Houston Rockets: After a Slow Start, They’re Ready to Rock n’ Roll

Clint Capela, Houston Rockets, Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets, NBA
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets did not start the 2018-19 season how they would have liked. Houston had an incredible season last year; the Chris PaulJames Harden gamble by general manager Daryl Morey worked tremendously, and the Rockets got the Golden State Warriors in a 3-2 hole in last year’s Western Conference Finals before losing. If Paul didn’t had an unfortunate hamstring injury, maybe the Rockets would have won last year’s NBA Finals. Going into this season, though, many thought the Rockets would take a step back after losing vital three-and-D contributors in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute to free agency.

Those naysayers were proven right initially, as there was the Chris Paul incident with Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram of the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this year, resulting in a two-game suspension for Paul, not to mention how the Carmelo Anthony experiment with Houston didn’t work at all. He had just 13.4 points per game on 40.5 percent shooting (including just 32.8 percent from three-point land).

Anthony never seemed to fit on the floor with the Rockets’ style, and the defensive issues that arise with him in made the signing a disaster. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski first reported that Melo and the Rockets had plans to part ways. He’s still on the roster officially, but he won’t rejoin the team.

he Earlier this week, a statement from Morey broke down how the team is parting ways with Anthony.

Addition by subtraction can be a beautiful thing sometimes. With Anthony on the floor, Houston was, to put it lightly, not very good. He had the worst plus-minus (minus-6.3) of any Rocket in his ten games played (per NBA.com), and had a pretty atrocious net rating of minus-9.0. Outside of Michael Carter-Williams (who is not a huge piece anyhow), Anthony had the worst defensive rating of all Houston regular rotation players, too. Clearly, Houston missed (and likely still misses) Ariza and Mbah a Moute on both ends; both are low-maintenance, low-usage players that are very good perimeter defenders that allow Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon to handle the scoring and playmaking load offensively.

The Rockets started 1-5, and did not flex their defensive muscle in that stretch, as they had a defensive rating of 113.3 in those games, per NBA.com. That would currently slot them in as the worst defense in the NBA based on that metric, behind the 2-12 Cleveland Cavaliers. Since that time, though, even some of it with Melo in the rotation, they’ve flipped the switch back to last year’s ways on D.

In the month of November, the Rockets are 6-2, and their defense has stepped it up, along with them getting back to their slower pace enabling Harden, Paul, Gordon and Clint Capela to work their magic and get the other ancillary pieces the ball in their sweet spots. This month, the Houston Rockets have a much improved defensive rating of 104.7, which would place them at fifth in the NBA on the season, right before the Milwaukee Bucks, who are arguably the best team in the Association right now. Better ball pressure, closeouts, transition defense and timely rotations are likely the reason for that improvement, and an improved defensive rebounding percentage hasn’t hurt, either.

A few days ago, assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik returned from retirement to head Houston’s defense (he is back full-time November 23 per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle), and that should be crucial, considering head coach Mike D’Antoni has never really valued that end of the floor throughout his career, or so it seems. Last season, with Bzdelik heading the defense and deploying P.J. Tucker, Ariza and Capela in the best spots to help Houston’s defense, the Rockets were vastly improved from previous years, as they ranked seventh in defensive rating, per NBA.com.

Ariza and Mbah a Moute are no longer in Houston for Bzdelik, no, but James Ennis III is a more than capable three-and-D guy on the wing, and he’s done well so far. On the year, Ennis is averaging 8.4 points on 47.1 percent shooting (including 39.5 percent from three), 2.4 rebounds and 0.9 steals in 24.1 minutes per game. He’s going to fit perfectly as a spot-up threat as the season weighs on, and between him and Tucker (who’s starting out hot from three at 46.3 percent), Houston has two versatile defenders who can also score in spurts.

Houston is getting quality play from rookie Gary Clark at the power forward position, too. In 16.8 minutes per game, he’s putting up 4.2 points, 3.4 boards, 0.8 blocks and 0.5 steals. His block percentage of 4.0 percent (per Basketball Reference) is actually higher than Capela’s (3.9 percent). Obviously, Clark isn’t playing the same amount of minutes, but his energy and toughness has paid dividends. The two-way undrafted rook has been outstanding, and even international rookie Isaiah Hartenstein has made his presence felt, with 10.5 points and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes and has a defensive box plus-minus of 2.1, per Basketball Reference.

Houston’s defense is on the right track, and the offense is starting to pick up as well. They are always going to be shooting as many threes as anybody in the NBA, and they’ll still live or die by that, but it’s their style. Harden missed three games due to a reported left hamstring strain, but since then, Houston has been getting back to what they do with drive-and-kick plays and rolls to the rim from Capela after defenses stress harder closeouts that open up slips.

A few games ago against the Indiana Pacers, Houston had 14 threes made in the first half alone. That was against a team with the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA, so the Rockets still are capable, even if their numbers have been down thus far.

Given the terror that Capela is at the rim as a lob threat, it’s opened up spot-ups on the weak side for Ennis, Tucker and others as well, like this one here against the Denver Nuggets. As the season progresses, Ennis should be able to bury this all day long.

The spacing on the floor that the Houston Rockets have will always be at least enough to get some mismatches throughout games, anyhow. They are the second-best isolation scoring team in the league so far this year (per Synergy Sports Technology), and between Harden and Paul, that’s why. Both of them are among the toughest covers in the league in this kind of situation for bigs. Nikola Jokic had no chance on this one against CP3.

In the Houston Rockets’ last game, they destroyed the Warriors by 21 points, and even though Golden State was without Stephen Curry, Houston was on a different level, and at one point led by 32. This team’s upcoming schedule is pretty manageable the rest of this month, too. Houston plays the Sacramento Kings next, and then has a home-and-home with the Detroit Pistons, then plays the tanking Cleveland Cavaliers, sinking Washington Wizards, the fun-but-not-yet-good Dallas Mavericks, and then the less talented San Antonio Spurs.

At the end of this month, despite playing a few teams that are up-and-coming (especially the Kings), we could discussing the Rockets’ season in a totally different (and familiar) light. They won 65 games last year; I think they’ll be just fine.