Sometimes, as the saying goes, you can't hit the ocean from the beach. During the Rockets' seven-game losing streak, which mercifully came to an end at Charlotte on Monday afternoon with a 100-96 Martin Luther King Day matinee win, the Rockets have been awful from the floor. James Harden has been shooting under 26 percent the last five games, including the win. Jeremy Lin has averaged almost three turnovers a game. The entire team has been abysmal behind the three-point line.
It would be easy to blame their woes on poor shooting, but good teams find a way to overcome poor shooting efforts. It's a mystery how teams can go through collective slumps, but it happens. During those times, the good teams understand that, in order to continue to win -- or at least tread water -- you have to keep your turnovers low, have consistent effort and play stingy defense.
Unfortunately, the Rockets are God-awful in all three categories.
The turnovers, largely, are dumb mistakes by young players who think they are quicker than they actually are. It's not uncommon to see college players enter the NBA and try to make the same moves and passes they tried in the NCAA, only to find out that the pro league moves at a slightly different pace. Even though the Rockets play very few rookies, most of their guys are extremely young and Harden spent most of his career coming off the bench in a supporting role, not leading the team as a starter and go-to man.
Turnovers also arise from not staying within the flow of the offense. When good teams struggle, they learn to slow down and rein the game in. With the breakneck pace this team plays at, it is already tough for them to slow down and be effective, but even if they could, they seem often prone to fits of wild play on the court, and turnovers at those times can come in bunches.
The lack of a consistent effort is yet another characteristic of youth. The last ten games have featured some very tough road trips with multiple back-to-back games. Many of these guys have played more games this season than they played in any one season in college and more minutes than they have ever put in on the floor. That's when teams have to grind it out and find ways to push through the fatigue. Young players struggle with that and often take nights off in a league where even the worst teams can hand you your head on a given night.
Finally, this is a team that truly struggles on the defensive end. During both the Rudy T and Jeff Van Gundy eras of the Rockets, they had some of the best defensive squads in the NBA. For Tomjanovich, he had the benefit of one of the great defenders of all time in Hakeem Olajuwon as well as hard-nosed players like Mario Elie and athletes like Robert Horry. Van Gundy relied on brutal, tough defense that often was ugly to watch, but won a lot of games.
Both of those eras had substantially more talent, but it wasn't talent alone that made them great defensively. The thing they did as well as you'll see on the floor is rotate and switch. Very rarely did you see a player standing wide open at the three-point line or taking an uncontested layup. For these current Rockets, that is an all-too-often occurrence and something they will have to address.
Defense is as much about hustle and communication as it is pure skill. Even without great one-on-one defenders, a team can be very good defensively if they play hard at that end of the floor and communicate well when switching defenders and rotating out on shooters. Until this team learns how to do that, they will have to outplay teams on the offensive end to win, and when they have poor shooting nights -- or weeks -- they will lose more often than they will win.
It's a long road for the young Rockets, but anyone who knows basketball could have seen that coming. If they can correct even a bit of it this year, they could seriously compete for a playoff spot. More likely they will continue to struggle and hopefully learn from it for seasons to come.
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