Houston Rockets’ Round-Up: Week Three

Note: Full “peek behind the curtain” on Houston Rockets’ Round-Up here… each section of this gets written as it happens each week. That means while writing on the Indiana game, for example, I had no clue what was coming in the Orlando game. So yes, for the vast majority of this, the James Harden trade talk was silent. Then at the end, it was very much the opposite of silent. Instead of going back and fixing that… I wrote this intro. That’s part of the fun in looking at the week that was. 

Another week is in the books for the Houston Rockets. Houston is officially nine games into the season, making this the one-eighth mark of this shortened year. An eighth is an interesting distance because the Rockets are still early enough in the season that they have reason to be optimistic. Their half-court defense is, in points per 100 possessions, one of the best in the NBA. Their offense is diverse and multiple, both of which are welcomed changes.

Though something is still not clicking in Houston. The Rockets are an unimpressive 3-6 as they head into a friendly stretch of the schedule. The team’s development clearly was stunted by having multiple key pieces sidelined for the first ten days of the season. Now that the DNP-COVID and postponements are racking up, will Houston pull back into the thick of the pack?

For hints as to what is to come, here’s a look back at the week that was for the Houston Rockets. 

Loss to Indiana Positives

The loss to Indiana’s lone positive is that it was an attempt to distract ourselves from the day that was. 

Loss to Indiana Problems

The problems on Wednesday, January 6th, are much bigger than basketball. Commentating on the issues in a game played amidst a national embarrassment and catastrophe feels inadequate. Houston had problems, but they paled in comparison to the rest of the day. 

Win Over Orlando Positives

Houston finally had a game where all things on offense “clicked”. Ben McLemore was back and shot a perfect five for five from the three-point line. PJ Tucker found his stroke from deep as well. The Rockets added Jae’Sean Tate, John Wall, Christian Wood, and James Harden to round out with six players in double figures scoring. Wood added 15 rebounds, and Harden also had 13 assists. Every Rocket in uniform played. 

The well-rounded output implies just how easily the offense looked. Silas ran his split sets and the middle opened up for Wall to penetrate and kick. Harden rolled off the pick and roll to find Wood who, with the backside defense occupied, was open for several lobs. 

The game also proved that the ocmpetition for the eight and nine spots in the rotation is fierce. Sterling Brown has played his way in, McLemore looked like he didn’t miss a beat, and Tate continues to look like someone that Houston needs on the floor. 

Win Over Orlando Problems

Houston had great performances from welcomed new places. Sterling Brown and John Wall were both three of four from behind the three-point line. While picking issues on offense is nitpicky, Houston’s still struggling to find a three-point range out of key contributors. Harden was three of nine and Gordon was just one of four. Wood, whose versatility will open the offense, was one of five, and DeMarcus Cousins was zero for four. It’s great to have a fun night on offense, but the regular contributors need to find their shot in a hurry. 

The other negative, at this point in the year, comes in finding rotations. In a blow-out, every substitution looks perfect. However, Houston is still looking to figure out who will be key contributors in their rotation. How much should young Jae’Sean play? What role does Cousins fit into? Is Nwaba the replacement for House? Should it be McLemore? 

Unfortunately, those kinds of answers are still delayed two weeks from the Covid issues earlier. Houston is starting to ask questions afer game six that usually pop up in pre-season. As much fun as it is to boat-race an opponent, they don’t help you answer those. 

Loss to Lakers Positives

Let’s be clear: this was a wire to wire loss. Finding silver linings isn’t hard, but the Lakers are a strong opponent. The Rockets got them twice in a span of three days, which offered an interesting insight into how a playoff series could play out. Play them once, see strategies, make adjustments, and take advantage. 

The positives from the first game came in Houston’s half court defense. Houston’s half court defensive rating was 86, almost 20 points better than the best overall defensive rating in the NBA. The Rockets had trouble in transition, but when they got back they had a great understanding of what the Lakers were trying to do. This indicates that the Rockets had good game-plans and counters for LA’s sets. That’s important for the rookie head coach Stephen Silas. 

