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The Rockets Don’t Have a Switch to Flip. They’ll Have to Acquire One.

A year ago, James Harden and Co. were sweeping teams off the floor. This season, they’ve been stuck in survival mode without a way out. There aren’t any easy solutions.

Daryl Morey, Mike D’Antoni, Chris Paul, and James Harden Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Houston Rockets are owners of the league’s eighth-worst record at 11-14. It’s startling for a number of reasons, not least of which is how convincing the team was as a legitimate challenger to the Warriors last season, taking a 65-win campaign all the way to Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals. Nothing has gone according to plan since. The Rockets are on pace for 36 wins, which would go down as the third-worst follow-up to a season with 60 wins or more in NBA history. It’d trail only the Cavaliers after LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, and the Bulls following Michael Jordan’s second retirement.

Graphic created by Llewellyn Jean

Of the 10 biggest drop-offs we’ve seen in NBA history that fit those criteria, most teams on the list got worse because they lost a star: Shaquille O’Neal left the Magic in free agency; Wilt Chamberlain retired from the Lakers; the Pacers lost Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, and Stephen Jackson to suspension after the Malice at the Palace; the Kawhi Leonard drama of last season left the Spurs without a true game-changing presence. Houston is fueled by the same star power it had last season, yet the team is crumbling. The Rockets defense dropped from seventh best to sixth worst and their offense slipped from first to seventh.

Unlike their predecessors, the Rockets don’t have a catch-all excuse for their play this season. Chris Paul is hampered by a hamstring injury, and at age 33 has shown subtle signs of decline. Eric Gordon has apparently forgotten how to score. The team isn’t shooting well from 3 and lacks depth at every position. There’s also an unquantifiable sense that this team lacks the supreme confidence and drive it had last season; Houston was single-mindedly focused on knocking off the Warriors last season, only to come up short in Game 7 after missing 27 straight 3s — and the 3-pointer is the shot that defines their analytically driven system. It doesn’t take a lot for doubt to start creeping in.

There’s a clear starting point to explain the Rockets’ struggles. In a vacuum, Houston’s most significant losses this summer — role players Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute to free agency — pale in comparison to losing a star player, but having dependable role players is a necessary ingredient to the championship recipe. The Rockets still have P.J. Tucker, but of the 1,054 minutes that Tucker shared the floor with center Clint Capela last season, 943 came with at least one of Ariza or Mbah a Moute on the floor. Those minutes that previously went to Ariza and Mbah a Moute have gone to youngsters like Gary Clark and Danuel House, journeymen like James Ennis III, and rusty turnstiles like Carmelo Anthony.

It’s not that Houston necessarily made the wrong decision when it let Ariza and Mbah a Moute go; they aren’t LeBron and Jordan, and besides, Ariza, 33, is either washed up or playing like he wants out of Phoenix, and Mbah a Moute, 32, has played only four games this season while battling injuries to his right calf and left knee. It’s just that their replacements haven’t been able to replicate any of the magic the Rockets got out of the two-way, multipositional players last season. The substitutes haven’t contained penetration in man-to-man situations, they haven’t played smart help defense, and they haven’t rebounded, all of which is integral to the team’s defensive scheme, which relies heavily on switching across positions. The return of Rockets defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, who retired before the season, hasn’t helped.

The Rockets have their bigs—Capela, Nene, or Isaiah Hartenstein—switch onto ball handlers, which can leave a perimeter defender on a larger, stronger player inside. They switch more screens than any other team, which allows opponents to choose their own matchups as though they were playing a video game. Opposing teams are giving the Rockets a taste of their own medicine by pick-and-rolling them to death, then exploiting mismatches on switches; the goal is to get the big man away from the rim with a switch because it opens the floodgates to the paint. Teams finish 19.4 percent of their possessions using isolations against Houston—which is the highest frequency in a Synergy Sports database that goes back to the 2004-05 season—because of plays like this:

Capela has defended 114 isolation possessions this season (or 4.6 per game)—a significant margin over the next closest bigs, Kevon Looney (73), Joel Embiid (58), and Steven Adams (52). Capela logged only 184 all of last season. It’s unfair to expect a paint enforcer like Capela to defend guards at a level necessary to consistently contain penetration. The problem is compounded because no one else on their roster can effectively protect the rim when Capela is stuck on the perimeter. Unlike last season, the Rockets don’t have enough wings who know how to play big.

