This is the first and maybe last column for the 2015-16 Houston Rockets season. With three games left and 1 game out of the playoffs, I am officially declaring the season over. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say Thursday night’s embarrassing loss to the 20-28 (now 21-38) young, inexperienced Phoenix Suns should disqualify the team from playoff contention out of principle.
There is not one better game to represent this disaster of a season for the Houston Rockets – a team that made it all the way to the conference championship in 2015 with the same core players.
Before the Rockets took the court of their first game of the season, I, along with most, felt that this was the year for the Rockets to make a real run. They weren’t a complete team, with the same defensive woes that hadn’t been managed since 2013, but the key was outscoring opponents, every single game. It worked in 2014. It worked in 2015. It was set to work in 2016.
When the Rockets lost their first game to Denver Nuggets, I shrugged my shoulders, and jokingly made a promise not to watch the games until they improved over the Texans winning percentage. At that point, it would have taken a single win, as the Texans were 2-5. A few losses later, and I thought perhaps that I’d jinxed the team. Then, they started clocking some wins.
And then they sunk again – 4 in a row, and then a team meeting. Eleven games into the rocky start of a season, and a players only meeting was called. The result of that? Coach Kevin McHale was fired. Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff took over, and the Rockets took the court against the Portland Trailblazers and won a thriller going into overtime. And then the losses continued.
The whole season has been a see-saw of ups and downs. There was no rhyme or reason – some were won, and some were lost. Upsets occurred, and sure wins were lost. The only constant was the guys on the court could not get it and keep it together. There was no clear leadership, and no clear direction. We’re not talking about a team of rookies, either. We’re talking about a core group who has been to 2-3 playoffs together as Rockets.
An uncomfortable amount of those losses were leads that fell apart in the 4th quarter. Literally half of the Rocket’s losses occurred with at least 1 quarter with less than 20 points. I’m not talking about 19, 18 – I mean 11 points, 12 points, 13, 14. The low point was 11, unless you count 8 in an overtime loss. I won’t, because 5 quarters of basketball is grueling. However, half of this year’s losses happened because the Rockets crapped the bed for a quarter (or even 2).
The turning point (or potential turning point) in the season came precisely 2 months ago, with an away game at Golden State, in Oracle Arena, where the Warriors had a 41-game home winning streak. In the 1st quarter, it seemed clear the Warriors were going to add another game, with 42 points to put them up 15. The Rockets charged back in the next 2 quarters, and the team entered the 4th tied at 93. And then they fizzled. Another sub-20 quarter, and another loss by double digits.
In a game that could have changed the course, they just couldn’t. Couldn’t try hard enough, couldn’t get it together, couldn’t care – it doesn’t matter. They just couldn’t, which pretty much defines this entire season. A team who was on the brink of playing for the Championship just 1 year prior couldn’t do it anymore. So what is the real problem? There are some specific issues with the team. Ego, leadership, and defense are the biggest problem areas. Dropping the ball on trades, hasty firings – the list goes on.
The real issue is this team is broken, and there’s no fixing it.
Leadership and ego are the main issues. Harden/Howard is not going to be fixed, and it’s hurt this season more than any other. Harden’s self-centered, and isn’t much of a team player. The coaching leans on that, though, because he can also put up 30-40 points on a regular basis. One superstar isn’t going to win it, however. Just ask Lebron. Howard can’t handle the designation of 2nd in command, but the problem there is he doesn’t want to put the work in to be top dog.
When these 2 are supposed to be the leaders, and they try harder to get the other removed, rather than work together to win games, the result is exactly what we’ve seen all year long from this team. A group that throws away leads and can’t finish in games that matter.
Defense – in which former DPOY Howard can step up in a leadership role – has fallen flat. It’s not-existant. Out of the 41 losses the Rockets have this year (20 with low-scoring quarters in the teens and below), the Rockets have lost 24 games in which they’ve scored in the triple digits, and many of those losses have been by 10 or more points. Again, the Rockets have primarily ignored strengthening their defense since 2013, relying heavily on simply outscoring opponents. That’s not good enough for a championship.
The Rockets are 3 games shy of closing out the season, and a single game out of the top 8 in the West. Out of those 3 games, 2 are opponents that the Rockets have swept thus far in the season, but that doesn’t even matter anymore. I predict a 1-2 win/loss record to finish it out, because then the Rockets could be 2 teams shy of losing to every single team in the NBA. I wouldn’t even want to see what kind of show they put on in the playoffs with teams who actually have worked to get there. The Suns loss 2 days ago was bad enough.
The only winner coming out of this era is Kevin McHale. He’s had 4 winning seasons and 3 playoff appearances in his 4 years with the Rockets, and was unceremoniously scapegoated and relieved of duty before this disaster could taint his record. That’s why, with 3 games left in the season, I’m wrapping it up. This is the only column they deserve for the year, and with any luck this team will be detonated and rebuilt in the upcoming off season. Just scrap it all, because there are too many problems to fix – and start with Daryl Morey.