Coming into this season, many expected the Houston Rockets to be in the mix for the top spot in the Western Conference. But the same thing that plagued the Rockets last season is showing up again this season and that is bad defense. Even with the defensive presence of center Dwight Howard, the Rockets are ranked towards the bottom when it comes to team defense. Forward Trevor Ariza acknowledged the team’s struggles and says that they are not playing hard enough.
“We have to play harder and we have to give extra effort. As a team, we’re not playing hard enough. We’re slacking. That’s not the type of team we are, that’s not the type of personalities we have as individuals. We have to snap out of it.”
Because there are some many good teams in the Western Conference, the Rockets need to figure out things quickly before they get left behind. If we’re not at a true crisis point with the Houston Rockets, 11 games into the season, we’re at least at a stage in this team’s evolution which requires careful monitoring.
With the Rockets making “matador defense” look active and aggressive by comparison, coach Kevin McHale is scrambling to get his players to change their defensive ways. On one hand, it seems like the kind of issue which can be fixed. Better effort. Improved communication. Every possession is taken seriously. Those three ingredients, nothing more, can at least shave several points off bloated defensive averages, lifting the Rockets from the bottom five in the NBA to No. 20 or No. 18 on defense. Merely that kind of progress could mean the difference between continued stumbles and a stabilization process.
While other people figure out the precise Xs and Os which can enable McHale to engineer this turnaround, what is a reasonable timetable for Houston to get this larger issue fixed? It probably won’t happen right away, but the problem can’t be allowed to persist for an extended period of time. What’s the realistic roadmap for this team? Let’s go to the schedule and see where we stand.
The Rockets play Memphis and the New York Knicks twice apiece — home and away — in the month of November. It will be hard to sweep those games, but splitting them would at least slow down the Rockets’ downward spiral, and seeing two foes twice just a few days apart could help in the pursuit of a split.
The Rockets could tread water over the remainder of November — 4-3 — and feel like survivors. They would have 10 losses, but they’d be only two games under .500, and since no one else in the West other than the top two teams (Golden State and San Antonio) is creating distance in the standings, Houston would not lose meaningful ground in the chase for that No. 3 seed.
In the first three and a half weeks of December, the Rockets get a break from the schedule. Two games against Sacramento, two against the Lakers, and singles against Brooklyn, Charlotte, Orlando, Denver, and New Orleans also highlight that stretch of 12 games. This is a thin-enough cluster of games that the Rockets could play well below their best and go 8-4, for an overall record of 16-14 through 30 games. That’s not where this team wanted to be, but with 52 games left, they’d have a chance to make up ground. Keep in mind that Cleveland was 20-20 after 40 games last season; the Cavs turned out all right.
It’s by Christmas Day that the Rockets need to fully solve their problems. That’s the point in the schedule when Houston cannot continue to hemorrhage on defense. Starting on Dec. 25 with a game against San Antonio, the Rockets will begin to play big hitters: at Atlanta on the 29th, Golden State on New Year’s Eve, at the Spurs on Jan. 2. Later in January, the Rockets face at trip to Utah, a home game against the Pacers, a roadie to Memphis, a home game against Cleveland, and a road trip to the Clippers, all by Martin Luther King Day.
The Rockets — if not whole by Christmas — could eat eight or nine losses from Dec. 25 through MLK Day. Projecting a 16-14 record after 30 games, an eight-loss nightmare from Dec. 25-Jan. 18 would create a 21-22 record just after the midpoint of the season.
As a point of comparison, the Rockets didn’t lose their 22nd game last season until March 12. They had 43 wins by that time.
As the season continues, the road doesn’t get any easier for the Rockets. Starting on Jan. 27, their path to the All-Star break is as follows: Spurs, Thunder, Wizards, Heat, Suns, Blazers, Warriors, Blazers. Later, in early March, they go through a five-game Eastern swing which starts in Chicago and continues to Toronto. In the second half of March, the Rockets face this sequence, beginning on March 19: Hawks, Thunder, Jazz, Raptors, Pacers, Cavs, Bulls.
You can see that if the Rockets don’t shed this current identity and a woeful level of form, they will finish with a .500 record at best, likely a losing record. Naturally, improvement must be assumed if the Rockets are going to make anything of themselves.
The schdule for the first three and a half weeks of December is such that the Rockets can get by for a period of time, surviving without playing their best. However, once Christmas arrives, this team will not be able to hide. It will have to be a renewed team, equipped with the plan and the pugnacity to lift itself out of this ditch.
If the Rockets don’t find themselves — meaning that they fail to thrive the way they did last season — by Dec. 25, they are going to miss the playoffs. They have five and a half weeks in which to clearly and unmistakably change their identity and all the habits which reinforce it.