In the clip above, the Mavericks run an on-ball screen to get DeAndre Jordan onto Tucker, and bring Hartenstein to the perimeter. Houston has no size in the paint, and Wesley Matthews smokes Harden for a layup. Harden unsurprisingly leads all guards in isolation possessions allowed on defense. Tucker is Houston’s best defender, but he can’t box out a behemoth like Jordan and alter shots from driving perimeter players.

The Rockets are allowing slightly more at-rim field goal attempts than they did last season, and teams are shooting a higher percentage (67.4 percent, which ranks third worst in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass). Teams playing Houston are getting easier shots; they’re having a big man slip screens, both on the ball and off the ball, because they know a switch is coming, which can make it easy for a big to plow his way to the rim for an open basket—or a foul or offensive rebound. This is the department in which Houston has gotten significantly worse. Only the Suns and Grizzlies foul more often than the Rockets, and only the Wizards allow more offensive rebounds.

Offensive Rebounding and Free Throw Rate

Season Opponent Offensive Rebounding % Rank Opponent Free Throw Rate Rank
Season Opponent Offensive Rebounding % Rank Opponent Free Throw Rate Rank
2017-18 Rockets 4th 6th
2018-19 Rockets 28th 29th

With Ariza and Mbah a Moute, the Rockets were more effective at executing a “scram switch,” a defensive maneuver that has two players switch their assignments away from the ball to establish a more preferable matchup. In the clip below from last season, the Celtics run a handoff to get Al Horford switched onto Paul, and the Rockets respond by having Ariza and Paul switch again. Horford gets forced into a shot from the post, which Ariza strongly contests.

Ennis and younger teammates like Clark and House don’t offer the same resistance in the post, which means the scram switch is less effective. They also aren’t as effective in man-to-man situations on the perimeter, and they’re too often a beat late on rotations, which forces them to commit ticky-tack fouls at a far higher rate than Ariza and Mbah a Moute.

Foul Troubles

Player Fouls Per 100 Possessions
Player Fouls Per 100 Possessions
Trevor Ariza (2017-18) 2.8
Luc Mbah a Moute (2017-18) 3.1
Gary Clark (2018-19) 3.4
Carmelo Anthony (2018-19) 5.2
James Ennis (2018-19) 6.5
Danuel House (2018-19) 6.6

The Rockets were blowing teams off the floor last season; now, they’re in survival mode most games, having to keep their best players on the floor for longer periods of time. The three-guard lineup of Harden, Paul, and Gordon is playing far more often than it did last season. Tucker is averaging seven more minutes per game, and Capela is playing 6.4 more. Capela and Tucker have already shared the floor for 663 minutes; they’re on pace to exceed the 1,054 minutes those two played together last season. But the additional time spent with one another hasn’t been much of a plus. The Rockets are receiving diminished returns.

Even though Capela forces Luka Doncic to shoot a stepback 3 in the play above, Jordan, who was switched onto Tucker, has the sheer size advantage to inhale the offensive board and easily put it back. Teams are targeting this weakness by having bigs positioned to crash the boards more frequently; the Rockets are allowing 2.4 more second-chance points per 100 possessions.

All these defensive blunders and blemishes add up to create a less effective interior defense. Mike D’Antoni could try to have his big man “drop” on pick-and-rolls more frequently rather than switching, but playing drop coverage in the pick-and-roll would require each on-ball defender to play beyond their capabilities. While Paul is an elite defender, Harden, Gordon, and Gerald Green aren’t; teams would run them through screen after screen, which could lead to a whole new set of issues.

Houston switches screens more than any other team because, in theory, it’s what works best for its personnel. Tweaking the defense to switch less could help some, and so could better communication and effort. But schemes can do only so much to make up for a deficient roster. Personnel changes would make the biggest difference. It just won’t be easy for Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to find the pieces that can put the “D” back in D’Antoni.

Multiple reports indicated last week that the Rockets intended to make a move by Friday—the last day a team could acquire a player via trade and retain the ability to combine his salary in another deal before the deadline. That time came and went without Houston making a move. The Rockets (and Pelicans) had interest in Cavaliers wing J.R. Smith, league sources told me last week, but I wouldn’t expect Smith to be high on the priority list now that the aforementioned deadline has passed. Better players should become available as the actual trade deadline on February 7 approaches.

