To say this has been a disappointing season for the Houston Rockets would be an understatement.
All-Star break is over and the games are about to pick back up, but not before the NBA trade deadline comes and goes on the 18th. As we are about 24 hours from the deadline, I want to talk a little bit, editorial-style, about what I see from this team and what general manager Daryl Morey has on his plate.
- The #Pursuit is over. The Rockets have spent 50-60 games desperately trying to get back to the level they were at last season, and that wasn’t really close to good enough to beating last year’s Warriors, much less this year’s version. They may get their act together, make the playoffs and maybe even surprise somebody, but a championship? No. In my opinion, all trades considered should place a heavy emphasis on 2016-17.
- If the Rockets are a “broken” team, as J.B. Bickerstaff puts it, then the repair is needed on the defensive end, which is supposed to be Bickerstaff’s specialty. Houston’s offensive rating is the exact same as it was last season — 104.2 points per 100 possessions. Defensively, they have fallen completely apart. The Rockets’ defensive rating last season was 100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, good enough for 6th best in the league. This year that rating has plummeted to 106.4, dropping them to bottom 5 with the likes of the Lakers and Suns. So the multi-million dollar question is: How does a team starting Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley fall that far defensively?
- Harden came into training camp out of shape — no one disputes that at this point. But while the Rockets have had plenty of issues this season, all the major problems, directly or indirectly, can be traced back to this start. The Rockets are 10 games behind their pace last season, Kevin McHale was fired 11 games in, Dwight Howard is on the trading block… I don’t know if some or all of those things are true right now if Harden is ready to go out of the gate this season. He is both the problem and the solution. He’s a top-5 offensive talent and a bottom-5 defensive effort guy. He’s the face of the franchise, yet no one in the organization is able to hold him to a standard. Despite all this, this is the team’s only untouchable. Unless the Rockets find a coach that has more power and pull than Harden and demands his respect (and outside of Pop and Phil Jackson, does such a coach even exist?), they run the risk of future problems based on effort.
- As for Howard being shopped, I admit I was surprised by that. Not because it doesn’t make sense — if Howard’s agent made it clear he wants the max and the Rockets aren’t willing to go there, they should absolutely gauge the market. I was more caught off guard because Rockets owner Les Alexander is such a star-seeker that I didn’t think he would even consider unloading the one guy who said “yes” to all those free agent pitches over the years. I’m still not convinced it will happen for sure. The two teams that make the most sense to me are Boston and Atlanta. The Celtics would seem to want to take a leap forward now and have the rebuilding assets (picks) and a large expiring contract in David Lee. Atlanta is Dwight’s hometown and the Hawks have been considering a shakeup. But I agree the market won’t be big for what could amount to a 30-game rental… I don’t know if either team would part with what Morey would want. I would do cartwheels to be able to get the Brooklyn Nets’ first round pick that Boston holds, but they’re not going to part with that. Morey needs to find at least two very interested parties if he’s going to do well in any trade.
- I like Dwight Howard and will be a fan of his even after he’s wearing a different uniform, but there is an argument to be made that the Rockets might be able to build a better team without him. Maybe. Certainly, when your defensive rating is this poor, it’s going to be hard to see the upside of Howard, who is supposed to be one of the best defensive anchors in the game, but the Rockets have won their last six games this season without Dwight. Last season, they were 27-14 without him. If the Rockets do move Dwight, they may just embrace the poor defense and go all-in on offense.
- I don’t understand how Ty Lawson is this bad. I really don’t. Most of us recognized, even before acquiring him, that he wasn’t the ideal fit next to Harden, but he has been a complete zero for this team, even off the bench. If you look at his efficiency, per-36, advanced numbers, it’s like his career fell off a cliff. I just don’t get it. And remember — he represented the big improvement the Rockets made this summer, the one that was supposed to launch them into real title contention. There were a handful of analysts who picked the Rockets to win it all because of this addition. Earlier this season, I felt the Rockets should hold on to Lawson because the potential upside of him “getting it” was much, much higher than the scraps you’d probably get in return. Now I’m not so sure.
- Before there was talk about a core change (moving Dwight), the biggest need in my opinion was a power forward upgrade. The Rockets can throw a lot of bodies at the spot, but they don’t have the right fit, which is one reason they’ve been going small with a lineup of Ariza and Corey Brewer at the three-four. Donatas Motiejunas had back surgery over 10 months ago and he’s still not right, having played in only 14 games this season. Clint Capela is lost out there at times and has struggled with stamina, rebounding and even dunking lately. I know he’s young and raw and has the length you want out of a big, but if his value is that of a blue-chip prospect, I’d consider selling high. Terrence Jones hasn’t made sufficient strides in the four years he’s been here and doesn’t excel at any one facet that the Rockets need out of the position. He’s also dealt with some bizarre injuries over the last year — a “DNP – Abducted by Aliens” box line wouldn’t surprise me at this point. A restricted free agent this summer, Jones needs a new home. It’s just time.
- I was pretty sure K.J. McDaniels was going to get traded before the wheels came off on this team. Now, it’s pretty clear that all options are being considered. It also sure would be nice to get a look at Sam Dekker at some point. Granted, that will be in Rio Grande Valley once he’s fully cleared after his back surgery, but I want to see what he’s got.
- The Rockets owe their first round pick to Denver courtesy of the Lawson trade, something the Nuggets are no doubt loving right now given Houston’s struggles. But while Morey has taken criticism this year, you have to credit him for adding two protections into this trade, both of which didn’t seem critical or necessary at the time but now appear to be extremely important. One, they got Lawson to agree to convert the second year remaining on his deal into a team option, which is unheard of. Two, the first round pick is lottery-protected, and if the Rockets miss the playoffs this year, the first round pick does not carry over. Rather, the debt becomes a 2017 second round pick (via Portland). Needless to say, Denver is rooting for Houston to be the 8th seed.
- If I’m the Rockets, I would continue to place a premium on shooting. I don’t think there are any perfect trade targets (unless we’re talking about Al Horford), but some that make some sense to me are Ryan Anderson, Markieff Morris, Kevin Martin, Marvin Williams and even Pau Gasol.