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Things Are Getting a Little Too Weird Too Early in Houston

The Rockets’ start to the season has been a struggle, especially on defense. An injury to James Harden, and Houston’s continued pursuit of Jimmy Butler, could turn their 2018-19 completely upside down.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Houston Rockets’ rough start to the 2018-19 NBA season got a whole lot rougher with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night. That’s when James Harden drove into the paint, and into a glut of large bodies clad in Utah Jazz uniforms, looking to continue the Rockets’ comeback from a 16-point deficit. The Jazz stalled the possession, forcing a shot-clock violation ... and Harden reached for his left hamstring.

The NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player bent over at the waist, walked gingerly through the tunnel, and didn’t return. The Rockets were finished, too—the Jazz ripped off eight straight points and eventually won 100-89. The loss dropped Houston, the West’s best team last regular season, to 1-3.

Harden insisted after the game that the injury was “nothing serious, nothing serious,” and that the ailment was “not close to last year,” when a Grade 2 strain of that same left hamstring put him on ice for two weeks. A Thursday reevaluation told a different story: Harden has a “Grade 1-plus” strain of his left hamstring, which isn’t as severe as what he dealt with last season, but will still keep him out of action for at least the next two games. He’ll miss Friday’s game against the Clippers, who’ve already beaten Houston once this season, and Tuesday’s meeting with the Trail Blazers, before being evaluated again ahead of a five-game road trip that starts on November 2.

If Harden’s absence lingers, and if he’s anything less than 100 percent upon his return—hamstrings are fickle beasts—things could get pretty weird pretty fast for Houston. (And, if Thursday’s other big Rockets-related report comes to fruition, they could get even weirder even faster.)

The Rockets entered this season intent on rising right back to the top of the Western Conference standings and taking another run at the Golden State Warriors, but have stumbled out of the starting block. A team that led the NBA in offensive efficiency and finished seventh on defense last season has fallen into the bottom third of the league on both ends after the season’s opening week. The Rockets generally bear little resemblance to the team that stomped the league en route to 65 wins last season.

There are several reasons for that: Houston no longer employs Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, two 3-and-D wings who combined to log more than 3,800 minutes for the Rockets last season, but left in free agency. Mike D’Antoni and his coaching staff have to integrate several new pieces—James Ennis III, Michael Carter-Williams, and, most notably, Carmelo Anthony—who aren’t exactly one-for-one replacements.

Preseason injuries have put a bunch of potential rotation players on the shelf—Ennis for the Jazz game and reserves Nene, Marquese Chriss, and Brandon Knight for all four games. Chris Paul’s two-game spit-and-swing-related suspension also removed an All-NBA-caliber playmaker and perimeter defender from the equation, calling to mind the bad old days when the Rockets offense would crater whenever Harden hit the bench. Houston has scored 8.9 more points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor than when he’s off it, according to NBA.com/Stats. That’s roughly the gap between the Toronto Raptors’ third-ranked offense and the Philadelphia 76ers’ 18th-rated outfit.

Getting Paul back on Friday should help bridge that chasm. The Rockets actually posted a better net rating last season when CP3 ran the show solo than when he shared the court with Harden, due in large part to Houston’s defense getting much stingier. But getting one all-world playmaker back at the expense of another doesn’t figure to solve the offensive issues on a team that’s fallen from second to 21st in true shooting percentage, and from third to 25th in free throw rate. (One thing that would help greatly: Eric Gordon snapping the season-opening skid in which he’s shot 8-for-33 from 3-point range and 34.8 percent from the field overall.)

D’Antoni said he saw reasons for optimism in Wednesday’s loss to Utah, but the Rockets still have a long way to go on the defensive end. The Rockets’ rise up the defensive rankings last season came under the watchful eye of associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik, who crafted a Warriors-like switch-everything scheme, drilled it into his charges until it became second nature, and watched as it did the nearly unthinkable: ground Golden State’s offense to an isolation-hunting halt. But Bzdelik retired just before the start of training camp, and while new defensive coordinator Roy Rogers is an experienced and well-regarded NBA assistant, Houston’s switching has looked scrambled.

The Rockets are still switching a ton, but it often opens more windows than it shuts, especially on the interior. It started on opening night against New Orleans. Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, and the Pelicans hammered Houston with a simple action: have a guard set a pindown screen for a big man cutting from the baseline toward the foul line; watch as Houston’s defenders trigger the off-ball switch, taking whichever actual or theoretical rim protector the Rockets are playing away from the rim; have your big man take the smaller defender suddenly guarding him straight into the post; eat voraciously, and repeatedly.

