Just over another week in the books for the Houston Rockets, and another handful of losses. Houston extended the losing streak to thirteen, bringing them to 11 – 23. Since Christian Wood’s injury last month, Houston has been beaten up in every way you can beat up a basketball team. They lose rebounding battles and shooting contests. The Rockets are frequently caught out of rotation and have trouble penetrating the defense.
Houston’s issues come from lack of consistency in several key areas… And so, for this week plus’s Houston Rockets’ Round-Up, we’re going to take a look at that and a look at what moves are on the horizon.
Death (by) Line Up
The Houston Rockets have utilized the most different starting lineups in the NBA to date… which I guess means they’re winning something. Houston has used no single starting lineup more than four times in their 34 games to date, and so it’s hard to tell whether there’s cause or effect there. After the Cleveland game, Houston had yet to play a single five-man lineup more minutes than a double-over-time game.
The Rockets are the only team in the NBA without a 5-man lineup that has logged more than 55 minutes.— Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane) March 1, 2021
The Utah Jazz have four 5-man lineups that have played more than 138 minutes
On the one hand, the constant shifting line ups have led to no growth via consistency. How can playmaker John Wall get a better feeling for playing with sharp-shooting Danuel House if they’re not on the court together often? How can Victor Oladipo get a feel for when PJ Tucker will cut backdoor versus when he sits in the corner if they don’t get game reps?
This argument isn’t just a theoretical one, but a practical one. Even if you’re on #TeamTank for the modern iteration of the Houston Rockets, how can you figure out what pieces to keep if the young ones aren’t gelling? Wall has played 23 games in Houston and appears to be one of their best two players. But after playing two-thirds of the games, is he someone to keep around? Oladipo has played just one more total game than Wall this season, but he’s only played in 13 for Houston. House, Eric Gordon, and PJ Tucker are all known commodities, but they also have all missed time. Then you factor in Wood’s injury, The Boogie Cousins experiment, and the loss of James Harden, and boom- here we are.
But this many line ups doesn’t have to be a negative. To some degree, it’s also important to note that Houston won’t sit still. A key factor to the relative success of the last decade of Houston Rockets’ basketball was that the franchise refused to be dull. Transaction after transaction brought star after star. Currently, in an attempt at a fast rebuild, Houston is doing the same with their line up.
The Rockets’ revolving door of line ups are also a way to be constantly trying out something to see if it works. This group can’t beat Memphis? Wash it. That group struggles to defend the Free-Throw line extended Double-Drag? Next-up. There’s been no time, in season, to settle for mediocrity. Sure, doubling down on change and chaos hasn’t yielded many wins in the last two and a half weeks. But it also shows a shotgun approach to speeding up the Rockets’ unconventional rebuild.
Regardless of the way you see the endlessly rotating lineup, it’s clearly not entirely intentional. Houston wants to be able to roll out Wall, Oladipo, Wood, and some combination of Tate, Nwaba, Gordon, House, and Tucker. But Wall and Oladipo won’t play back-to-backs, Wood has a bum ankle, Nwaba is coming off of his own Achilles injury, Gordon has to sit every few games for rest, Tucker’s been injured… the list goes on. Houston needed everything to go exactly right to be competitive after trading James Harden. Instead, it appears the only place they’re going is the ice bath.
Out (on) Size
DeMarcus Cousins was never supposed to be the answer for Houston. Cousins was a low-risk, high reward signing for the Rockets on a great deal for a back-up center. Boogie’s locker room presence was real. Young players loved getting to learn from an elder-statesman who understands utilizing being young and explosive.
But when Wood went down, and Boogie couldn’t muster more than the 22-minutes of back-up type of play, Houston was in trouble. Without the MVP-caliber play of Harden or Russell Westbrook, Houston was forced to return to small ball. Tucker continues to battle as a small ball Center, and Houston has added Justin Patton to help out. But this team was built around Christian Wood getting 36 or more minutes a night, and his replacement treading water for whatever was leftover.
The vertical hole is clear on both ends of the floor. On offense, Houston is limited to pick and pop options. Teams don’t have to deal with the threat of short or long rolls from the screener because those options are limited. Instead, they can really toy with the dribbler and force actions. Wood was great in all three phases. He could beat teams at the rim on the full roll, distribute the ball like a guard on the short roll, and punish dropping bigs on the pop. His versatility gave defenses fits. His absence is doing the same to the Rockets.
The way this has played out on defense is clear: Houston continues, just like when small-ball was intentional, to bleed rebounds. The second and third chance buckets aren’t from a lack of hustle. Tate and Nwaba play as hard as anyone in the league. But the height and length works, for opposing teams, as if the ball and their hands had magnets in them.
