Remember Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals? You know the one: when the Rockets pushed the Warriors to the brink, and when the idea of the unbeatable superteam falling to the squad that was engineered to beat them felt possible, even just for a moment? And yes, also the game when the Rockets missed 27-straight 3-pointers and lost 101-92. That game occurred just five months ago, but it feels like ancient history now, as the once-thrilling Rockets have started this season 1-5.
Over the first two weeks of the season, watching Houston has not been easy on the eyes. The Rockets have a bottom-10 defense and a bottom-10 offense, and, even beyond the statistics, their play has been completely uninspiring. It may not be time to go full panic-mode yet in Houston, but one thing is certain: We’re not in the Western Conference finals anymore.
Tuesday night’s game against the Blazers was just another example of how dire the Rockets’ situation is. With James Harden out for the game with a hamstring injury, Houston rolled Carmelo Anthony into the starting lineup and gave significant minutes to rookie Gary Clark, Michael Carter-Williams, and even Isaiah Hartenstein. The Rockets looked lethargic all night, shooting just 32 percent from the field and 23 percent from deep. Chris Paul led the team in points with … 17, and Portland won the game 104-85. One tweet from Rockets beat writer Jonathan Feigen tidily summed up the team’s situation:
Isaiah Hartenstein up to check in. As expected, Marquese Chriss not deemed not ready to claim a rotation spot.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) October 31, 2018
I say this sincerely: How in the world did we get here? It’s like over the course of one summer, Houston went from being a hypereffective assembly line to trying to make a fire without matches. The team’s style of play is certainly altered when Harden isn’t handling the ball (he’s set to return for Friday’s game against the Nets), but even when he has played this month, the Rockets haven’t been all that effective.
“We’ve lost our swagger and we’re on our heels,” coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters after the game. I’d certainly say so.
To match their win total from last season, the Rockets would have to win 84 percent of their remaining games (64 of their next 76). That won’t happen. Before the season, their Vegas over/under was 54.5 games. To hit the over, they’d have to go 54-22 the rest of the way. Sure, the season is long, and Houston should see some natural improvement, but these early games still matter—especially in stacked the Western Conference.
So, what should the Rockets do to get their swagger back? First, they should start the roster-tinkering process early. Wednesday is the first day they can trade Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight, whom they traded for this offseason. I’d be shocked if general manager Daryl Morey isn’t in the lab workshopping deals. In fact, one of his trade proposals already got out. Last week, ESPN reported that Houston was prepared to offer four future first-round picks to Minnesota for Jimmy Butler. If the Rockets’ terrible start continues, I wouldn’t blame Morey if he tried to circumvent the CBA and offer five first-round picks. The Rockets need Butler arguably more than any team in the league does, and, as The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Wednesday morning, Butler could begin to sit out games in an effort to get traded. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski also reported Wednesday that even though trade talks are “stagnant,” Butler plans to travel with the Wolves and play against the Warriors on Friday.
If the Rockets don’t get Butler, the next step may be one that we saw another team take just last season: the midseason overhaul. LeBron James’s 2017-18 Cavaliers team pulled off this move when they traded away Isaiah Thomas for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., and added George Hill in a separate deal. Houston’s stars aren’t going anywhere, but the cast of role players surrounding them must be upgraded. And what do you know? The Cavaliers are now the team that looks ready to sell off veteran players.
Kevin Love could be available, though he has a lingering foot injury and is expected to be out for several weeks. But even with that time frame, the Rockets could benefit from his scoring, using him as a stretch-4. Think of him as a better Ryan Anderson. This deal would work for both parties: Love looks like he could use a change of scenery, and, even though his defense might hurt Houston, the Rockets can’t have their cake and eat it too. They just need better players. Going after other Cavs pieces like George Hill and Kyle Korver might not be a bad idea, either. Hill could add perimeter depth (he’s shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from 3 so far this season), and Korver would likely get a lot of open looks off Harden drives. Heck, I could even see the Rockets talking themselves into J.R. Smith.
At this point, Houston could end its rut by doubling down on scoring. The Rockets defense is not as good as it was last season, but they still have the firepower to keep up with other teams. Getting Harden back will help with the offense, and Houston has two easy games coming up against the Nets and Bulls. After that, though, it’s back to the Western Conference grind.
While the Warriors are out here breaking offensive records, the Rockets will likely be busy on Halloween night working the trade machine. It’ll be entertaining to watch them try to remodel themselves into a championship contender by playoff time. But for now, they’ll have a tough climb to get back to .500, let alone a conference finals Game 7.