An Early Season Look at the Houston Rockets

It’s been an inconsistent start for the Houston Rockets. While it’s still early in the season to pass any significant judgment on what kind of team the Rockets will be this year, there are some promising signs but also many concerning signs. Let’s have an early-season look at their season so far, and a look at some of their recent games.

Early Season Look at the Houston Rockets

Houston Rockets – The Good: Christian Wood

Christian Wood has been terrific for the Rockets. He is currently averaging 23.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, and two blocks per game. These are nice numbers and he’s an early candidate for most improved player. This signing was a master-stroke by the new general manager, Rafael Stone. Wood has shown early chemistry with John Wall combining menacing dunks with his ability to shoot from range. He’s growing into his long frame, and he’s added muscle in the offseason to get stronger, making him more able to battle for rebounds in the paint. Early signs are good for this Rockets signing.

John Wall Looks Great

Wall has been excellent since arriving in the Russell Westbrook trade. He’s as fast as lightning in transition and is still one of the best point guards in the league at finishing in the paint. One of the biggest questions of this trade was to see if Wall had the fitness after not playing for much of two years due to serious injury. Early signs are really positive as he’s still fast off the dribble like he was in his early years, and he looks healthy and motivated to succeed. He provides noticeable positive energy when he’s on the court, and it’s clear that his on-court chemistry with Wood is a combo to build around. There is also a noticeable decline when both are not on the court together.

Houston Rockets New Style

Head Coach Stephen Silas is implementing a new system. Under previous head coach Mike D’Antoni they tried an ultra small-ball style last season, playing with no conventional bigs. Originally planned after trading traditional center Clint Capela, they wanted to allow Westbrook to have space in the paint to do his best work. That style was a win for the new-age analytics crowd, but the flaws were apparent as soon as they got handled by the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs last season. LeBron James and Anthony Davis took turns dominating them entirely.

At times that system worked when they moved the ball quickly to the open shooter, but it looked too much like re-inventing the wheel to be a long-term solution. For example, a lack of size in the paint, lack of a “Plan B”, and not enough shooters beside James Harden doomed them to an early exit.

Last year’s playoff failure instigated a significant change in direction for the Rockets in terms of front office and coaching staff. Silas has brought in welcome changes. Wanting to share the ball more, with less Harden isolation play, and bringing back the pick-and-roll, which Wall can thrive in with their new bigs.

It’s also clear Silas would like the team to go to the basket more than settle for three-pointers. He feels the higher percentage play is to get to the rim when possible. With the addition of DeMarcus Cousins and Wood, the Rockets have significant size in the frontcourt now.

The new system showed positive signs as the Rockets earned early wins against the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic, getting valuable contributions throughout the roster.

Growing Pains

While there are positives, there’s also a ton of issues. The Rockets are currently 3-6 and have come off getting completely handled by the Lakers in back-to-back games.

Sunday’s game against the Lakers was especially ugly. It started with Cousins getting ejected and it didn’t get much better from there, as they looked overmatched. At one point they were down by as much as 27 points midway through the third quarter. They were especially slow in getting back in transition, allowing a host of easy finishes at the rim as they struggled to get back on defense.

This is a common theme in the Rockets’ early play as they appear to struggle to protect the paint. Rebounding, especially on the offensive glass, has also been an early issue. Turnovers were also a problem for much of this game, with Harden committing an alarming seven.

According to the NBA.com recap of this game, Silas noted his frustration. “Two things for us were the turnovers and transition. The transition doesn’t have anything to do with being together for a day, a month, or a year. Run back,” said Silas.

If their defense was bad, their offense was worse, making just 12-of-41 three-point attempts. These numbers are not going to get it done.

Clearly, the Lakers are champions for a reason. However, this game is an example of the issues the Rockets need to work on going forward. They followed that performance with an embarrassing effort on Tuesday against the Lakers in another blowout loss. This has prompted Harden to vent his frustrations post-game, further raising questions as to his commitment levels.

James Harden’s Commitment

If the Rockets wish to be a playoff team this year, they need James Harden to buy-in quickly. Harden joined camp late and overweight, drawing criticism from media outlets as to his off-court activities. Furthermore, his trade-demands continue to be the elephant in the room for the Rockets. This scenario cannot be good for team chemistry.

Harden, in the past few games, has shown an inconsistent commitment on defense. Also, looking a step slow at times off the dribble, contributing to turnovers. He appears to be adjusting to the new offense, as he has taken fewer shots than he normally takes. He seems way off his usual performance levels which likely coincides with his trade demands.

Commitment is the major word here. Reports last week suggested optimism in Houston that Harden will play out the season. However in the ever evolving world of the NBA, this appears doubtful after Harden’s latest comments. In a surprisingly candid take postgame, he said the Rockets are “just not good enough. I don’t think it can be fixed.”

It appears now that divorce is imminent with one of the biggest stars in the league and Houston. These comments may be an attempt at pressing the Rockets to trade him quicker. Either way, his relationship with this team appears untenable.

Overall Outlook for the Houston Rockets

Overall, it’s still very early and we can’t make too many judgments based on a few games, as they are capable of playing better in the next few games. On paper, they have potential if they can get Harden on the same page as Wall and Wood, and potentially Cousins too. Add some nice role players like P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon, there is enough talent to be a lower-seeded playoff team. This looks decidedly unlikely after their recent troubling performances. Its clear there are chemistry issues in the locker room.

On the plus side, Wood and Wall can be exciting pieces going forward. Extracting the best trade package for Harden appears the next course of action for the Rockets. In light of his trade demands, it may be best if this happens much sooner than later.

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