Remember your (lack of) Creator
Oladipo has put up good counting stats, but a limited and recovering John Wall has proven to be the closest thing the Rockets have on a reliable creator from the perimeter. But Oladipo has only played in 24 games this season, just 15 in Houston. Wall has only played in 25 of the 33 games. Wood, a big that can create from “the nail” in the middle of the floor, has played in just 17 games. Outside of that trio, there aren’t a lot of creators on the Houston Rockets.
That’s not to say there aren’t good or fun role players. The young Jae’Sean Tate is a facilitating sparkplug. Ben McLemore will, on a whim, have a “66-percent from three” game. Danuel House is a three-point shooter and an acrobat in the lane. But on the whole, none of them can consistently puncture a defensive coverage and force rotations. Occasionally Eric Gordan has proven to be able to shoulder that load, but he is over 32-years-old and regularly needs to rest his knees and back. To date, Gordon has played just 26 games this year.
Head Coach Stephen Silas is an offensive genius. He ran the Dallas Mavericks’ offense last year, led by Luka Doncic, to record-setting numbers. Before that, he was a key offensive assistant for the Monta Ellis iteration of the Golden State Warriors and was in the room that drafted Steph Curry to do the same. Before that the Gilbert Arenas Washington Wizards. At every turn, Silas has run a successful offense with a key playmaker bringing up the ball. In Houston? The two guards he signed up for (Russell Westbrook and James Harden) are gone. Their replacements have been in and out of the lineup. Their backups aren’t that kind of basketball players.
That’s not to say that guy isn’t coming. If they can’t trade Victor Oladipo before the deadline, his expiring contract opens up a coveted Max Contract spot this off-season. The plethora of draft new picks over the next few seasons indicate Houston may want to develop their own version of that guy. Or, perhaps they have that guy in the works…
Kevin Porter Jr.
Listen, I understand hoping a 20-year-old kid turns into James Harden is putting a lot on him. I understand expecting a superstar is setting both the kid and I, as a fan, for failure. But damn… The types of things Kevin Porter Junior has done in do defenses in the G League bubble have been anything but G Rated. KPJ is getting 24.3 points, 7.1 assists, and 5.1 rebounds per game in his 14 games for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He’s that creator that punctures the defenses for Vipers head coach Mahmoud Abdelfattah.
Harden left big shoes to fill… but Porter can fill them.
Kevin Porter Jr x James Harden 🔥 pic.twitter.com/3nkz89mSEP— arian (@arxanii) February 21, 2021
Obviously, the G League’s bubble talent is not the same as the slew of NBA teams in the Harden clip. But what stands out about the 20-year-old kid is that he has something similar inside him. With a G League stint to build his confidence back, the Rockets are taking the slow approach. They’re currently closer to the number one overall pick than the playoffs and thus in no rush. Why shouldn’t they be patient with KPJr? After all, his growth and maturity are the only things that have ever held him back. A handful of off the floor incidents, while not real trouble or violent, have seemed to color his track record wherever he’s been.
But what’s also followed him? Buckets. Wherever Porter has played, he’s been an offensive impact.
And if nothing else, Rockets fans will always have this viral high school hoops clip to hope for:
Houston will forever have reasons to root for James Harden’s success after the things he did for the Rockets. On Wednesday night, Harden was received by a combination of cheers and boo’s throughout the evening. Brooklyn won by 15, Harden had 29 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds, and had a True Shooting Percentage (TS%) of 80.2-percent. On the whole, he had an easy but dominant night.
But the more interesting aspect of the night was the pure joy of seeing The Beard back in town. There were chants asking for 82 points and there was a welcome back video. Harden was greeted warmly by the majority of his former teammates and coaches. PJ Tucker, John Lucas, Eric Gordon, and several other Rockets quickly welcomed Harden back to town. And to end the game? Harden flipped his kicks to the fans. Of the maximum 25-percent crowd, many flocked to wave one final goodby to Harden :
Harden’s impact in Houston has continued after his exodus. Harden continues to operate as a minority owner of the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash. His new restaurant, Thirteen, donated thousands of meals in the wake of the winter storm that decimated the state, and expanded that in the following week. He even just announced an adidas clothing and shoe giveaway for folks in Houston, via Instagram.
Harden’s return, in absentia of a Rockets’ win, went as well as it could realistically have gone. The Rockets are battered and bruised. Their former star is out killing it, helping the city out, and finally hearing the praises of the nation.
It’s weird to see people compliment James Harden’s “new” style of play. He was in the top ten in assists per game for the last five consecutive seasons, the top 20 in TS%, and averaged over 25-points per game since he showed up in Houston. If anything, this is the norm for the superstar. Alas… it is comforting, to some degree, that the country gets to enjoy something Houston enjoyed for eight years. Even if it’s at our expense.