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NBA Daily: Houston Off To A Rocky Start

Jordan Hicks takes a look at the Houston Rockets’ bump start and points out why they could potentially be in trouble.

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The Houston Rockets have had a less-than-stellar start to the season. They are sitting at 4-3, which isn’t absolutely horrible, but the quality of their wins and losses would not be considered promising.

Their four victories came against the New Orleans Pelicans, Washingon Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder. None of the wins were particularly convincing and the state of each of the above-mentioned teams is downright bad. The Pelicans are Zion Williamson-less and struggling. The Grizzlies are young and likely tanking. And the Thunder are hoping Chris Paul can channel his Los Angeles Clippers days and snag them an eight seed.

The Wizards have little-to-zero clue what they’re doing moving forward — and they still hung 150 points on Houston.

Their losses, on the other hand, have been pessimistic. They lost their season opener at home to a Milwaukee Bucks team that hasn’t really blown anyone away. They dropped a road game to a Brooklyn Nets team that can’t seem to find themselves. And they were absolutely obliterated by the Miami HEAT in Miami. Sure, the HEAT have looked really good — but they made the Rockets look like the New York Knicks.

What has caused Houston to start the season off on the wrong foot? Russell Westbrook could be the obvious scapegoat and certain numbers point to that. He’s a team-low negative 7.8 in plus-minus. He’s currently shooting 46.1 percent from the field, which would be a career-high. On the flip side, he’s shooting a dismal-yet-expected 25 percent from three-point range on almost five attempts per night, which would be close to a career-low with almost five times the attempts.

He’s almost averaging a triple-double, which is certainly a cool statistic, but it’s starting to feel more and more like the triple-double thing doesn’t often convert into wins. His defense has been average and his ball-heavy presence overall could have a negative impact on James Harden.

Looking at Harden’s statistics, we see numbers almost worse than Westbrook’s when it comes to efficiency — which is not like the bearded star whatsoever. He’s sitting at a career-high 36.6 points per night but doing so on 38.1 percent from the field and 25.3 percent from three – both career-lows by a significant margin. Harden is also hoisting up well over 13 threes a night, another career-high in that column.

Shots from deep are a great thing when they are scored at an efficient rate, but they can cripple an offense when they aren’t dropping. There’s little doubt that Harden can’t get those numbers back up — but if history says anything, Westbrook’s will stay the same.

Harden is getting to the line over 16 times a night and he’s hitting those free throws at a stellar rate of 92 percent, so that — coupled with P.J. Tucker’s 48.5 percent from deep — are definitely keeping Houston afloat.

In essence, generating offense hasn’t been a huge issue for Houston up to this point. They are scoring 119.3 points per game, good for third-best in the league. But, obviously, it’s the efficiency at which they are scoring. Overall, the Rockets are shooting 42.7 percent from the field (25th) in the league and 31.2 percent from three (27th). This is not a winning formula for the Rockets, as their last couple of seasons have been built off of efficiency.

None of this should come as a great surprise. They traded Chris Paul — super efficient — for Russell Westbrook — super inefficient. This isn’t to say Paul is better than Westbrook, although win shares might have something to say about that. Westbrook is a freak athletically and does a lot of things incredibly well on the basketball court.

The fact of the matter stands, however, that Paul’s style of basketball leads to wins more often than Westbrook’s. The trade wasn’t a bad one and if the reports of Harden and Paul’s tumultuous relationship were, in fact, true, then it was about as good as they possibly could have done considering the latter’s heavy contract.

As bad as their offense has been, they’ve still been able to score points. This leads one to believe that as soon as shots start falling, matters will turn around. But until that happens, Houston will have to continually depend on their defense to get stops and, so far, their execution on that end has been grim.

As of today, the Rockets are sitting 28th in the league with a defensive rating of 113.6, just ahead of the Pelicans and Warriors. Worse, they are 27th in transition defense, 26th in giving up points off turnovers and 26th in giving up points in the paint. The addition of Westbrook has not helped their defense at all, to no surprise, but they now lack adequate rim protection off the bench. They have six players using the majority of the rotation minutes and Clint Capela is the only one in that group who has the ability to defend the paint.

P.J. Tucker is a great defender — Eric Gordon, too — but for some reason or another, the Rockets’ defensive unit has not been in sync. They have been decent in the past, finishing 17th in total defense last year, but Houston can’t afford to be playing the level of defense as their offense currently stands.  And yet, it’s difficult to find a potential answer on that front.

Not many analysts out there thought Harden and Westbrook would mesh. They certainly haven’t proven anyone wrong and, with loads of history to fall back on, there is little belief that it will ever work.

Houston still has a legitimate roster that should be considered a contender in every shape and form — for now. But if they can’t figure out how to right the ship, this season could end up as a lost effort, especially considering how many playoff-worthy teams there are in the Western Conference. With two former MVP-winners on the roster — it’s worrisome — but not time to jump overboard just yet.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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