One of the more difficult to read teams in the NBA are the Houston Rockets, who will make the playoffs this season despite losing a head coach early on and playing inconsistent basketball not to mention other issues they haven’t been able to get over. But seeing them play good basketball often raises more questions than answers.
Following their 115-102 win over the Miami Heat, the Rockets are once again above .500, stopping a three game losing streak. The win places them at 7th in the West, 1.5 games above the Portland Trail Blazers, two games behind the Dallas Mavericks. While 1-2-3-4 in the West seems like a done deal, the Rockets (not alone in that manner) could finish in any one of the other four spots, with the differences between these teams mostly based on getting hot and maintaining a long winning streak.
And that’s the frustrating thing about the Rockets, who came off a season of making the conference finals, their first since the 1990’s, when Hakeem Olajuwon was still playing. James Harden and his offense (his defense is better left unspoken for) continue to be either brilliant or incredibly selfish and inefficient. He finished with 26 points on 10-of-19 from the field including 3 three-pointers while dishing out 14 assists in the win over the Heat. When his skillset shines, he truly belongs in comparisons and discussions about the league’s best players. But it seems there’s very little middle ground for Harden, who didn’t rely on free throws this time. It’s either extremely efficient or incredibly off the mark, with five games of shooting below 40% from the field in the last month.
The Rockets have flexibility, as Josh Smith stepped in at center to finish with 19 points while Dwight Howard was suspended and Clint Capela injured. Marcus Thornton and Terrence Jones looked great off the bench, and even Ty Lawson, scoring 5 points, played well in the minutes when he was allowed to push the pace and handle the ball, unlike a lot of moments earlier in the season next to Harden, who can co-exist with a ball dominant point guard. He needs Patrick Beverley next to him, who scored 14 points on 5-of-7 from the field, and doesn’t mind being the guy waiting in the corner for Harden to notice him.
The problem for the Rockets is they’re a poorly coached team that has never been able to implement a system and manner of discipline that holds Harden accountable for bad games. It might be done from within, by the players themselves, but it doesn’t seem he’s changing as a player. It remains about him having a good or bad shooting day, and everything revolves around that. The players around him? Might be a bit better or a bit worse, but with the Rockets relying on form rather than some more stable structure and system, the ceiling remains well below their aspirations.