They started 1-5, then dug out of that hole to get to 9-7. They then lost four in a row, won two in a row, but then lost three in a row. At that point in early December, the Rockets were 11-14, and it looked like Houston was in for another disappointing year, similar to the 41-41 result in the 2015-16 season (Dwight Howard’s last in Houston).
But somehow, as we enter 2019, they’ve righted the ship and have won 10 of 11 to get to 21-15, which is tied for the West’s No. 4 seed and only three games behind first-place Denver. With that said, how will the Rockets fare in 2019? Here are four things I like and dislike as they begin 2019.
So we can all agree that James Harden is the best player in the NBA, right? For the year as a whole, Harden is averaging 33.3 points, 8.4 assists, and 5.8 rebounds per game. Yes, you read that right, THIRTY-THREE points. While you could say he is only shooting 44.2% from the field, he is attempting almost 12 three-pointers per game, which he is shooting at a remarkable 38.7% clip. That brings his true shooting (TS) percentage to 62.3%, when you include the 11 free throws he averages each game.
Oh, and that’s just for the season. Harden’s last 10 games are even more ridiculous. In those, Harden is averaging 40.8 points per game (that’s absurd to even type), with close to nine assists and seven rebounds a game, with a TS% of 64.4. The Rockets have won all but one of those contests, even with Chris Paul out due to a strained hamstring.
Upon reading Twitter on New Year’s Eve, it felt like I came across 50 different records that Harden has broken in this 10-game stretch. Some were truly eye-popping and a reminder that we are watching one of the five best offensive weapons the league has ever seen. Harden has now joined Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as the only players to score 400 points in 10 games, and he’s also tied with Steph Curry for the most consecutive games with five or more three-pointers in a game with seven. Oh, and Harden broke Oscar Robertson’s record for most games in a row with 35+ points and 5+ assists with eight. I’m sure there are more records, too. While some try to dim Harden’s star power with the ridiculous notion that free throws shouldn’t count towards his point total, he doesn’t need to be the perfect aesthetic player for everyone to watch. He just needs to be what the Rockets want him to be to win games. So far this year and since arriving in Houston in 2012, he has done that and more.
Injuries, Injuries, and more Injuries
While Harden has been a one-man wrecking crew, many other Rockets have caught the injury bug. CP3 has been bitten by the bug more than any Rocket this year. Paul has already missed 10 games, but even when he plays, it’s clear he’s just not himself. People could say it is a natural decline with him slowly approaching the mid-30s in age, but it appears to be more related to injuries. I don’t believe that Chris Paul is in the middle of an instant decline — a player usually doesn’t go from having one of the best years of his career (leading the league in Real Plus-Minus) to then having the worst year of his career. He is averaging career lows in points, field-goal percentage, turnovers, and free-throw percentage. And when he is on the floor, he plays like something is always bothering him. Did he rush back from his leg injury earlier in the year too quickly, because the Rockets were in panic mode and desperately needed to turn around the slump? The tough part is there is no indication the situation will improve as the season continues. When asked, Paul said he does not know when he is coming back, and that itself is a troubling sign when he has been out for over a week and still has no timetable. While Harden has been brilliant, he can’t keep the pace of averaging 40 points and around 40 minutes per night. It’s just not possible. James might can continue what he is doing for about another couple weeks, but after that he will start to fatigue. Without his running mate in the back court, the usual signs of tiredness — turnovers and missed shots — will likely increase.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned James Ennis, who has been out for more than three weeks with a strained hamstring of his own. And then there’s Eric Gordon, who bruised his knee in New Orleans last Saturday and might be out for another week. While the Rockets are winning now, they can’t compete for a championship without their No. 2 option and key role players healthy when the playoffs come around.
No Eight-Man Rotations
Piggybacking off the last point, an eight-man rotation shouldn’t happen in the regular season. Over the years, Mike D’Antoni has always had a reputation for running a tight ship, meaning he has always had a small rotation. Last year, he extended the rotation to nine with Luc Mbah a Moute and Gerald Green. But with Paul, Ennis, and now Gordon out, the rotation must expand.
We saw a nine-man rotation against Memphis on New Year’s Eve, but over the past couple of weeks, we haven’t seen any Gary Clark except vs. San Antonio. Clark’s reduction of minutes could be the result of the rise of Danuel House Jr., but with multiple rotation pieces now out, Clark should play. Clark has proven in his short time in Houston is that he deserves minutes. I’m not saying he should be getting significant time, but somewhere around 10-14 minutes per game would reduce minutes for the rest of the team and would keep Clark ready in case someone else goes down with an injury. The eight-man rotation works in the playoffs, but for the regular season, it can’t happen. No one wants to witness Harden and other players gassed in the second or third round of the playoffs.
As a final note, I understand the Rockets haven’t had too much of a choice on this because of the slow start. But even a small reduction in Harden’s minutes would be great for him, in my opinion. If he can play about two or three minutes less each game, that would add up over the rest of the year, and he’ll be more fresh come playoff time.
Eric Gordon’s Drives
While Gordon has had a bit of a rough year from three-point range at 30.3%, he has gotten to the rack a lot more, and effectively. Over the past 10 games, on shots from less than 10 feet, Gordon is shooting over 57% from that area. That’s a 7% increase from his season figure in that range. This is a very good sign, because one concern was whether Gordon would continue to fire away three-pointers until eventually snapping out of his season-long slump. Instead, he has decided to turn his fortunes by looking at options other than threes. While it is unfortunate he could miss another game or two with his knee contusion, he has slowly been turning the corner as a scorer. Last year, Gordon was crucial when Harden and Paul were injured. If he can return to that form, the Rockets could be fine even when Harden or Paul needs a game off.
Overall, even though the Rockets dug themselves a hole early in the season, they’re very much still in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, 2019 doesn’t start off easy, with the first four games against the Warriors, Blazers, Nuggets, and Bucks. If the Rockets can get a 3-1 record out of those games, they legitimately could be a 55-win team this year. Considering the parity of the West, that record might get them the top seed. James Harden’s brilliance should continue, as always, but the keys to the team’s goals are whether others can stay healthy and step up — as they have over much of the past month.