The Houston Rockets keep trying to find some sort of direction this season and end up at more or less the same place. With James Harden as the hero and villain at once, Dwight Howard good but not enough, and a bunch of players around him who don’t seem too happy about servicing too huge egos, that despite their pay and talent, won’t be carrying this team to titles.
There were a lot of things gone wrong for the Rockets over the last few years. Last season’s conference finals was something of an anomaly. After two years of failing to get through the first round, they feasted on a broken Mavericks team (thanks to Rajon Rondo), somehow survived in the conference semifinals after falling 1-3 behind the Clippers (classic choke job by the Clippers) and then got crushed by the Warriors in the Western finals. Wrong players being let go. Wrong players being built on. Maybe it makes us all hindsight geniuses, but Harden showed his true colors very quickly. Thinking that analytics and one often injured big man were going to hide his flaws was simply the wrong move.
Right now it seems like the Houston Rockets don’t have a team anymore. Maybe they never did. It’s a bunch of talented players, some more than others, and behind all the talk about statistics, analytics and the controlling general manager, it always relied on defense and James Harden not f***ing up too much. This season, despite the 28.1 points per game from Harden, it’s just not enough. His defense has deteriorated to the point where he doesn’t seem to care anymore if he gets blown by every player he’s guarding, he turns the ball over 4.5 times per game and his shooting is at 41.9% from the field, with his eFG% and TS% at the lowest point of their careers.
So should the Rockets simply break up this team and start anew? Hard to tell. Tanking can lead to years of, well, nothingness. Breaking up a team with the intention of quickly rebuilding is something else. The decision Daryl Morey needs to come to is whether or not he still thinks a team with Harden can eventually win an NBA title. He is not a player who gives up control, so the question is whether or not he can be refined into a player who brings his best, while his worst doesn’t damage the team as much as it does now.
The Dwight Howard question isn’t that critical. Howard isn’t dragging this team down or up. The Rockets are better with him on the floor, like Harden, but unlike Harden, he has a slightly positive net rating this season. His defense just isn’t what it used to be, and his offense, overall, on average and per minute, is slipping. Whatever happened to Howard physically in 2012 changed him, and he’s never been the same, not to mention over injuries he’s picked up over time.
While the Rockets struggle to get to .500 and everyone is making fun of Morey for his analytics selection, his three biggest signings on this team, the most expensive players, came on basis of something else: Eye test or pure stardom level. Howard was the biggest free agent at the time, Harden came through a trade with the Thunder knowingly in an attempt to make the team about him (no one knew he’d be this dominant, for better and worse) and Lawson was an opportunity the Rockets pounced on. As bad as he’s been, they can waive him at no cost at the end of the season, with his $13.2 million next season unguaranteed.
The progress is gone. Well maybe not gone, but now reversed into the wrong direction. Maybe the ambitions are still there, but the team from last season, which defended well and seemed to be happy to service Harden as he almost won the MVP, isn’t the same. Josh Smith is gone, Donatas Motiejunas isn’t the same player he was, Patrick Beverley is a very limited point guard who might fit in but doesn’t add too much, and isn’t supposed to have such a big role. The question now is whether the Rockets ride it out and re-tool in free agency, break it all up and start from scratch or make some gutsy trade at some point this season, carrying on with their “chasing the lightning” mentality.