Houston played the majority of the third quarter at around a 13-point deficit. Houston lost the game in the second quarter when they had nine turnovers and was two of 11 from three. A long three point miss functions like a turnover in that it can help spring a fast break, as was seen several times in the lopsided quarter. Had they kept it closer in the second quarter, they would have been able to keep the game competitive longer. In the first and third (subs played a lot of the fourth for both teams), Houston looked like they could play with LA. The Rockets need to replicate that focus and intention with the basketball for a full 48 minutes, and later this year for a seven game series. 

Loss to Lakers Problems

Again, the Lakers controlled this game from start to finish. Coach Silas’ system may feel like it’s created a new-look Rockets, but the Lakers defense used some of the same doubling strategies they did in the Orlando Bubble to muck up Houston. The Lakers are one of the tallest and longest teams in the NBA. Thus, they are very effective in soft doubles and clogging up passing lanes. 

The soft double on Harden is just intended on forcing him to pass the basketball. The Lakers are asking any other Rocket to beat them. In Orlando, with a hobbled Westbrook, Houston couldn’t. On Sunday the Rockets needed Christian Wood, John Wall, or some Rocket to exploit the open area voided by the second defender on Harden. This is traditionally the middle of the floor near the top of the key. 

As is normal for a team still learning each other, Houston’s spacing was suboptimal. The backside perimeter players were close enough together that a single long LA defender could cover them and the midline simultaneously, thus negating the advantage Houston should have had after the double. Backside hammer screens were moot as the curl or flair were both too close to the roll, slip, or pop. Conversely, when a Rocket is not in a realistically threatening position, their defender will just leave them to help protect the basket. 

Yes, There Was Another DeMarcus Cousins Ejection

Boogie Cousins suffered another ejection. Near the end of  the first quarter, Cousins and  Markieff Morris got in a chest shoving match. Morris had leveled Jae’Sean Tate, and Cousins retaliated to protect his rookie. The double technical, in itself, was explainable. Morris was tossed (knocking down Tate was a level one flagrant foul). Cousins then swiped across a driving LeBron James in the first minute of the second quarter. In a span of three-game minutes, Cousins recieved his own trip to the locker room. 

DeMarcus Cousins’ second ejection in six games played both is and isn’t an issue. Cousins will be a very important part of the rotation. He is the only six-foot-ten or taller bench player, and thus the only real “big” substitute for Wood. When Cousins has not been available, Houston is forced to small ball or pull in an inexperienced and under sized Bruno Caboclo. In his previous five NBA seasons, Caboclo has played less than 100 combined games and logged just under 100 total minutes. 

Boogie is a leader for the new look Rockets, and moments like standing up for Tate matter. His versatility as a Center that shoots over 30-percent from three-point land matters. None of it can matter when he is out. Boogie has a notoriously bad rap with NBA officials, and the back and forth with him and the refs may end up playing its way into Houston’s success. 

The Houston Rockets were only down a basket when he was kicked out. Then the Rockets were outscored 40 – 25 in the second quarter. That isn’t directly Boogie’s fault. There were other issues, but it’s not unrelated, either. Houston has to figure out how Boogie fits in. He’s important and they’ve really only had four games thus far to do it. 

Loss to Lakers Game Two Positives

The Houston Rockets lost game one of this series in the second quarter. They lost this one in the second. It’s hard to pinpoint any positive on the night… It felt like Houston’s spacing was no better. Sure, younger guys played hard until the end, Boogie finished the game without getting tossed, and Sterling Brown poked the ball free four times, but this game will always, for good reason, be remembered for that which came after it. 

Loss Lakers Game Two Problems 

As far as the negatives within the game, it didn’t look like the Houston Rockets had full orchestrated the better spacing. Reports were that Houston and Coach Silas had taped them out on the ground for the Rockets in practice on Monday, but it apparently did not matter. The Rockets had 13 turnovers, the majority of which were in the minimally competitive stretches of the game. 

Silas’ complex offense will require perfect spacing. Offense is happening on both sides of the floor, separately. In order for that to work, Houston will have to be sure they can force defenders to be in true conflict positions. To do that, the offense needs to balance being both a space and a threat. 

