Twenty games into the 2019 season, the Rockets are currently 14th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference. The team that finished the 2018 season with a franchise record 65 wins and the best record in the entire NBA looks worse than a lottery team and it's difficult to pin down the exact reason why. More likely, it's a mix of problems.
The one bit of positive news is that no other team in the West has differentiated itself. The Rockets are five games back of the conference-leading Clippers (I know, right?) and four back of the division-leading Thunder. If they were in the East, the Rockets would be 9th.
In order to be that bad, you have to be stinking it up in a variety of ways, some easier to fix than others.
A couple of weeks ago when everyone thought the Rockets had turned it around, they were holding opponents under 100 points with regularity. Sure, they still had some shooting problems, but their defense was almost always enough to make up for any offensive shortcomings. They were in the midst of a five-game winning streak and rolling. Then, they went back on the road and it all went out the window. In the last four games (only one at home), they are giving up an unreal 124 points per game. Their scoring problems seem to have abated, but their defense is back in the crapper. Getting good at both ends of the court is proving difficult this season.
Subtraction by subtraction.
There was a lot of discussion of how removing Carmelo Anthony from the lineup (he's still in limbo at the moment, no doubt waiting for a team that wants him or a potential trade partner after the Rockets are allowed to trade him beginning December 15) would fix things. He had struggled mightily early on and getting rid of what the Rockets considered their prize acquisition in the offseason was clearly an addition by subtraction move the team thought it had to make. But, what about the subtraction problem of the offseason? No one thinks Trevor Ariza or Luc Mbah a Moute were the glue that held everything together (well, some do, but not all), but losing them while only gaining a guy who can't score or defend was a huge misstep by a team that swings and misses a lot less than it makes contact.
And losing their free agents plus essentially firing Anthony makes for a VERY think bench with guys like Gary Clark and Isaiah Hartenstein playing legitimate minutes. Then there are guys like Michael Carter-Williams and Marquese Chriss who were supposed to make contributions and are stuck to the bench like someone superglued them there.They just added Danuel House from the G League, which should strike fear into exactly no one on the opposing side of the court. They went from a team with, potentially, one of the better depth charts in basketball to easily one of the worst (if not the worst) in a matter of a couple weeks.
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Despite all the talk in the offseason of how close these guys were and what it meant to spend time together in the Bahamas, etc., they often look completely lost together on the floor. It takes time to build chemistry in games, but it also takes the right mix of guys. Right now, they have neither and that has made for some downright ugly moments.
Ultimately, besides the bad mix of roster spots, injuries have done the most damage. There haven't been any devastating, lost-for-the-season variety, but the nagging injuries to Chris Paul and Gerald Green along with the slow recovery time from surgery for Brandon Knight has caused a domino effect leading to fatigue issues for guys like James Harden, who is playing way too many minutes, and exposure of the team's lack of depth — something they might be able to hide at least against bad teams if they had all their weapons. Injuries are not to blame for all the problems. They go much deeper than a few guys with strained hammies or ankles. But, they have definitely contributed to the precipitous downfall from 2018.