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Firing Kevin McHale won't fix the Rockets unless the players try harder

Houston fired its coach after a disappointing start to the season, but nothing will change unless the players actually give a real effort.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

There are problems with the 4-7 Houston Rockets that may never be solved. Dwight Howard may never be fully healthy for a long enough stretch this year. James Harden may never have a season as good as 2014-15. Ty Lawson may just be a poor fit next to Harden on both ends. The power forward situation may never sort itself out.

Those problems do not in any way explain why the Houston Rockets, a chic pick to contend for the NBA title, are sleepwalking through the beginning stretch of their season. They've already lost decisively at home to the Nets, Nuggets, Celtics, Warriors and shorthanded Mavericks, and they were on the other end of a 41-point swing in a road loss to Miami. No team has even made the playoffs after posting a point differential this poor in the first 11 games since the 2006-07 Heat, and they limped there meekly due to injuries and old age.

It's early, but this is a crisis. The Rockets know this, which is why they had the dreaded players-only meeting and then abruptly let go of Kevin McHale a day later. But these problems go far beyond McHale, whose departure proves the old axiom that it's easier to fire the coach than the players. He was made the scapegoat for the players' lethargy.

It doesn't matter who is coaching the team if the Rockets' players continue to fail in these three fundamental areas.


Step 1 to fixing this problem is simple: Give an honest effort. Last year's Rockets thrived because they charged at opponents with waves of raw, frantic energy. Those same players are now standing wide-eyed as opponents fly past them in transition.

Transition defense is indeed Houston's biggest problem. Teams score 15.5 percent of their points against the Rockets on the break, per Synergy Sports Technology. Only the lowly Sixers and Jekyll-and-Hyde Kings have surrendered more total points on the break than Houston this season, and no team has actually stopped a lower percentage of transition opportunities.

The sheer number of transition chances the Rockets give up is the biggest issue. Houston is allowing teams to get 17.5 transition possessions per game this season. The Hornets are second-worst in opponent transition conversion percentage, but have surrendered just 11.3 transition possessions per game, lowest in the league. The Hornets have unheralded players who get back because they know they lack the athleticism to compensate without meticulous planning. The Rockets have stars who think they can take shortcuts and be fine. It's no accident that Charlotte has overachieved as Houston has floundered.

Good transition defense requires both positioning and hustle, and the Rockets have failed in both areas. The Rockets search for corner threes and aggressively attack the offensive glass, which can have unintended consequences when they don't score or grab the board. It's common to see three or even four players stuck on the baseline when a shot goes up or a player drives.

But that can't be an excuse for the players. Everyone wants corner threes now, and the Rockets have big men who are good enough to crash the offensive boards. Once the shot is attempted, those players in the corner already need to be starting their retreat. They cannot be running in for rebounds or just standing there if there are already multiple teammates doing the same.

Paying more attention to that detail will go a long way, but the Rockets' issues go deeper. Not only is their preparation slow, but their effort as the transition opportunity is happening is unacceptable. Too many Rockets have been caught jogging back as their man -- or at least the most dangerous opponent threat -- outruns them.

Those are five different Rockets players who were outhustled by their man on the break. There is no X's and O's fix for that piss-poor effort. Those players just need to run harder.


The transition issues bleed over to Houston's half-court defense. Because players aren't in the right position from the start, the Rockets must scramble to cover up holes. NBA teams are too smart not to take advantage of the Rockets' confusion to get easy scores.

But the attention to detail also isn't there when Houston gets a chance to set its defense. The Rockets like to trap the ball on pick-and-rolls, but the backside rotation has consistently been late, leading to layups and juicy open threes. That style of defense only works when all five players are talking, and we've seen too little of that this year.

The communication problem gets especially problematic when the Rockets switch assignments, which happens too frequently. Some teams switch as a power move to short-circuit a team's offensive set, but the Rockets do it out of laziness so they don't have to fight through screens.

This'll happen to anyone on occasion, but it happens multiple times per possession for the Rockets. They switch even if it causes a mismatch and they don't communicate their intentions to each other quickly enough when doing so. There's no reason for Harden and Howard to switch here, and even if there was, they need to talk to each other to prevent an awful breakdown like this.

This problem pollutes every Rockets lineup and probably explains why Howard hasn't been the savior he was in the past. Drivers have too much of a head start for Howard to adequately contest shots. When Howard played last year, the Rockets funneled dribble penetration to him. He's caught unprepared this year and that's enough to profoundly change his rim protection numbers. Backup Clint Capela at least has more spring in his legs, but his positioning is even worse and he too gets punished by his teammates.

Houston certainly has less defensive talent on the perimeter, particularly with Patrick Beverley sitting. Nevertheless, they should be performing much better than this. It starts with actually talking to each other.


Talking to each other also means we'll see fewer awful lapses. The Rockets should be embarrassed by the number of times an opponent has cut backdoor on a snoozing defender. It's a plague that cannot continue.

Harden is clearly the worst offender. As CBS Sports' Matt Moore notes, he's devolved into Internet Meme James Harden after working hard to shed that reputation last year. The narrative of Harden's defensive improvement was always a little overblown, but there's no denying that he's averaging significantly more bloopers per game this year.

But it's not just Harden. Everyone has been afflicted. Lawson has been victimized.

Corey Brewer has fallen asleep in as obvious a way as Harden.

Even Trevor Ariza and Beverley, the two players counted on most to establish a defensive identity, aren't immune.

The lack of focus here is astounding and must be addressed. Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff will surely point out the errors, but the onus is on the players to correct them.

It's amazing that a purported title contender is having trouble paying attention on defense, but here we are.


The evidence points to a major chemistry problem with the Rockets, which is why they felt the need to fire McHale so quickly. Coaches always take the blame when the players give such a poor effort, simply because it really is easier to fire one coach instead of 15 players.

Yet blaming McHale for this debacle is shortsighted. The Rockets players simply need to show more professional pride to dig themselves out of this mess. They're too talented to be playing this poorly and renewed focus on the basics will allow them to display that talent.

On the one side, "try harder" is a simple solution. On the other hand, what does it say about a team with such high hopes that we even have to say that?