All I’ve wanted as an NBA fan since Kevin Durant joined the Warriors is to see that team get tested. That’s what made last May’s West finals so enthralling. The Rockets weren’t a perfect challenger for Golden State. Their style of play wasn’t always aesthetically pleasing. They didn’t have the same number (or caliber) of top-flight stars. And the Dubs themselves were notably battling an injury to Andre Iguodala. Still, Chris Paul’s shimmy in the face of Steph Curry was an top-three 2018 NBA moment for me, as Houston had finally put the defending champs on the ropes.
Of course, Paul would get hurt, the Rockets would blow leads in Games 6 and 7, and Golden State would cruise to another NBA title. At the time, Houston—with its two superstars—appeared to be the foremost thorn in the Warriors’ side for the near future, providing an opponent for all those who think a Dubs title is a fait accompli. That’s what has made the Rockets’ performance so far this season incredibly difficult to watch.
After a nationally televised drubbing in Utah at the hands of the Jazz, Houston is now 11–13, only a half-game ahead of the Spurs from second-to-last in the conference. After finishing second and first in offensive efficiency the previous two seasons, the Rockets are now ninth in that category. And 2018’s seventh-best defense appears to be a complete aberration, as Houston is currently sporting the fifth-worst defense in the league.
A Rockets drop-off wasn’t completely surprising. Heck, I wrote in May the team may never get another chance to beat the Warriors, but falling this fast this quickly is completely shocking. I still expect Houston to make the playoffs and probably even the second round, but the team currently isn’t scaring any of the league’s actual contenders.
The defensive slide is incredibly worrisome. A little slippage could have been expected. For a team that relies so much on switching and individual matchups, the slightest downgrade in focus could have a serious impact on results. But in no world should the Rockets have a worse defense than the inept Wizards or the tanking Hawks. It’s just obvious Houston does not have the same verve on that end of the floor. The re-addition of assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik only seemed to help for a moment. It’s very clear now the loss of depth this summer has had serious consequences for Houston, and the greatness of the remaining veterans hasn’t been enough.
Last season, three-man lineups of Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela posted a 12.1 net rating in 736 minutes, playing both elite offense and defense. This season, that trio has a -1.2 net rating in 301 minutes, playing substandard on both sides of the ball. With the degree of difficulty of their jobs increased, Harden and Paul (and Capela to a lesser extent) haven’t seemed to figure out how to account for the difference in talent.
Last season, a huge key to the Rockets’ success was Mike D’Antoni’s staggering of his star guards. When both were healthy, Houston almost never played with both Paul and Harden on the bench. When it was their turn to be the head of the snake, Paul and Harden delivered individually, making Houston almost impossible to beat. That script has flipped so far.
Last year, with both Paul and Harden on, the Rockets had a 13.0 net rating. This year? -0.7. When only Paul played last year, Houston had a 14.0 net rating. Now? That’s slipped to 4.1. In last season’s Harden-led minutes, the team’s net rating was 8.1. Through nearly two months of this season, that figure is only 0.1. Paul and Harden haven’t suddenly morphed into average players overnight. While Paul especially is certainly getting older, the Rockets’ biggest issue is that their margin of error is gone, and three guys who played big regular season roles for them—Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute—have all been replaced with downgrades. NBA Twitter’s collective perplexity at Houston’s offseason has come to fruition, and the team’s stars just can’t compensate right now.
Daryl Morey may still have some tricks up his sleeve, and he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. It wouldn’t be absurd if Ariza somehow ended up back here by spring. But whatever plans there are to fix this mess need to already be well in motion. Morey, whose team’s offensive system can (at the very least) partially be described as “stacking the odds in your favor,” must understand better than anyone how fleeting championship probabilities can be, particularly when 29 teams in the league started this season as massive underdogs.
It was literally earlier this calendar year when the Rockets looked like an answer to the Warriors. While not a perfect solution, they offered the most resistance the league has seen to the most talented squad ever assembled. But those conference finals might as well have been a lifetime ago. The NBA has no sympathy for teams who weren’t able to make the most of the opportunity in front of them. Only a short time after providing a glimmer of hope, the Rockets look much closer to being forgotten—or broken up—than making another run.