All of that is hard to do when your best player is not engaged. Since hurting his ankle a little over a week prior to this game, James Harden has looked hesitant to get involved. He asked privately for a trade in November, and clearly doesn’t want to push it and hurt himself or his chances of being traded. 

The Press Conference Heard ‘Round the World

The post-game presser from Tuesday night after the second LA game trumped any an all schematic or analytic looks at the basketball game. After another bad loss, Harden walked to the podium like he has after most games this season, and started in a professional tone. He talked about a tough night against the defending champs, and the issues that brings up, and then…

He did it. James Harden said, in a defeated tone, he didn’t know what else he could do for the city of Houston. That he’d given it all he could. They just weren’t good enough.

Naturally, #NBATwitter exploded. By Wednesday morning, a trade of some kind was imminent. It was the same teams, players, and rumors as there had been in November… but Harden’s public words added urgency. So of course, the WojBomb came Wednesday afternoon:

WojBomb: Harden Gets Traded

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In a trade well outlined on Belly Up, the Houston Rockets sent James Harden to Brooklyn in a four-team deal that brought back Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, four first-round picks, and four pick swaps. On top of an All-Star with an expiring contract, the package was the most trade capital ever included in a single trade. Houston has access to Brooklyn’s first-round draft picks every year through 2027. The one-and-done college players that year are currently in 7th grade

The trade opens several, interesting doors. The Rockets now have access to draft capital Morey had sent away. They are invested in the youth and true rebuild in a way they have not been since drafting Yao Ming in 2002. There’s a real chance that Brooklyn’s run with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving is over well before those picks are done. Thus, Houston may end up with two pick in the early stages of several drafts. Fertitta, Stone, and the gang need to invest heavily in their draft scouting department. 

This also opens up money slots. Next season’s roster is currently $10 million under the projected minimum salary. The Rockets have the financial ability to go get whomever they want. They lost the face of the franchise, but now Rafael Stone has the flexibility to build it however he and Fertitta want. 

That’s really the story: this deal means that Rafael Stone, Tilman Fertitta, and Stephen Silas get to start over fresh. This team’s future can go in any direction: build a scrappy group of young guys to grow around a veteran John Wall and emerging star Christian Wood moving forward? Go all in on drafts and rebuild in-house? Work on a sales pitch and go after the biggest whale of Free Agency? It’s all on the table. 

Further, don’t be surprised if Houston moves PJ Tucker, Eric Gordon, or other big veterans from the Rockets of years past in the near future. If they’re starting fresh, might as well be really fresh. 

So, How Are We Feeling?

There is a bit that is sad. It will be heartbreaking in many ways to see the Houston Rockets’ franchise’s second-best player ever suit up for Brooklyn as early as Saturday. How can you not appreciate the great memories of basketball James Harden’s Rockets had over the last eight seasons? And now he rejoins D’Antoni, Durant, and Jeff Green? 

There’s a bit of frustration. It felt like Harden never gave this iteration of the Rockets a real chance. Sure, this team had work to do to beat the Lakers. Yes, they hadn’t had a full roster in any single game yet. The Rockets were working through preseason issues in January… and that was too slow for James Harden and that’s frustrating. 

There is a little bit of anxiety. Stone and Silas have both proven to be great hires, but what has Tilman Fertitta done to make Rockets’ fans confident in this rebuild? The precipitous fall since May of 2018 has been entirely under his watch and by the actions of his wallet. Stone and Silas appear to know what they’re doing, but will the owner shell out the money to really do it? Can Houston use its space and draft capital to build a contender from the ground up, or will they resort to a penny-pinching franchise bent on drafting young pros, developing them, and shipping them out like a minor league system?

It’s all on the table, and it’s all fair. Houston is at one of the most unique places a basketball team can be. Coming off of six years of being a perennial contender because on a given night you had an unstoppable force on the floor, Houston enters seven years of draft talk and scouting… maybe? There are a ton of directions this can go, and we’re here to follow all of them. 

For more on sports, sneakers, and the Houston Rockets, follow me @painsworth512 for more, and give our podcast “F” In Sports a listen wherever you listen to podcasts!

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