Sports

Rockets Week: Topsy Turvy Young Rockets Trying to Figure It Out

Rookie Tari Eason has made a difference on defense.
Rookie Tari Eason has made a difference on defense. Photo by Jeff Balke
It's December which means basketball that means something is getting closer. Of course, the first two months of the season count. It's just that most teams are just starting to figure out who they are and where they are going by Christmas. The Rockets are one of them. The problem is even they aren't sure yet.

This is what happens when your team is made up of teenagers and twenty-somethings. There are some good, even very good days, but even more rough times. This is still a franchise in development quote-unquote and no one is expecting big things. But, is what we are seeing promising, disheartening, some of both or something else entirely?

The (offensive) struggle is real.

The Rockets are 27th in points scored and offensive rating. They finished last season in the same spot in defensive ratings while scoring the same number of points per game. The NBA is scoring like crazy this year and the Rockets are being roasted. It doesn't help that they are shooting just 34 percent from behind the arc (third worst in the league) and dead last in overall field goal percentage. Their effective field goal percentage is second to last. They have nights where they cannot hit the ocean from the beach.

Jalen Green, KJ Martin and Kevin Porter Jr. are shooting under 31 percent from deep. Jabari Smith, who was touted as a sharpshooter coming out of college, is at 34 percent, just under the league average. And, to make matters worse, the Rockets are 10th in the league in three point attempts, as per usual. This is not a recipe for success no matter who is on the floor.

The Rockets still make bad decisions on offense, often look out of sync in the half court, and struggle with contested shots. This is evident by the fact that they are last in assists. It isn't that they are poor shooters. They just take bad shots.

Is the defense improving? Sort of.

There is nothing good about being 28th in defensive rating, but there are some small signs of improvements on this end of the floor. The additions of Smith and Tari Eason have helped. Getting back Jae'Sean Tate, who has missed much of the year with an injury, would make a difference as well. Still, there are some rays of light. They are fourth in rebounding and number one on the offensive glass. They rank seventh in steals and 15th in blocked shots. The problem is they are in the bottom third of the league in opponent scoring and shooting percentage.

But, this is an area where stats don't tell the entire story. The eyeball test says they are better defensively than in the last couple seasons, which isn't tough to do, but it's something. Smith and Eason along with Usman Garuba, Martin and Bruno Fernando have provided some quality minutes on the defensive end of the floor. They struggle to maintain their defensive intensity as so many teams who shoot poorly do. A lot of their problems defensively seem as much mental as physical.

Eric Gordon is still a Rocket.
Photo by Eric Sauceda
Eric Gordon is still a Rocket.

It's tough to imagine that a veteran shooter who can handle the ball and play solid defense isn't in so much demand that the Rockets would still be employing Gordon at this point, but here we are. While Gordon is a free agent after this season, his skill set would seem to be ideal for any number of contending teams. Maybe the Rockets just haven't gotten the right offer or they are holding out hope of pushing something through at the trade deadline. But, it's still a surprise to see Gordon on the floor virtually every game for the Rockets when John Wall literally sat out all of last year just to make room for the young players.

How much should the Rockets improve?

There are some real bright spots, nights when they beat Phoenix or Milwaukee. Then, there are nights when they absolutely lay eggs like this week against San Antonio. The question is just how many of these good moments are progress and how many are regressions. The over/under win total for the Rockets this season was 23.5. At 9-21, 24 wins is certainly in reach, but the fewer the wins, the better their odds are at yet another high draft pick, maybe even the number one pick and consensus unicorn Victor Wembanyama.

Still, winning is important. Creating a losing mentality is a real thing. It can seep into players' psychology and change what they do on and off the floor. The Rockets are going to lose plenty of games without trying to do so. And they can still have the same shot at number one if they are third worst rather than THE worst (where they currently are now). They will have plenty of competition in this year's tankathon, but it's unlikely they will go out there and purposefully drop games, nor should they. They have real talent to build around and continuing that growth is all that matters, wins or losses be damned.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke