Dissecting a difficult season in Houston
May 2nd, 2016

Earlier this week, Houston Rockets guard Jason Terry guaranteed that his team would beat the defending champion and legitimate candidate for best team in history, Golden State Warriors, in game five of their playoff series, a game which would end the Rockets’ season if they lost. And yet despite missing defending MVP Steph Curry, the Warriors won at a canter by 33 points. Terry was held scoreless.

The above is both a fitting conclusion and a damning microcosm of the Rockets’ season. They were expected to compete because they had just done so, making the Western Conference Finals last season losing only to those same juggernaut Warriors. But from the very off, when James Harden could not hit a jump shot to begin the season and the team waddled listlessly through high profile early season match­ups on international television, they never got going.

Indeed, they never got especially close to going. The team finished 41­-41, an unimpressive eighth seed without even much of a crescendo or a sign that it would suddenly snap into life. They were the Western Conference version of the east’s Chicago Bulls and nothing like what they so recently were.

Any title-­less season requires a post­season post­-mortem, especially disappointing seasons. The coach has already taken his share ­- head coach Kevin McHale was fired back in November after the 4­-7 start – and the marginal improvements under interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff will not stop him from having to interview for his own place again. The players have been scrutinised, Harden especially, and will continue to be. But if players do not fit together, it must be explored why they were put there, and who by.

Two weeks ago, I looked back on the body of work of former Philadelphia 76ers general manager and vice president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie, in light of his unexpected resignation and his extremely unexpected letter explaining his hitherto closely guarded inner narrative.

Hinkie was well known for his analytical, statistical approach to assembling a team, revered and derided in roughly equal measure for ostensibly favouring a business­-like, arcane approach over more traditional ways of measuring basketball teams and players’ effectiveness and cohesiveness. I concluded that Hinkie had done an incomparably excellent job at asset accumulation, but had not made much progress or shown much evidence of the importance of this cohesiveness in his attempts to lay a new foundation. There may be some comparisons to be found here with Houston and Daryl Morey.

Morey and Hinkie are, if not cut from the same cloth, cut from the same type of material. There are strong and well­-established similarities between the two in terms of their backgrounds and approaches, and it is both well known and not coincidental that Hinkie was Morey’s former second-­in-­command. Parallels, then, are obvious. Particularly given the way the Rockets have limped to the barn.

The earlier critique of Hinkie was essentially focused on how, with a completely blank slate and license to build whatever he wanted, he did not really build anything, only continually dismantle, reload and tinker. Hinkie took a team with few assets but nothing incumbent worth keeping, stocked it replete with assets, and made the future potentially better, but never made it actually better.

Morey, meanwhile, made his franchise and his reputation by treading water in the most productive way possible. The Rockets have, under his guise, never tanked or asset stripped. Instead, they continuously either made or nearly made the playoffs (finishing ninth in the rock hard Western Conference three times in a row, each time slightly above .500), whilst also asset accumulating. He took an aging, declining roster that was not bad (three straight fifth-place finishes) but which was not good enough, without much room for internal growth, and made it younger and better, while concurrently somewhat pioneering a new style of basketball (threes and layups) that has firmly stuck in the coaching realm and the NBA discourse.

The value of the step back from fifth to ninth was apparent and worthwhile, and last year’s strong campaign was the beginning of the paying of the dividends. In building his team, Morey drafted well, traded well, and maintained financial flexibility. Even at the times it never seemed to go very far and felt like over tinkering, he almost always won his trades and usually drafted for great value.

But the parallel to Hinkie is not just in their methodology, but also in their results. Just as Hinkie never cultivated an environment in which the young talents he coveted so much were given the optimum situation in which to develop, Morey has never (it now seems) built a particularly harmonious team of his own.

The glaring problems with the Rockets are easily seen on the court. On the most basic level, for all the emphasis on outside shooting, the Rockets are not that good at it. They were third in made three-pointers (878, only two behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for second), but only 19th in percentage (34.7%). A team supposedly focused on efficiency instead became increasingly focused on isolation-­style basketball, the very inefficiency we were told they were built to avoid.

Furthermore, the Rockets’ basketball IQ has not been good. The offence, sans Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin, was in too large of a part staffed by players who could only score with a big share of the ball.

