Last season, the Rockets wrecked the league during the regular season and the playoffs.
Not only did they have the best record in the NBA (ahead of Golden State), but they nearly swept the Jazz and the Timberwolves in the playoffs. They even pushed the Warriors to a game 7 in the Western Conference Finals!
The backcourt of Chris Paul and James Harden just proved to me too much for most teams as the duo averaged a combined of 49.4 ppg and 16.7 apg. Counting their combined assists, The two were directly responsible for over 80% of the Rockets’ points!
Having two elite ball handlers on the floor provided Houston with endless opportunities to score the basketball and made the other players on their roster appear to be elite scores. This combined with the toughness of Clint Capela, PJ Tucker, Trevor Ariza, and Luc Mbah a Moute meant the Rockets could compete with any team.
However, this season, the opposite appears to be true. Not only are the Rockets currently out of playoff contention, but they are near the bottom of the Western Conference; ranked 12th behind even the Kings and the Grizzlies! So, what happened?
The Rockets’ woes, thus far, come from the fact that they have hollowed out their bench after giving James Harden and Chris Paul max contracts. No doubt after James Harden’s MVP season and Chris Paul’s playoff performance, the two deserved to be paid max dollars.
However, this comes with an opportunity cost to what the Houston Rockets organization could do to retain and recruit other players for the 2018-19 season.
From the 2018 season, the Rockets have lost Joe Johnson, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, Ryan Anderson, and R.J. Hunger from their roster. These players were not only extremely effective defensively but added offensive prowess to the team as well.
Not only could they guard the three point line, but they were big enough to prevent players from driving into the lane and getting easy baskets.
The Rockets were never one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, but they at least played average defense. This season, the Rockets are basically letting their opponents score at will. Currently, the Rockets are third from the bottom of the NBA in opponent’s field goal percentage; their opponents, on average, make over 47% of their field goals.
On the offensive end of the court, Joe Johnson, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, Ryan Anderson, and R.J. Hunger could also three shoot the three and helped the Rockets spread the floor better.
This created scoring opportunities for Clint Capela, CP3 (who is struggling this season), James Harden, and Houston’s other bench players. For the 2018-19 season, the Rockets literally have the lowest scoring bench in the NBA. Pretty far from where they were this time last season!
Part of the Rockets’ problem is that the Western Conference has just gotten so competitive this year. 15 out of the 16 teams in the West Conference are good enough to make the playoffs on a normal year. Now teams like the Spurs, Timberwolves, Jazz, and Pelicans are currently out of playoff contention.
Teams such as the Clippers, Grizzlies, Mavericks, and the Kings have made significant improvements from last season and are now playoff contenders. During the offseason, they have added depth to their rosters and drafted good talent to supplement their veteran parts.
However, there still is hope. The Rockets have shown flashes this season where they can beat any team in the NBA including big wins over the Lakers, Grizzlies, Spurs, Blazers, and the Warriors. And let’s not forget that James Harden is still unstoppable, either.
The Rockets, in my opinion, when healthy are still one of the top 5 teams in the NBA; alongside the Lakers, Warriors, Celtics, and the Nuggets (yes, the Denver Nuggets!).
However, the Rockets are going to have to make significant improvements defensively to make it into the playoffs this season. Just last season, Houston went on 17-game winning streak and I still believe they are capable of something similar this season.
This is definitely going to be something interesting to watch as the season continues to unfold and we get closer to the playoffs!