The Houston Rockets' 2015-16 season has teetered on disaster at several points, with many problems leading to a 4-7 start and the scapegoating of former head coach Kevin McHale. The J.B. Bickerstaff era didn't begin much better, as the Rockets sat at 5-10 following a three-game losing streak in late November.
But 10 wins in 14 games later, there are finally signs of life in Houston.
Impotent offense and poor defense marred those first 15 games of the season. Last year's MVP runner-up James Harden was a culprit on both ends of the floor, with too much inefficient, high-volume offense and often embarrassing defense that produced lowlights almost every night.
Countless other problems plagued Houston in addition to Harden's apathetic play. Dwight Howard was in and out of the lineup as he recovered from injuries. Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley missed time with health problems and the Ty Lawson experiment never got off the ground.
The Rockets are still miles from title contention, but there are at least enough positive signs of late that this season may not be a complete lost cause.
A more consistent Harden has boosted offense
The Rockets scored just under 98 points per 100 possessions during the 5-10 start, the fourth-worst mark in the league over that span, per NBA.com.
Houston wasn't a particularly good offensive team on the whole last year, but it was an elite unit with Harden on the floor. However, the Rockets managed just under 100 points per 100 possessions with Harden in the first 15 games of this season, and that was thanks in part to his wildly inconsistent play.
Harden had his share of big games during the rough start, but his bad performances were really, really awful. Houston scored just under 93 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in its first 10 losses. His true shooting percentage was under 53 percent in those games.
The Rockets have posted 107 points per 100 possessions (fourth-best in the league) overall and 110 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the court in the 14 games since. That's unsurprisingly coincided with him becoming more consistently efficient.
Harden has dialed back on the three-point attempts by about two per game, and it's helpful that he's toned down some of the tougher shots taken after holding the ball for two or more seconds. He's also simply making more of his open three-pointers (29 percent to 40 percent), which has helped raise his overall percentage from 29 percent to nearly 33 percent on the year.
Harden's true shooting percentage has been similar in both wins and losses, and while Houston's offense with him on the floor has naturally dipped in defeats, it hasn't been the utter train wreck it was earlier in the season.
The defense has slightly improved
As bad as Harden shot early in the season, his downright lazy defense got most of the headlines. That poor effort on the defensive end rubbed off on the rest of the roster, to the point that it looked like the team had flat out quit on McHale. The hope was that Bickerstaff, the mastermind of the Rockets' defensive turnaround last year, could fix those issues and get the team back to playing elite-level defense.
It's been a bit of a mixed bag on that front. The defense has been better, going from just under 106 points per 100 possessions allowed in the first 15 games to a shade below 103 points per 100 possessions allowed over the last 14. There have still been plenty of defensive lapses, though, and that improved mark is mainly a function of the current three-game winning streak the team is on. Houston has allowed about 94 points per 100 possessions during the streak, which includes wins against the two Los Angeles teams and the Charlotte Hornets.
All three opponents shot below 30 percent from three, signifying a bit of luck involved. The Rockets gave up over 34 threes per game (the Hornets took 41!), but only 27 percent of those long balls went in. No matter how strong the defense is, there's some luck when opponents miss threes at that kind of rate. The bigger concern is that Houston is still allowing teams to attempt than many threes.
But we also must give credit where credit is due. There's been increased effort, notably from Harden. On the Hornets' first three-point shot on Monday, Harden navigated through several screens to contest a P.J. Hairston deep attempt:
Several minutes later, Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams went into a pick-and-pop beyond the arc with Harden defending Hairston on the opposite wing. Harden shaded over toward Williams to take away an open look there, then hustled back to contest another Hairston three after a cross-court pass:
These are subtle instances of hustle, but they're the little things that can make all the difference. Harden has shown the ability to be a competent defender when he's engaged, and if he's bringing it on that end of the floor, the rest of the team is more likely to follow suit.
Why it may not matter
The Rockets' performance has been better of late, but they've also beaten some cream puffs. Five of the last 10 wins came against the Los Angeles Lakers (x2), Philadelphia 76ers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, four of the worst teams in the league.
The "signature" win came last Saturday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers, but the Clippers haven't been lighting up the competition and also played the mighty San Antonio Spurs the night before. Monday night's win over the Hornets was also nice, but they're just 4-8 on the road. While stacking these wins is a plus, they still weren't all that impressive given the circumstances.
Furthermore, it'd take a significant amount of improvement and/or luck for the Rockets to get close to the level of the top three teams in the Western Conference. The Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder all look well ahead of the rest of the conference. Houston as currently constructed doesn't look like it can contend with that group.
Several of the problems that caused the bad start aren't any closer to being solved. Howard isn't the dominant force he once was, at least not on a consistent basis. Lawson remains lost on both ends of the floor, and the team's three-point shooting is still streaky. The Rockets are relying heavily on Marcus Thornton for bench production, which doesn't seem like a great recipe for success. The defense still has its ugly lapses, particularly in transition.
But perhaps this recent stretch is a true sign of things to come and Houston grows into the contender many thought it'd be before the season. Maybe general manager Daryl Morey makes a tweak or two that helps push the team forward. These scenarios aren't out of the realm of possibility.
Still, there are still plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the Rockets' viability as a contender moving forward. This recent stretch looks a bit like a mirage.
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Reviewing 2015: It was just a great f**king year in sports
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