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Friday, February 12, 2016

"Broken" Rockets Need a New Flight Plan

Interim Houston Rockets Coach J.B. Bickerstaff bluntly admitted that his underachieving team is "broken." This has been evident for quite some time, as the Rockets sputtered to a 4-7 start and fired Coach Kevin McHale just a few months after he guided the team to an improbable Western Conference Finals appearance.

Houston's problems are not difficult to identify, nor are they unexpected to anyone who watches this team with understanding. The Rockets roster has been assembled by Daryl Morey, who values the spreadsheet above all and has little appreciation for the importance of chemistry. Greg Anthony recently pointed out that the Golden State Warriors are great not because they have the five best players but rather because their players play well together. It is not surprising that the Rockets have enormous chemistry problems, because chemistry was not adequately considered when putting this team together.

Dwight Howard should be the central focus of this team, literally and figuratively. He is capable of being a dominant scorer, rebounder and defender. It is not a coincidence that Houston's run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals happened after Howard returned to health. Howard led the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals because that team was built around his strengths; opposing teams could not double team him because that would leave a sniper open outside the three point arc. The Magic had good spacing, enabling Howard to average 20.6 ppg during that 2008-09 regular season even though he has a relatively limited arsenal of low post moves. He averaged at least 20 ppg four times in a five year stretch with the Magic but as a Rocket his scoring averages have been 18.3 ppg and 15.8 ppg. He is scoring 14.6 ppg so far this season.

There are two problems with Howard: (1) injuries seem to have robbed him of some of his explosiveness and (2) he does not have a consistently dominant mindset. His personality is too passive for him to lead the team and James Harden is happy to fill that void--but the problem is that Harden's leadership style revolves around him accumulating big individual statistics, as opposed to playing in a way likely to maximize team success. Harden's style of play sets such a bad example at both ends of the court that it is unlikely he could ever be the best player on a championship team or even fill a leadership role on such a team.

Harden is perhaps the most overrated player in the NBA, though some people are starting to see the truth this season after Harden almost tricked the media into giving him the 2015 NBA MVP. Harden is the same kind of player as Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas and Carmelo Anthony; physically and stylistically those three players are different but the essence of who they are is the same: they lack leadership qualities, they are at best indifferent on defense and they want to be recognized as superstars without actually taking responsibility for the success or failure of their team. They have All-Star level talent but they are not elite players.

Marbury put up 20 ppg-10 apg seasons like no one since Oscar Robertson but Marbury's numbers were meaningless; he passed the ball not to help his team win but to make sure he got enough assists to pump up his numbers. Anthony is a prolific one on one scorer who has no idea how to lead a team anywhere and the rare, limited playoff success that he has enjoyed came when he played alongside point guards who are strong leaders (Chauncey Billups in 2009, Jason Kidd in 2013).

Harden plays no defense, he monopolizes the ball on offense, his pouting and self-absorption make him ill-equipped to lead and on top of all of that he came into camp this season out of shape. I laughed out loud the other night when a TV commentator said that Harden is having a "career year." Harden is averaging a career-high 28.0 ppg but he is shooting just .427 from the field--his worst percentage since his rookie season--and he is leading the league with a career-high 4.5 turnovers per game average. When Harden went to Houston four years ago I predicted that he would be an All-Star player who struggled to lead the Rockets past the first round. The Rockets lost in the first round in Harden's first two seasons with the team and are struggling to even make the playoffs this year after their fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals. Yes, it was a fluke--I said it at the time and those who did not understand/believe it in May 2015 will understand/believe it as this season and subsequent seasons unfold.

What objective evidence shows that their playoff run was fluky? The Rockets clinched the second seed in the West but only had the fifth best point differential in the conference--and point differential is a better measure of strength and more accurate predictor of success than wins and losses. The Clippers had the Rockets on the ropes in the second round but the Clippers have their own issues and blew a 3-1 lead. It was obvious that this season the Rockets would not come close to contending for the Western Conference Finals. I predicted that the Rockets would be the fifth best team in the West but so far they have been even worse than I expected: they are ninth in the West with a 27-28 record entering the All-Star break after losing their last three games and six of their last 10.

What can the Rockets do to avoid spending the next five or six years battling for the eighth seed and losing in the first round of the playoffs? The Rockets need to acquire or develop a true leader, a two-way player who the rest of the players on the roster will respect and follow. The Rockets need to involve Howard more in the offense and they need to develop a defensive scheme that takes advantage of his presence in the paint. The Rockets need to get the ball out of Harden's hands and have him play off of the ball more; the Rockets either need more scoring balance (with Harden scoring 20-22 ppg with a higher FG% and the other players being more involved) or they need to acquire a better first option player so that Harden can go back to being an efficient second or third option player.

The Rockets are not going to be a contender with Harden scoring 28 ppg while shooting less than .430 from the field and impersonating a turnstile on defense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:29 AM