The arrow seemed to be pointed straight up for the Houston Rockets. Their 2014-15 campaign was one of their most successful seasons in nearly two decades – since the glory days of Hakeem Olajuwon and company.
Last season the Rockets tallied 56 victories and finished first in the ultra-competitive Southwest Division – ahead of the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans. In the postseason, they showed they were for real, dismantling the Mavs in just five games in the first round. In the Semifinals, they beat the highly-touted Los Angeles Clippers in a grueling and intense seven games series. They were eliminated by the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals.
Thus, expectations were sky high heading into the 2015-16 season.
Role players such as Josh Smith and Corey Brewer left via free agency, but the core (James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard) was kept intact. In addition, the Rockets brought in troubled but extremely talented point guard Ty Lawson from the Denver Nuggets.
However, the Rockets stumbled badly out of the gate, losing their first three games of the year and seven of their first 11 contests. At that point, Houston was riding a four-game losing streak (the team’s longest losing streak since 2013) and had fallen to 4-7 on the year. The once high-octane Rockets offense was sputtering, to say the least. They had failed to reach 100 points during the losing streak, and were averaging 20 fewer points per game in their seven losses. It was then that GM Daryl Morey made the shocking decision to fire their head coach Kevin McHale. Per the ESPN/Elias Sports Bureau, the last returning NBA head coach to lead his team to the Conference Finals and then not make it through the following season was Stan Van Gundy of the Miami HEAT. Van Gundy resigned 21 games into the 2005-06 season, and then Pat Riley took over and led that team to a championship.
The Rockets have responded well since J.B. Bickerstaff replaced McHale. Houston lost three in a row after winning their first game under their new interim coach, but have since responded by winning five of their last six games. Their offense appears to be back on track, scoring at least 100 points in six straight contests.
Still, obvious issues remain. Dwight Howard has had his minutes limited and is sitting out pre-selected games in order to rest various nagging injuries. James Harden has been far too lackadaisical on defense at times. And on the other end of the floor, the Rockets offense has been far too reliant on the supremely talented Harden. Houston has yet to win a single game this season when their stud shooting guard scored fewer than 24 points (they are 0-8 when Harden scores 23 points or less).
The other significant issue has been the supremely disappointing play of Ty Lawson. Last season, Lawson was one of just three players to average at least 15 points and 9 assists per game (John Wall and Chris Paul were the others). This season, Lawson is one of just five players shooting below 36 percent from the floor and averaging more than two turnovers per game.
To their credit, Houston has gotten back to within one game of .500, and are currently playing their best ball of the season – especially Howard, who recently scored 22 points and pulled down 18 rebounds. Can the Rockets build off this momentum and still find a way to fulfill those lofty expectations? We shall see.
– Tommy Beer