Through 55 games in the 2017-18 season, the Rockets had lost 13 games. That included a long stretch without Chris Paul and another batch of games without James Harden. Even Clint Capela missed a handful of games. So, it wasn't as if they were at full strength, rolling over everyone in their path.
Fast forward to 55 games into this season. The Rockets have lost 23 games. Yes, they have missed Paul and Capela for stretches, as well as Eric Gordon. But, to pretend this Rockets team is the victim of injury problems would be missing the point. Even with Harden clearly head and shoulders above every other individual performance in the NBA this season, the Rockets simply aren't as good this year as they were last year.
Their loss to Oklahoma City on Saturday is yet another indication. In the NBA, 20-point leads are virtually nothing. With the rapid pace of play and the huge numbers of threes being taken, few leads are insurmountable. But, when you are a good team, it happens far less. How many games do you remember the Rockets caving in when they won 65 games? We can't recall that many either.
Certainly some of it comes down to chemistry. Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute clearly were important to the balance of the team that became unstable with their losses and the now obviously awful offseason acquisitions of guys like Carmelo Anthony, James Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams. But, more of it has to do with what has happened around them.
While the Rockets have taken a step back, plenty of other teams have gotten more talented. Most teams play like the Rockets do now, so it is harder to sneak up on teams and more difficult to bury them in an avalanche of three pointers. And the league is, overall, a tougher place to play. The East is better. The West is deeper. Winning it tough everywhere.
In what has become a historic year for Harden, there is a tendency to feel like his MVP performance is being squandered. But, honestly, that's not all that uncommon. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple double two seasons ago, yet the Thunder went 47-35 and got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. So, if the Rockets fail to even get back to the Western Conference Finals, let alone win a title, it will feel worse than it is given the season Harden is having.
Ultimately, that's what this is about anyway...how it feels. Yes, the record is worse and the numbers don't look good either. But when you watch this team, you can see it isn't the same without checking the box score or flipping through the stats on basketball-reference.com.
Whatever magic the Rockets had last season, it didn't stick with them for this year. Whether it's injuries or personnel or coaching, we can't really say and, to be honest, who cares? Fans only care that they get back the mojo they lost. And they can, but the clock is ticking on this season, so they better make a move and quick. If you think it sucks to see the losses mount right now, imagine how bad it will feel to end another season prematurely.
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