Houston’s other opponents haven’t used that exact pindown action to force mismatches, but they’ve all tried more or less the same thing—run an on- or off-ball screen, force the switch, dump it down into the paint where no rim protector is, get a great look. It’s been awfully effective:

The Rockets’ rash of injuries could lead D’Antoni to move veteran scorer Anthony from the first bench role of his NBA career back into the starting lineup. Looking for an offensive spark, D’Antoni put Melo in for the start of the second half on Wednesday; he finished with a season-best 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting. But there’s a trade-off there: moving the 34-year-old into a primary role means putting him at risk of defensive exposure against first-unit attacks.

As they did in last spring’s playoff series against Oklahoma City, the Jazz frequently took the opportunity to put Melo on an island in the pick-and-roll. They would then have whichever big man he was guarding trot out to the perimeter and screen for Donovan Mitchell, triggering the switch and forcing Anthony to defend the Rookie of the Year runner-up in space without a shot-blocker behind him. (A tactic, ironically enough, popularized last season by the Rockets.) It didn’t go so well:

The result of all those busted switches? Only two teams have allowed more shots at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass, and no team has allowed a higher field goal percentage on them. That’s a tough way to win, especially when you’re not shooting the lights out—and especially when you’re about to be without your offensive centerpiece for a spell.

“Long term, not concerned,” D’Antoni said Thursday. “I’m concerned about trying to win in the meantime.”

He should be. As our Justin Verrier noted following the Spitgate spat, just two games separated third place from eighth in the Western playoff bracket last season, and this year’s West looks to be just as competitive. And the losses in October count just as much as the ones that come in April. A couple of more stumbles with Harden sidelined or compromised and Houston could wind up going from chasing the Warriors to just chasing a postseason spot.

That could be why the Rockets’ long-rumored interest in trading for Jimmy Butler rose back to the surface on Thursday. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Houston is willing to send the Minnesota Timberwolves four future first-round picks, as well as present-day players whose contracts can match Butler’s 2018-19 salary, to acquire the disgruntled All-NBA forward, who has quickly pivoted from authoring preseason spectacles to averaging 24.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 3.8 steals per game as the Wolves’ two-way anchor. (Minnesota reportedly remains unmoved.)

That’s the maximum number of first-round selections the Rockets could send out under league rules; such a trade would encumber all of Houston’s first-rounders through 2025, which should be right around the time Bronny James makes his first All-Star team. (Provided our dystopian post-apocalyptic society hasn’t yet fully transitioned to Rollerball as its sole source of sporting entertainment by that time.) The reported offer would represent a massive gamble by general manager Daryl Morey, who has made no secret of his team’s obsession with catching and overtaking Golden State, and new owner Tilman Fertitta, who has made no secret of his interest in bringing Butler, the pride of Tomball, Texas, back to the Lone Star State.

“You can be the headline if you want to be the headline,” Fertitta told SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey. “But the deal has to make sense.”

Giving up four future first-round picks for a player under contract for only one more season, who’s reportedly intent on entering unrestricted free agency next summer, seems unfathomable. (Woj reports that the Rockets “would be trading for Butler with a strong desire to re-sign him next summer to a long-term contract extension,” which in and of itself would give a lot of teams pause, considering Butler has averaged 37.6 minutes per game over the past five seasons, has missed 15 or more games in four of them, underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in February, and will turn 30 next September.) But Houston has already gone all in on this core, re-signing Paul to a new maximum-salaried contract that runs through 2021-22 and extending Harden’s max deal through 2022-23. The Rockets came within one pulled hamstring and one legendary shooting slump of winning the West last season, then paid handsomely to run it back; they are a team built for right now. When that’s true, 2025 might as well be 20,025.

Winning a championship validates everything that comes before it, and most everything that will come afterward. If Fertitta and Morey truly believe Butler’s good enough to not only right the Rockets but launch them back into the Warriors’ stratosphere, and if the here-and-now cost looks more like Knight and Chriss than Gordon and P.J. Tucker, then there might not be a down-the-road price too high for them to pay.

“There’s always fine-tuning, you can always get better,” Morey said before the season. “We have all our draft picks going forward, so if something presents itself that allows us to make a trade to improve the team, we won’t hesitate to do that.”

Whether Houston needs an infusion of All-Star talent, or just to get everybody on the court and pulling in the same direction, the Rockets now sit in a state of unease—not clicking, not healthy, not settled, and in danger of getting left behind by the powers that be in the West. It’s too early for grim grumbling, but it’s not too early for the kind of pep talks a coach gives to keep other people from doing it.

“We’re going to do this,” D’Antoni said after Wednesday’s loss. “This team is going to be good. It’s going to be really good.”

It’s not yet, though. And James Harden coming up hobbling sure doesn’t get it any closer.