by Alan Moghaddam
The Houston Rockets are at a point of critical failure – or rather, they have reached a crux with more than one point of critical failure.
The Rockets’ record stands at 13-7 roughly a quarter of the way into the regular season. It has finally been long enough to shake off the “it’s too early to comment” crowd, and we can finally make some valid statement about this team long-term. To all appearances, things are not looking particularly spectacular for a team that entered the season with championship expectations.
Checking in with Mission Control
The Rockets are 6 games above .500, while last year at this time they were 2 games under .500 with a record of 9-11.
That’s an improvement, right?
Sort of. If we compare the totals between the two years around this point in time, this team is arguably the same – if not worse – relative to last year’s Rockets. Surprised? Check the table below:
This team is shooting more shots than last year’s team, largely due to the increase in pace resulting from the addition of Russell Westbrook (97.9 to 104.9). Russ pushes the ball enough to afford more shots, and thus the point differential is nearly 13 points per game better than last year’s. However, the increase in pace also creates an effect on the other end of the floor. Opponents are also shooting the ball more against the Rockets, resulting in an increase of almost 5 points allowed per game over last year.
The Rockets are shooting a low 34% from the 3-point line, which pushes them close to the bottom of the league at 26th. A common argument I have seen for this issue is that the sheer volume of 3-pointers Houston attempts makes a direct comparison of percentages misleading. It is difficult to assign this factor a great deal of weight, however, since there is only a difference of one 3-pointer per game between this year’s Rockets and last year’s Rockets at the 20-game mark. James Harden’s ability to dominate and drive in iso situations has been a positive, pushing the Rockets to 2nd in the NBA in 2-point scoring. Unfortunately, Houston is seeing an increase in turnovers under the current structure that places a mind-boggling offensive burden on James Harden. When you factor in that this team did not have Chris Paul available for an extended stretch early last season and were trying to incorporate midrange devotee Carmelo Anthony into their offense, it is a bad sign that this year’s offense looks to be no better than last year’s. When we evaluate the Rockets’ strength of schedule, they have not faced the most difficult slate of opponents to date. Thus, the dips of productivity are not attributable to the level of competition Houston has faced. Their current Pythagorean expected wins/losses record is 14-6 – slightly better than their actual record, and only fourth best in the Western Conference.
Do not let their record fool you, this team is struggling.
Houston, We Have a Problem
It is hard to pinpoint the exact issue for this team; there is no isolated quick fix. The Rockets’ Defensive Rating is slightly better this season than last year’s full-season figure, despite the fact that the bump in pace has them yielding significantly more points per game. Russell Westbrook, as expected, has been a boon on the boards. On the negative side of the ledger, turnovers and shooting efficiency are creating a drag on the team’s offensive performance. Injuries are surely part of the story, and unrest in the coaching staff has probably had some impact (more on that later).
The way I see it, there are five competing vectors here: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Mike D’Antoni, Daryl Morey and Tilman Fertitta. Each vector pulls in its own direction, and without alignment, they are keeping the Rockets from actualizing their full potential.
The Russ Vector
Russell Westbrook is Russell Westbrook – like him, love him, or hate him. He is an athletic player who makes rash decisions. He makes bold gambles in transition, runs the ball at a blistering pace, and takes ill-advised shots on a frequent basis. His pace has generated more opportunities for the Rockets, but the squad has not capitalized on them to this point (to see Westbrook’s individual effect on pace, consider that he has the fastest individual pace for any guard playing 30 or more mpg). Sure, some of the failure in shot-making is due to injury – Houston does not have the shooters they had last season. Gerald Green is out, as is Eric Gordon after beginning the year in a shooting slump. Danuel House Jr. is in and out of the lineup. At present, the team surrounding Russ has a short rotation comprised of more than a few non-shooters. To pin all the team’s struggles on Westbrook is not fair, but to absolve him of responsibility entirely is highly inadvisable as well.
Going back to their recent loss in San Antonio, Westbrook’s decision making was rather suspect. In the last 6:30 of the game, Russ had a combination of 3 turnovers and a bad midrange shot. If you throw in 3-point attempts (at his current clip of 23%), the figures get more depressing. Westbrook cannot close games, especially when James Harden is on the floor. His Offensive Points Added has been a depressing -17.44 (though his rebounding value has carried him to +10.73 Defensive Points Saved). Juxtapose that with the +36.7 OPA and -2.53 DPS for Chris Paul this season, and Houston fans have plenty of reason to gnash their teeth over the summer swap. Remember, those OPA and DPS values are a function of team value too, so Chris Paul having a worse team is not an excuse for his inflated values. CP3 is playing fewer possessions than Westbrook, and his usage is lower (21.0 vs. 31.7) in fewer overall minutes played. So yes, Russell Wesbtrook is playing at a higher volume than Chris Paul. It is dubious, though, to claim that he is providing more value than Paul.
To see why this is such a disappointment, we need to consider that Westbrook provided substantially greater value than Paul last season. By this site’s attribution of wins, Westbrook contributed 3.6 more wins than Chris Paul last season, meaning that the Rockets could have expected to improve by close to three wins after swapping CP3 for Brodie. That would put the expected “line” at 56 wins, all else being equal – a far cry from their current 53-win pace.
