The Houston Rockets held a 3-2 lead over Golden State in last year’s Western Conference Finals. They had a 54-43 lead at halftime of Game 7 and had the best NBA team of this generation on the ropes. Then they went cold.
The Rockets, who had set the league’s single-season record for most 3-pointers made, missed 27 straight from deep. The Warriors—as they do—took over; they Hulk-smashed LeBron James and the Cavs in the Finals (again); and the rest is history.
So, too, are the Rockets’ hopes of contending for a title with its current core.
Some counted on Houston bouncing back this season. The Rockets did, after all, win 65 games in a practically flawless regular season, and they were without an integral piece—Chris Paul—during their collapse in the West Finals. Vegas favored the Rockets to take a slight step back, slotting their over-under at 57. Such a win total would land them around the No. 2 seed.
Needless to say, they aren’t going to get there. If you bet the under, congratulations on cashing out. At 11-14, and facing a gauntlet over their next 15 games, they won’t get to the playoffs, either.
The Rockets lost only 17 games all of last season. This season’s squad will likely rack up more losses by Christmas.
“I’m just not having fun, man,” Eric Gordon recently said. “I’m just not. This sucks. Even the times where I have good games. We’re just not using some guys the right way. Are we gonna make the right sacrifices? Do we have the right attitude?”
It’s an understatement to say the West is loaded. Every team but Phoenix is competitive, and they could all make the postseason. Though the Warriors look like the best of the bunch (with all due respect to the Nuggets, who have been tremendous but will miss Gary Harris), the difference between teams 2-14 is relatively small.
Recent history, however, isn’t on Houston’s side. On Dec. 10, 2017, the eight teams that sat atop the West all went on to make the playoffs. The same held true in 2016. Recently in the NBA, the early part of the regular season has provided an accurate indication of which teams will eventually make the playoffs.
There’s some hope for Houston because the parity in the West this year is on another level—little separates the contenders from the non-playoff teams. Perhaps a move or two could salvage this season. But the Rockets will jockey with some formidable foes for the final seeds.
The Jazz, who thumped Houston Thursday, are finally starting to live up to the hype. They’ve faced the toughest schedule in the NBA to date.
The Timberwolves, who also defeated Houston last week, look like a new team since ridding themselves of Jimmy Butler and adding Robert Covington and Dario Saric. They’ve won six of their last eight.
The Rockets will need to eclipse those two teams, as well as the upstart Kings and Mavericks (who’ve gotten a jolt of energy from Luka Doncic and have beaten Houston twice in two weeks). Neither of those teams possesses its 2019 first-round pick, so they have no incentive to tank. The Pelicans (who have a legitimate MVP candidate) and Spurs (who haven’t missed the playoffs since 1997) are also in the mix.
Houston doesn’t need to overtake a few of those six teams. Houston needs to overtake all of them.
The Rockets simply aren’t as good this year. Last season, their offensive rating led the league, and their defensive rating was near the top (sixth). This season, their offensive rating has slipped to ninth, and their defensive rating has plummeted to 25th. Their pace has dropped from 13th in the league to 29th. They out-rebounded opponents, 43.5-42.0 per game, last season; this year, they’re losing the rebounding battle (41.1-43.0 per game).
Go down the line, pick whichever stat you like, or just watch some games—the Rockets are a much worse basketball team.
Houston is reeling after losing key three-and-D guys Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza in the offseason. The Rockets have tried to replace them in the rotation with Carmelo Anthony, James Ennis, Danuel House, Gerald Green, and Gary Clark. The drop-off has been larger than expected, and the Rockets have already moved on from Melo and House.
There’s something deeper going on, too. Houston was on a mission last season. The Rockets seemed to genuinely believe they could beat Golden State. GM Daryl Morey said they were “obsessed” with that goal.
The Rockets had a practically flawless season, the Warriors were vulnerable, and Houston still couldn’t deliver the knockout blow. After a long season, a loss like that does something to a team’s psyche.
This season, Houston has embodied the Alonzo Mourning GIF.
They don’t have the same juice, their roster is worse, and the Rockets are desperate. They’ve tried to remedy the situation and Morey will continue to experiment. Houston reportedly plans to make at least one trade before February’s trade deadline. The Rockets would love to offload Brandon Knight—but who wants that $30 million contract? They may make a run at DeMarre Carroll or J.R. Smith.
Would any move on the table be enough to get the Rockets over the hump in a West that’s as competitive as any conference we’ve ever seen, though? Houston missed out on its big target—Butler—and it doesn’t appear another player of that caliber will be available, at least for what Houston could offer, before the deadline.
Though this season’s been rough, it hasn’t been all bad. Mike D’Antoni’s team beat Denver and Golden State in back-to-back games in November. And though James Harden’s efficiency has dipped slightly, he has still been excellent.
He just hasn’t had much help. At 33, CP3 is showing signs of his age. His scoring, rebounding, and shooting percentages are down. Last season, he shot 38 percent from three and 46 percent from the field; this season, those numbers have dipped to 34.5 percent and 42.5 percent, respectively.
Paul is no longer the best floor general in the game—or one of the five best, for that matter—but Houston is on the hook to pay him $40 million annually through 2022.
Morey made aggressive moves to capitalize on the team’s title window. Give the ambitious GM props. He went for it. But now the Rockets’ hands are tied moving forward. Their title window with this core lasted only one year. We watched it fade away as Houston went ice-cold in Game 7.
If Paul hadn’t pulled his hamstring, that series would likely have ended differently. But he did, and the Warriors won, and they probably will again this year—while Houston watches the postseason, thinking about what could have been, from home. It seems unfair for everything to change so quickly, but that’s how things often go in the NBA.