The Rockets could use help at every position. If Brandon Knight is unable to spell Harden and Paul, I’d look for help from a tanking team like the Hawks, who have point guard Jeremy Lin coming off the bench. The Rockets were once linked to Kent Bazemore, but Bazemore isn’t a playmaker and lacks the necessary bulk to handle what the Rockets will ask of him on switches against bigs closer to the basket. Houston mostly need wings and forwards who bring more size and experience than its current options.

Any additions they make would also have to help patch up the offense. Even though Houston still ranks in the top 10 offensively, its once-dominant pick-and-roll has declined. Last season, the Rockets ranked fourth in pick-and-roll scoring efficiency; now, they rank 16th. The team isn’t drawing as many fouls, they’re turning it over more, and they aren’t shooting 3s nearly as well. For a team that routinely breaks 3-point-shooting records, you’d think they’d have a true knockdown shooter. Harden and Paul are doing their part from deep, given their sheer volume of attempts, but the 3s they shoot aren’t the same as the ones they’re creating for others. Harden has 228 3s off the dribble and only 16 spot-ups, while Paul has 101 and 16, respectively. It’s a shame for Houston that Anthony didn’t work out; he could’ve provided size, shooting, and served as a secondary pick-and-roll threat who could create easier opportunities for Harden and Paul.

The Rockets are severely undermanned behind Capela, and undersized at the forward spots, which could be problematic if the requirements to make the Finals have changed. The Warriors can throw a curveball this postseason and go big now that they have DeMarcus Cousins. The Rockets are built to go small but they may need to supersize to match up with this Warriors squad.

Some options at forward that come to mind include: James Johnson (Heat), DeMarre Carroll (Nets), and Markieff Morris and Jeff Green (Wizards), players whose teams are on the outside looking in at the playoffs. Johnson and Morris, in particular, could provide muscle on defense while spacing the floor from 3. Bobby Portis (Bulls) makes sense as a player who brings a little extra size, and if the Rockets really want to scrape the bottom of the barrel, they could take a flier on another former Suns lottery pick, Dragan Bender. These names are uninspiring, but it’s hard to find appealing talent that would be feasible for the Rockets to acquire. Ariza will be made available by the Suns, league front office executives expect, but it’s unlikely the Rockets can pursue him without finding a third team for salary-matching purposes. Phoenix can’t trade for Knight because teams aren’t allowed to reacquire a player they traded within one year. Houston will likely have to disregard old flames.

I wonder whether Morey would think about taking a grand risk by exploring a trade for Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love, or even Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr., but both players recently signed massive extensions. While either player could help Houston—Love with scoring, playmaking, and rebounding; Porter with shooting and defending—both players are too expensive to be viable options. Should the Rockets acquire one, the repeater luxury tax implications would be headache-inducing: Harden, Paul, Capela, and the acquisition alone would combine for more than $120 million annually through the 2020-21 season. Building a competitive roster around that would be difficult and pricey. New Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has expressed reservations about diving into the luxury tax unless the team’s a true contender. “If you do win the championship, that’s easy money back,” Fertitta said. “Now, if we are in the luxury tax every year and barely getting in the playoffs and a first-round game is a struggle, I’m going to find me a new general manager.”

D’Antoni and Morey feel Fertitta’s pressure. The Rockets have the pieces to be special again, and they’ve shown signs of their high-powered offense during their winning streaks. Harden, for his part, is posting nearly identical numbers to his numbers from last season’s MVP campaign. The Rockets, despite currently occupying the 14-seed, are still only 2.5 games back from the eighth seed in the Western Conference—heck, they’re only six back from the 1-seed. But the team lacks consistency, and its defense hasn’t proved it can get stops. Personnel tweaks are needed to improve their depth, and the current roster must begin simply producing more by hitting more shots, communicating on defense, and playing with the same spirit that powered them before. That might not be enough to go a greater distance than they did last season, but they first need to worry about getting into the playoffs. The Rockets have too much upside built into their system today to worry about tomorrow; they’re locked into maximizing this core.

This isn’t an insurmountable pit they’ve dug themselves into, though with so much competition in the West, it might look a bit like what Bruce Wayne had to deal with in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s up to Morey to sift through the many imperfect solutions on the table and make some tough calls. If he can’t, the Rockets might just go down as one of the worst teams ever following a 60-plus-win season. And they won’t even need to lose an all-time great to get there.