Phil Jackson famously said that a contender is which wins 40 games before losing 20. The Houston Rockets at 37-17 will probably accomplish that. But even if they do, this team has not looked like a contender for some time now. They barely beat a Bulls team without Jimmy Butler, collapsed against the Hawks, and that does not count other recent disappointing losses to teams like the Bucks and Heat.
So why have the Rockets fallen off? Some Rockets blogs like House of Houston have talked about their big man and rebounding issues, and big bodies like Dwight Howard or Marc Gasol have given the Rockets fits all season. But that is not the only problem. The recent slump by wings Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon have exposed another problem with this team – their thin wing depth and Coach Mike D’Antoni’s short rotations.
Shooters need to shoot
As every Rockets fans knows, this team loves the spread offense. Unlike last year, where we had four Rockets watch Harden dribble the ball for 20 seconds and take a shot, Harden has been better at distributing the ball and getting it to the open shooter.
But getting it to the open shooter does not matter if the shooter still misses, and that is what we have seen over the past few games. Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon in particular have fallen off a cliff.
About a month ago, Eric Gordon had hit more three-pointers than Steph Curry and was averaging 43 percent from long range. But over the month of January, Gordon averaged less than 30 percent from three, dropping his overall percentage to 38 percent and falling well behind Curry in the three-pointer race.
Ariza had a decent game against the Bulls, but that stopped a four game stretch where he went 4-29 from the field including a 1-12 performance against the Hawks. In January overall, he shot less than 40 percent from the field and 33 percent from three.
A lack of depth
If Gordon and Ariza are slumping this badly, then D’Antoni could consider adjusting his wingman rotation. But here we run into the one concern which Rockets should have with D’Antoni, and a weakness of this roster as a whole, who are as uncomfortable as a double bed in the UK.
D’Antoni throughout his career has a reputation of driving his best players into the ground with heavy minutes. There was his 2010-11 season with the Knicks, when he routinely played the injury-prone Amare Stoudemire more than 38 mpg and possibly shortened his career. D’Antoni has not done that with Harden, who is in fact playing less minutes compared to last year. But throughout this season, his reaction to Gordon or Capela missing time with injuries has been to shorten the rotation instead of giving the end of the bench playing time.
Championship team often do not let the young guys play, but it is frustrating to see them on the bench especially given D’Antoni’s willingness to defend Corey Brewer. Brewer’s minutes have decreased recently and bench guard K.J. McDaniels has not been impressive in garbage time, but that is further evidence of Houston’s thin wing depth. This means that no matter how much Gordon and Ariza struggle, the Rockets have no real option but to stay the course and hope things change.
To Upgrade or Not?
Rockets fans should still be proud of what this team has accomplished, but no sensible fan should think that this team has a chance of beating Golden State this season. This means that Daryl Morey has to think hard about how he wants to upgrade.
But what is clear is that Houston has more issues than weak rebounding. This team needs the non-Harden perimeter players to hit open shots and play better defense, and that has not happened as of late. And Mike D’Antoni’s unwillingness to adjust the rotation speaks to this team’s problematic wing depth.