• Joe Keller

Could the Rockets Be Taking Flight


*Photo via Houston Chronicle

The Houston Rockets got off to a slow start in 2015, and looked nothing like the team that won 56 games and reached the Western Conference Finals last season. The poor start to the season led to head coach Ken McHale being fired. Nevertheless, the Rockets have continued to tread water to a 25-22 record and the seventh seed in the Western Conference. In no way did anyone expect this start, but at midseason the Houston Rockets are suddenly in seventh place, and positioned to make a run in the second half of the season.

Last year the Rockets grabbed the second seed, in a much more competitive West, and James Harden finished second in the MVP voting behind Stephen Curry. The team made a solid playoff run that ended in a series defeat to the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors. The Rockets showed great fight in that series, as well as the series before that, coming back from a three games to one deficit to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers. However, that was then and this is now, and this year’s team hasn’t consistently resembled the Rockets of last year, who showed so much fight and determination.

The main factor contributing to the Rockets underachievement so far this season is exactly what hindered them last season, which is that they put up a lot of points, but are awful defensively. The team ranks 18th in the league in rebounds per game, while giving up the fourth most points per game. These two areas were believed to be addressed when acquiring center Dwight Howard, but Howard hasn’t been the same player he once was in Orlando, and the Rockets idea of a Harden-Howard one-two punch has failed so far. Howard hasn’t stayed healthy -- and when he has been -- it hasn’t worked well with James Harden offensively, who has been carrying the Rockets more than ever this season.

*Photo via NBA.com

Harden is second in the league in scoring -- averaging 27.6 points per game -- and he has the second most 20 point/five assist/five rebound games this season. He is doing it all for the Rockets, whose second leading scorer is Howard (14 points per game). Even with the acquisition of point guard Ty Lawson, Harden also leads the team in assists. Nevertheless, while Harden fills-up a stat sheet and is doing nearly everything for his team, he does so inefficiently and plays very little defense. Last year he showed defensive improvements, but has regressed dramatically this year.

The good news for the Rockets is that they are 6-4 in the New Year, and forward Josh Smith has been reacquired from the Los Angeles Clippers. Smith was a big piece during last year’s playoff run, and he and Dwight Howard are also good friends. While Smith could rejuvenate some of last year’s chemistry, by no stretch of the imagination is he the savior. But James Harden needs help, and this familiar face could help to catapult the Rockets into a higher seed in the Western Conference. At the very least, Smith’s presence should be felt, as the Houston Rockets position themselves for another playoff run in 2016.

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