumper, putting up career-worst averages of 13.4 PPG, 40.5 FG%, and 32.8 3PT%. In an offense that makes things easier for its players, Melo somehow figured out a way to make it harder. The Rockets smartly decided to pull the plug after 10 games of watching that atrocity.

Health Is Key

With Carmelo Anthony now off the active roster, this is a team that lost two of their key role players for basically nothing. As if that is not bad enough, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and James Harden have missed several games for a team revolving around those guys.

Houston is still the no. 9 offensive rated team in the NBA, a very good mark but after being the no. 1 team last year, it’s disappointing. Injuries have certainly contributed to the reduction of offensive productivity.

A New Look

So are the Houston Rockets done? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.

This is still a talented roster with many of the same pieces from last year. Retaining James Harden, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capela is crucial as the Rockets attempt to sustain the same success they enjoyed last year.

This current roster is not going to win the NBA Finals, they won’t even come close. When this team gets healthy, they will be much better on both sides of the ball, but that will not be enough. GM Daryl Morey will need to acquire 3 and D pieces that can fit this system.

Ariza and Mbah A Moute were not dazzling players, they were tough-nosed veterans who were adept on defense. Their play style was crucial to the success of the Rockets, Morey will need to find similar pieces for Houston to regain their flame. The Houston Rockets are an elite team, they’re just missing those glue guys that will put back them together.