A few months after looking like the league’s best answer to the Warriors, the Rockets have been awfully disappointing to start this season. Houston is 4–5 entering Wednesday, and even that sub-.500 record is misleading. Four of the five losses have been by double digits, and three of the four wins have come against the East, with two of those against likely lottery teams. Meanwhile, Daryl Morey is catching insults from writers on Twitter, and Chris Paul’s insurance commercials are no longer providing catchphrases or Backstreet Boys carpool karaoke.
I believe the Rockets can right the ship, or at least want to believe they can. Paul and James Harden are too good to play for a middling team, and I will stan P.J. Tucker forever after he told me I killed my outfit at SI’s Fashionable 50 party in July. For now, let’s dive a little deeper into some of the stats from Houston’s less-than-ideal start.
(All stats current as of Wednesday morning)
1. -5.1 Net Rating
Here’s the most obvious one: The Rockets have a minus-5.1 net rating with both Harden and Paul on the court. That has to be unsustainable, right? For comparison, Houston’s net rating with both players on last year was 13.0, which means the Rockets have been 18.1 points per 100 possessions worse with the duo playing this season. Houston certainly has defensive issues to work out, but its offensive rating with Harden and Paul is 109.4 right now, which would place them in the middle of the league and behind teams like the Nets.
That number almost certainly has to go up. Injuries haven’t helped, as the two have played only 85 minutes together. As that sample size grows, the offense should improve. Remember—a key factor to the Rockets’ success last season was playing well not only when Harden and Paul played together, but also when they each ran the show solo. Houston’s not getting any of that right now. Getting back on track with their two Hall of Famers sharing the floor should go a long way in fixing some of the team’s issues.
2. 112.0 Defensive Rating
The Rockets have a 112.0 defensive rating when Paul, Harden, and Carmelo Anthony are all on the floor together. That’s just not going to work. The stats paint a ghastly picture for Melo. In his 274 minutes, Houston has a minus-6.2 net rating. Even though Anthony is capable of going off offensively, his defensive effort has been what everyone feared when Houston signed him in the wake of losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute.
Anthony doesn’t even want to stay in front of anyone, and he’s constantly losing his man off the ball. He’s making up for these lapses by fouling, sometimes even blatantly shoving players from behind after they’ve gotten between him and the basket. It’s unfair to single out Melo when the whole team has been playing poorly defensively, and Anthony was still a low-risk signing at the vet minimum. But so far, he hasn’t offered much reward, and if his current trajectory continues, Mike D’Antoni will need to be much more judicious about his minutes.
3. 65th Percentile in Isolation Scoring
This one is a bit of a double-edged sword. Paul is currently in 65th percentile in isolation scoring; last season he was in the 91st. Has Paul just become a terrible isolation player? While it would certainly be difficult for him to replicate his success from last year, it doesn’t help that his frequency of isolation possessions has jumped 6.1%. That’s in large part due to Harden missing so much time, and the offensive burden switching onto Paul.
As Harden starts to soak up more isolations—and defenders—Paul should see a decrease in iso possessions, and ideally, an increase in efficiency. Still, this illustrates what a high-wire act the Rockets’ offense can be. They aren’t necessarily obsessed with getting great shots. Houston often simply trusts its best players in space to create plays, and a little variance in those events can cause big swings offensively. The more Harden—who has been just as incredible in isolation so far as last season—plays, the more positive effect it should have on Paul’s own offense.
One more note on Paul: He’s shooting way worse on pull-up threes this year. I just said he deserves more time playing with Harden before drawing any conclusions... but as the miles on his legs increase, that’s definitely another number to keep a close eye on.
4. 31.7% on Catch-and-Shoot Threes
Everyone agrees the bread and butter of the Rockets’ offense is shots at the rim and threes, right? Well, this season is what happens when the team starts missing those shots. Houston is taking 3.5% fewer catch-and-shoot threes this year than it did last season, and it’s connecting on only 31.7% of those attempts, compared to 37.4% a year ago. The good news? So far the Rockets are taking more shots within 10 feet of the rim. The bad news? They are shooting 17.4% worse from the field on those attempts than last season.
Again, regression would indicate that the Rockets should actually improve offensively. They still have good shooters and two elite finishers in Paul and Harden. Perhaps these numbers are simply the result of injuries and a prolonged cold streak. The issue for D’Antoni and Morey will be figuring out how long they’ll be comfortable with these numbers before they decide the roster is the issue.
5. Nine Games
All right, so this is a little unfair, but this all comes back to the fact that Houston has only played nine games. The sample size is small, so I’m not ready to draw any hard conclusions. Paul and Harden are two of the best players in the world, and the more time they spend on the court together, the more this team should resemble a juggernaut. Even if they had the same exact roster, I had my doubts the Rockets would be as focused this season. I’m willing to wait out this roster a tiny bit longer before truly panicking.
Having said all of that, you can’t really afford to coast in the West, where the Warriors are more Warriors than ever, the Nuggets are blossoming, and stalwarts like the Blazers remain tough outs. Houston’s malaise phase has to stop now, with both Paul and Harden healthy and the team on the outside of the playoff bracket. If any of the above stats are still a major issue after another 10 games or so? That’s when changes will have to be made.