We’re at the quarter-of-the-season mark in the NBA where teams have played somewhere between 19 and 23 games. That’s a sizable amount of hoops, and we’re able to start digging to see whose start to the season was a fluke, and who’s real. Somehow, even after a season where they were one half of basketball away from the NBA Finals, the jury is still out on the Houston Rockets.
At 9-11, just eight teams in the league have a worse record than the reigning western conference regular season champion Rockets, and seven of them come in east. Houston is stacked right around a bunch of .500 teams, showing their competition has gotten better from last season.
Is it possible the Rockets won’t even make the postseason?
What happened to Houston?
First, the obvious. The Rockets made a silly decision to not retain either Trevor Ariza or Luc Mbah a Moute, their two best defensive players, in the offseason. Instead, Houston replaced them with Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis, which... hasn’t worked. Anthony is no longer with the team after showing his porous defense in yet another city, and though Ennis has been fine, he isn’t nearly enough to make up for the losses of the other two.
Houston hasn’t been fully healthy, either. James Harden sat out for three games through the end of October, and Chris Paul has missed five to suspension and a hamstring injury.
How bad have the Rockets really been?
That mess hass resulted in Houston dropping from the best offense in the league to the ninth-best, and defense from the seventh-best to the seventh-worst. As of Nov. 27, the Rockets were outscored by .46 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball reference’s adjusted team ratings. That’s identical to last season’s 44-win Bucks team.
It’s just November, and Houston is six losses away from tying its total from all of last season. The team is already on its second four-game losing streak. The last four L’s were at the hands of the Mavericks, Wizards, Cavaliers and Pistons.
Are there eight teams really better than them in the West, though?
Maybe! It speaks to how competitive the league has gotten that last year’s MVP could conceivably miss the postseason.
Just doing a quick count, there are a number of shoo-ins unless hell breaks loose. The Warriors are, uh, going to make it, as are the Nuggets. The Trail Blazers and Thunder are a fairly safe bet, and then dang it gets tough. Should stars stay healthy on the aforementioned teams, that leaves four spots between these teams:
Half of those teams are unlikely to make a postseason run, and really, who do you bet against?
The Clippers have the best record in the conference and are rolling. The Grizzlies might finally have everyone in sync while the injury bug bites elsewhere. The Lakers have that guy. The Spurs have that coach. The Pelicans have that brow. The Mavs have that prodigy. And the Jazz... well they’re going to figure it out, right?
What I’m trying to say here is that Houston isn’t safe as currently constructed.
Is there hope for the Rockets?
Sure! The Rockets are 1-7 when either Paul or Harden don’t play, and 8-4 when they both do play. The fix could simply be getting both guys healthy. Though that sounds simple, do remember Paul is 33 years old, though.
Those are small sample sizes, too, and one lingering offseason question looms. On offense, Paul and Harden, along with Clint Capela catching lobs and Eric Gordon splashing threes should click. But what about the defense?
Trevor Ariza was that lockdown guy on opposing wings last season, but who’ll fill that role now? The Anthony experiment was a bust, and the Ennis trial is going fine, but there are elements lacking. And so far, there’s been no true answer.
Does Houston make a trade? Jimmy Butler’s off the table.
Never doubt GM Daryl Morey’s genius, or head coach Mike D’Antoni’s innovative schemes. It’s early still. But right now it’s tough to say with confidence that Houston is a playoff team. They look like just another team in the West, and that thought was inconceivable six months ago.