James Harden

The Houston Rockets might still make the NBA playoffs this season; they are still 8th in the West despite winning just four times in their last 13 games. But considering who they’re going to face in the first round of the playoffs if they actually make it, maybe it’s better to just go for the lottery pick and start doing some retooling instead of that feared word, rebuilding.

The Rockets lost to the Milwaukee Bucks 128-121 with all of the same problems haunting them again. Playing slowly at the start. Terrible defense, even when it’s the trio of Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza on the floor. Turnovers. No contribution from the bench. Zero offensive chemistry on the floor, as once again it looked like a James Harden-Howard-Ariza show (combined 76 points out of the 121), with not real fluidity to their passing game or some thought behind their offense.

When this season began, Daryl Morey said they’re a championship contender. Then Kevin McHale got fired. The Ty Lawson trade, without giving up key players (although guys that have some good moments last season), failed. Josh Smith has returned and hasn’t had the impact he did last season. The power forward position remains a black hole. The Rockets had a little surge midway through the season, but overall, the negative momentum from looking bad in the conference finals against the Warriors carried over to this season.

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The Rockets are giving up 106.6 points per 100 possessions this season, 26th in the NBA. While their offense is still top 10 in the NBA (8th right now, with a negative net rating, which isn’t something you want when contending for a championship), their defense drags them down time after time. The Bucks had a 126.9 offensive rating in their win. The Rockets have firepower to chase teams gaining up on them early on, but their defense keeps failing them.

Should this team be broken up? It might happen without trying too hard. Howard is probably opting out of his contract at the end of this season, and Lawson isn’t going to be staying, with the 2016-2017 portion of his contract unguaranteed. Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Jason Terry, Josh Smith and Marcus Thornton are free agents. The Rockets can have, potentially, only $46 million tied up to the salary cap heading into next season. That’s plenty of room for additions and a complete overhaul.

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The problem is that Morey hasn’t shown he knows how to make a championship team. Is building around Harden really the way to get there? While Harden keeps talking about being tired of being blamed for everything wrong with this team. Harden isn’t the only thing wrong with the Rockets, but him being their superstar and franchise player causes the whole aspiration to be champions to look more and more delusional as time goes by.

This doesn’t end well, at least not this season. The Rockets make the playoffs? It’s hard to see them going anywhere, not even past the first round. Miss the playoffs? It’s one of the biggest failures in recent NBA seasons considering where the Rockets are aiming and who their players are. This is a team that knows where it wants to get, but seems to be improvising and patching things up along the way, not really knowing how to get there.

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