Harden and Howard are the biggest culprits here. As he has risen to superstardom, Harden’s style of play has become almost excruciatingly ball dominating, while for all the athleticism and dunking of his youth, Howard has never used those skills in an efficient way. So much of his career arc has been about his abilities or inabilities in the post. He has good post moves, just not much natural touch outside of this. Tyson Chandler in his prime scored about as much as Howard does now without the abilities to catch, dribble, shoot, score with his left hand, score with his right hand, five hundred free throw attempts given to him per night or create on the block.

He could do this because he knew when to run, where to be, how to play pick ­and­ roll, and how to be an alley-oop threat at pretty much all times. Most of that can also be said of DeAndre Jordan today. It is true that Howard has never had a Chris Paul (the common denominator in both the above examples) to make him look better at this in the way that Chandler and Jordan have. But for all the focus on his offensive skills, Howard has largely avoided scrutiny of the sub­par way he has used all his physical tools. In light of his team’s offensive inefficiencies and inability to create nearly enough easy looks considering all their talent, this is now jarring.

The reason for the apathetic side of things is not so obvious. There have been reports at times of a somewhat fractious locker room, not as toxic as that of the comparable Bulls but not a happy place to be. If this is manifest in their play ­- not enough ball movement, man movement, energy outside of a select few or generally lackadaisical defensive play -­ this is probably not a surprise. “Let’s try to only shoot threes and layups” does not mean much or work very well as an offensive philosophy if players are just sort of standing there. It is not the efficient strategy it is said to be if it is not done well, and aside from the unrelenting confidence of Terry (his aforementioned comment, while funny in how inaccurate it proved to be, is the sort of brazen, laudable spirit a locker room needs), Rockets players never seemed particularly happy to be there. You can put the world’s best business people in the same executive committee, and yet nothing of note will get done if they cannot get along.

“Let’s try to only shoot threes and layups” does not mean much or work very well as an offensive philosophy if players are just sort of standing there. It is not the efficient strategy it is said to be if it is not done well, and aside from the unrelenting confidence of Terry (his aforementioned comment, while funny in how inaccurate it proved to be, is the sort of brazen, laudable spirit a locker room needs), Rockets players never seemed particularly happy to be there. You can put the world’s best business people in the same executive committee, and yet nothing of note will get done if they cannot get along.

Seemingly, this is to a point what the Rockets have done. In being so candid and cut­throat in trying to keep open the roster and financial flexibility in order to acquire three star players (losing Chandler Parsons and Goran Dragic in the process), perhaps the team sowed the seeds of doubt. It is impossible to know from the outside, but it does stand to reason that if you feel like you are only a placeholder, you might not fully buy in. Wherever it comes from, though, what is known via the obvious listlessness on the court and the reports echoing it is that discontent comes from somewhere. And if the players neither fit the system nor like each other, it is a valid question as to why they were there.

This is not to say Morey should be, or is, on the hot seat. Making the conference finals last year was a very, very significant achievement, and everyone is allowed at least one blip. Most get at least two, and without having achieved as much as this prior. Also, while the .500 record was a massive disappointment, it was also the worst in Morey’s entire tenure -­ a decade of being at or above. 500, even if only slightly above it, is almost unrivalled. But there are legitimate concerns about the current prognosis of the Rockets.

Morey has been in charge for ten years now; officially taking over in 2007, but running operations since at least 2006, as evidenced by the Rudy Gay for Shane Battier trade on draft night of that year (that is not a trade Carroll Dawson was ever going to be making). Some rewards should be seen. As it is, there was one Western Conference Finals loss, and then a mini­-implosion. It was all building to something – building, building, building – and then it suddenly wasn’t.

Perhaps this year was an aberration, and last year’s Conference Finals team is more reflective of Moreyball’s ability. But the nature of the implosion, the sloppy, lifeless team with seemingly interminable scoring droughts that seemed far short of both talent and effort, does not bode well. For so long, it was all about building a core, yet the Harden/Howard core has not proven to be much more effective than the McGrady/Yao core it was replacing.

The dream has always been three superstars, but the reality is one, and that one is one of the most flawed superstars there can be. It is extremely hard to acquire a superstar, especially via trade, so to even have this is not a small achievement. Nor was the Conference Finals appearance. A lot of good work has been done. But it is now apparent quite how much the foundation is flawed.

