The Houston Rockets have been terrible this season. Why is that?
The fall of the Houston Rockets is an NBA story as notable as the dominance of the Warriors, Kobe’s farewell tour, and the return of the Oklahoma City Thunder as a top tier team.
The Rockets currently sit under .500 and are far from the 56-win team that appeared in the Western Conference Finals against the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors just one season ago. The team is in possession of one of the best centers in Dwight Howard, a runner-up MVP in James Harden, a quality point guard in Ty Lawson, and a solid supporting cast consisting of players like Corey Brewer, Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and Terrence Jones.
On paper, this squad should be one of the top teams in the Western Conference, arguably top four. However, the reality is that the Rockets have been extremely disappointing two months into the season and are barely holding on to the seventh seed.
This team looks distracted, and they are far from the championship contenders that they were just a season ago. There are several factors that contributed to the fall of the Rockets, many of which were off the court.
The Firing Of Kevin McHale
The firing of former head coach Kevin McHale was unfair and happened way too early into the season. During his time in Houston, McHale managed to coach the team to three consecutive playoff appearances, including an appearance in the Western Conference Finals. In addition, the team had only gotten better each season with McHale as coach (.515 to .549 to .659 to .683 records).
Unfortunately for McHale, his players seemed to quit on him. The team refused to play hard and didn’t show up every night. During the time that McHale was coach, the Rockets were one of the most inefficient teams in the league. Rocket’s forward Trevor Ariza voiced his opinions on the team’s performance as well:
“As a team we’re not playing hard enough,” forward Trevor Ariza said at Monday’s shootaround. “A team is not one individual, its everybody. So we have to get it together. We’re slacking and that’s not the type of team we are, that’s not the type of personalities we have as individuals. Whatever the case may be, we have to snap out of it and get it together.”
The numbers only back up Ariza’s claims. It was unfair that McHale, who is a more-than-capable head coach in the NBA, had to take the fall for his team’s lack of effort. The Rockets will continue to move forward with J.B. Bickerstaff as they try to fix the issues pestering the team.
Dwight Howard has made his way from perennial all-star and the best, most athletic big man in the league to notorious crybaby. The 11-year veteran is only averaging 13.5 points per game, the fewest since his rookie season (‘04-‘05). Howard is still an elite rebounder, but outside of that, he’s just not the player he used to be. Stats aside, the Rockets’ center has been a problem for every team that he’s been a part of.
Coaches go out of their way just to make him happy but find themselves fired in the process. During his time in the NBA, he’s already run through several different coaches.
Dwight Howard seems to be a coach’s worst dream because he threatens job security. A change of coaches isn’t all that uncommon. But when you run though respected coaches such as Stan Van Gundy, Kevin McHale, and Mike D’Antoni, there’s something wrong.
The rumors are that Howard is unhappy in Houston. He wants to be the first option of a basketball team, and he doesn’t appreciate playing second to Harden. This season, Howard is only averaging 8.3 field goal attempts per game. This is the first time since his rookie season that he’s averaged less than 10 field goal attempts per game.
Howard hasn’t been the first option of a team since he left Orlando. He wants to be a winner but refuses to take the role that is necessary from him to succeed. The drama of having Howard on a team has proven to push teams out of championship contention, notably with Los Angeles Lakers and currently with the Houston Rockets.
If the Rockets don’t trade Howard, they’re going to have to somehow manage to keep his ego in check because he can’t be the first option for this team. If they do trade Howard, they need to make sure that they get quality assets back.
A quick look at Harden’s stat-line will lead the casual fan to believe that he isn’t a contributor to the problems that the Rockets are facing. He’s averaging 28.4 points per game (second in the NBA), 6.1 rebounds (fourth among guards), and 6.8 assists (first among shooting guards). He’s also shooting a putrid 41.6% from the floor (lowest since his rookie season) and 34.4% from three (lowest in his career). The poor shooting can be attributed to averaging 19.8 field goal attempts per game, the most he’s ever attempted. However, the problems stand outside of statistics.
In a players-only meeting, teammates expressed their discontent with Harden.
“While players tried to keep details of the meeting private, two themes emerged, three people told USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation. Harden’s play and aloofness have frustrated teammates, and McHale took the brunt of the blame for the team’s play. Practices were not resulting in improved play in games.” - Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt
Harden has taken a lot of criticism in the past for his terrible defense, and this season has been no exception. The runner-up MVP is giving up 105.9 points per 100 possessions. He’s also earning 104.7 points per 100 possessions on the offensive end of the floor. However, his overall net rating is -1.1. Essentially, Harden’s defense is keeping his team from succeeding on the floor.
As the best player and captain of his team, Harden needs to lead by example. There is no question that he’s a monster on the offensive end, almost unstoppable. However, his lackadaisical defense and lack of consistent effort from game to game keeps the Rockets from contending.
It’s a shame that the Rockets have underperformed this season following their first Western Conference Finals appearance since 1997. This team was expected to make a jump this season and contend for a championship.
They have all the talent available to do so on their roster, but the Rockets have been unable to put the pieces together on and off the court. The organization will either have to figure out a way to make the pieces that they have work or make some moves to get themselves back to where they were last season.
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