The Beard Vector
James Harden. I just want to end this section with that. The man has been a one-man show this season. Why are the Rockets winning games? James Harden. Fault him for his defense – fine. Accuse him of hunting for fouls – ok. The fact remains that somehow, someway, this guy has improved over last year. Harden takes over games to close them out, and when he is gassed, the Rockets’ virtuoso-style offense sputters. When Harden sits, the offense outright dies. This state of affairs is not news in Houston, but the ever-increasing reliance on high ball screens, isolation looks, and stationary standstill shooters may be reaching a tipping point.
James Harden is blisteringly good. He is the league leader in 3-point attempts (with 14.3) and is hitting them at an average clip of 34%. He is currently putting up almost 40 points a game with a true shooting percentage of 63%. He is somehow doing the impossible: scoring at will, efficiently, while still maintaining volume.
The Mike D’Antoni Vector
Like Russ, MDA is MDA. Houston knew what they were buying into when they signed him. His rotations are weak this year, and he is putting a ton of miles on older players like PJ Tucker because he has little to no faith in his bench. Gary Clark has been an inconsistent bright spot, but only got play after some key injuries. Part of this over-reliance on vets is due to D’Antoni’s contract situation. D’Antoni is not going to take risks in the final year of his deal, nor should he. He needs to focus on winning now, not developing players or building a core for the future. His in-game adjustments wound the soul. In the San Antonio game alone, the Rockets were up three with the Spurs bringing up the ball. Lonnie Walker IV hits a 3-pointer with 11 seconds left on the game clock. A foul, a layup, or even an aggressive trap on the ball handler would have been preferable to allowing a 3-point attempt in the crucial possession. Force Walker to take two free throws or a lightly contested layup and ensure you have the final possession with a lead.
The Daryl Morey Vector
The likelihood on Morey keeping his job after this season sits at 50% in my estimation. Look, this is not an indictment on Morey or what he has done for this team. The only blemish his administration really has is losing to arguably the greatest team ever assembled. The issue is the nepotistic factors in the mind of Tilman Fertitta, who has Patrick and Blayne preparing to take over the team. This is problematic for a GM who recently landed himself and the league in hot water in the China/Hong Kong conflict. Morey is under the gun. Not to mix too many metaphors, but his hands are also tied behind his back. The Rockets have almost no tradable assets with which to acquire real talent, and the buyout market is an unreliable production source. The Los Angeles teams will obviously be more attractive options for this year’s buyout candidates, and then Houston will be left with scraps that will not dramatically change this team’s outlook. All Morey can do is sit on his hands and wait.
The other knock on Morey is that year after year, defense is a major unresolved issue. Aside from 2017-2018, the Rockets’ offseasons have not had a focus on defense. This summer, they fired defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik. Bzdelik did a poor job adjusting schematically to the Warriors without Kevin Durant in Game 6, and his waffling commitment to the team likely lead to his termination. It is still difficult to envision the team playing better defense without Bzdelik on staff, especially since his return in the midst of last season helped Houston right the ship on that end. The Rockets whiffed on Jimmy Butler, and decided to forgo defensive additions entirely by shipping out a hefty price to land Russell Westbrook. This is sub-optimal. Even if Russ were at his best (which he is not), the Rockets still had a problem area with perimeter defense and did little to address.
The Tilman Vector
“You have to spend money to make money.”
“Scared money don’t make money.”
So on, and so forth. Tilman’s words would have you believe he knows what he is doing, but his actions speak otherwise. Seeing the one-man nuclear bomb that is James Harden put up staggering performances for a stingy owner is loathesome to even the most stringent critics of the Beard. Not having tradable first round picks, or expiring contracts, or any other real assets means Tils will have to spend to make this team better. He will have to take a bad contract to get a pick, he will have to go into the Luxury Tax to then get something worth flipping. While he claims to be amenable to such maneuvering, the Danuel House drama from last season and the fact that the Rockets did not take any real talent other than Westbrook back from OKC are indicators that his pants are indeed on fire.
Countdown to Liftoff?
There you have it, five vectors that all “want to win” … but have vastly different means of achieving that end. The Harden vector is ultimately what is keeping Houston pointed in the right direction, but this historic pace and run by him can only last so long. Houston does not want to see turbo-nuclear Harden in November/December, they want to see him in June.
This all leads me to the depressing realization that the Rockets and Harden will not win a ring together if they maintain their present course. These vectors do not align. Chemistry, a subject on which I consider myself an expert, will not fix this. The obstacles involve more than purely players that are not meshing; it is a clash of styles from the top of the organization on down. The danger moving forward can be stated simply and succinctly: what happens when Harden cools off? What happens when the Rockets cannot use him to will themselves to wins? Houston, we have a problem.
All stats unless otherwise noted are from Basketball-reference.com. I thank them for their continued supply of numbers.
About the author: My name is Alan Moghaddam and I am a chemist. I got my BS in Biochemistry and my Ph.D. in Chemistry. I’m not a true stats guy, even though I love math and numbers. My approach and my goal is to give anyone the tools they need to be able to understand what is being fed to them by sports writers and stat heads. So, if anything, my posts will be a journey for both of us, and I hope you enjoy it.