There seems to have been in recent times either an absence of due diligence or a deliberate decision to override it. This is said with particular reference to the Ty Lawson trade (a once- tremendous player who was available so cheap not just due to his alcoholism, but because his skills, his confidence, his everything have been whittled away to mere shards of what it was, all of which seemingly went under­heeded), or the decision to decline Chandler Parsons’s paltry sub – $1 million team option, (a baffling piece of bad asset management from someone whose clear­cut strength was exactly that area). Analysts and fans can and will look at the Rockets’ individual pieces and find plenty to like. Clint Capela on a rookie deal, for example. Yet it has not worked. So barring something outlandish like Kevin Durant coming to town, how does it now start working again?

Morey’s Rockets do not need to begin again. But they need to change quite a bit. Dwight Howard will probably leave in free agency ­- he would be a fool to opt into his current contract – and he of all people should know that having made that mistake once before. His role has diminished in the new NBA game, his skills have diminished (scoring a career low last year, but also not the overpowering force he was defensively), his health is seemingly now a permanent question, and he does not seem especially comfortable with any of this taking place in Houston. This will mean one of the long coveted ‘stars’ will leave with no incoming assets in return, but so be it. All things considered, it is better to lose him than keep him.

In his stead, the Rockets will have a huge amount of cap room again. But so will almost everyone else, and others offer a more positive recent past and idea of a future than Houston. Coachless, dispirited, based around a superstar who won’t run unless he has the ball in his hands ­ Houston is not the lure now it was expected to be 10 months ago.

There is still a decent foundation here. The Rockets have a tremendous offensive co­ordinator in Chris Finch, whom British fans will know to be quite the playbook manager. On a Luol Deng-­less GB National Team at EuroBasket 2009 ­ armed with a team where only Robert Archibald could score consistently in the half court, Pops Mensah­-Bonsu was the only player willing and able to beat an opponent off the dribble (albeit not without dribbling off of either his or the opponent’s foot half the time), and no guard could bring the ball up against pressure ­

Finch managed to take a ramshackle and wildly overmatched team and be competitive, almost upsetting Spain and their endless NBA talents, all done via devising a million different ways to move the ball around to get it to precisely the spots on the floor where the few capable scorers could operate. Finch is good, and the threes­ and ­layups concept is the right one if done correctly.

There is also talent, young and old, frontcourt and backcourt, not least of which is Harden. Even in a down year, Harden was hugely productive -­ warts and all, he is a superstar in a league that only ever has a few. Capela is a bargain, a breath of fresh air and the efficient, effervescent presence the team has needed, and Harden’s ability to find Donatas Motiejunas in pick ­and­ roll situations combined with D­Mo’s own much-improved post play makes him a good piece going forward, health permitting.

Trevor Ariza remains a decent role player and will for a while, Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker are cheap talents with reasons for optimism, Michael Beasley was a very surprisingly useful mid­season addition, and Patrick Beverley never lost his fire. There is still plenty to like about the Rockets ­ it could all just be a stumble, a retool, an “OK, that wasn’t quite it, let’s try it this way” of a season. These do happen. There are always bumps in the road. Unless you are Golden State.

But the problems are real. Primarily, the defense has completely disappeared. Whereas in years past the Rockets have had decent and improving defensive units (16th, 13th and eight the last three seasons in defensive rating), this season it fell away to a lowly 22nd. There was shockingly bad transition defence always on show ­- arguably the most obvious way a lack of effort and hustle can be manifest ­- and a team that often seemed overmatched against athletic opposition. If a team does not want to compete, it won’t, and Houston seemingly didn’t. The team that was supposedly built for threes, layups and defence was not good at any of those three things.

Moreover, the Rockets need to create some harmony, and that permeates everything. They need to stop watching Howard post up. They need to stop dribbling so much. They need, in the worst way, to run back. They need a simpatico coach who can work with Harden, not near him, to get him to optimise his talents in a way he simply is not doing right now. There is a lot of work to do and a lot of decisions to make from the coach, and the man sitting astride it all needs to have a rethink. The acquisition of talent, the evaluation of players, the cap manipulation, that is not in doubt. But the acquisitions no longer fit.

Posted by at 10:24 AM