After a horrible 1-5 start, the Rockets released Carmelo Anthony and have played much better since. Does this mean the Rockets really have turned things around? Or, does Houston still have bigger problems?
Unfortunately, things for the Houston Rockets started off bad. How bad? Well, picture this. The team is one injured Chris Paul away from making the NBA Finals. Next, they acquire 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony. Here’s where it gets bad. Houston didn’t pay Trevor Ariza nor Luc Mbah a Moute. I’d argue their top two defenders last season. Defensive guru and Associate Head Coach Jeff Bzdelik retired, and now the defensive scheme is in shambles.
However, not all is lost. To put it simply, it just didn’t work out with Melo in Houston. But since his departure from the team, like some other cases in the past, the team has gradually improved. Shocking, isn’t it? Well, it is not all that crazy. The fact of the matter is Anthony, 34, has no place in the new NBA. This is the same Melo that has averaged over 24 points per game in his career. Unfortunately, his body has not done him well. He doesn’t have the same bounce to his step, and his jump shot has suffered greatly because of it.
Regardless, the Melo experiment was set up to fail for a variety of reasons. For starters, he has never been revered for his defense. As a matter of fact, Melo is a terrible defender. Too slow, and too old to be at the power forward position. Next, the team is built around a perimeter game and a switch heavy defense. In fact, Melo is a career 34% shooter from beyond the arc. His career defensive box-plus-minus is -1.2. Ouch. To be fair however, the blame is not all on Melo.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at this footage from opening night.
Yikes! Not a great start. But, let’s dissect some things from this footage. Clearly, Houston misses Ariza and Mbah a Moute. Indeed, both are capable three point shooters and two of the best defenders in the league. Also, James Harden and CP3 looked sluggish. However, most of this really stems from new pieces that need time to fit in.
Old and New Pieces for Houston
Out: Trevor Ariza (Phoenix), Luc Mbah a Moute ( L.A. Clippers), Jeff Bzdelik (returning after Thanksgiving), Carmelo Anthony (released after 10 games).
The latter of that list is either injured or has received little playing time for various reasons. Ennis and Clark on the other hand are starting to get comfortable in the setup. And let’s be honest about something. While this team ranked 7th last season in defensive rating, offense is their calling. Coach Mike D’Antoni led a historically efficient offense last season. However, the first six games this season showed otherwise. During that stretch, CP3 showed off his age a bit, and Harden missed some time with a strained hamstring.
Since then, the Rockets have improved to 8-7 and are riding a four game winning streak. The highlight of this winning streak? Of course, the victory over the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors.
While the defensive effort has slowly improved, I have to give huge props to Harden for actually trying on defense. It helps a bunch when the MVP is averaging 2.3 steals per game. Another helpful fact is that Clint Capela is playing much better also. Here is a look at the Rockets “Big 3” from a statistical perspective.
Harden, Paul, and Capela’s numbers on the season
James Harden: 27.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 7.3 APG, and 2.3 STL
Chris Paul: 17.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 7.6 APG, and 2.5 STL
Clint Capela: 16.3 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 1.7 APG, and 1.7 BLK
Expect these numbers to improve as the team finds a groove. In fact, Houston is heading to a more favorable part of their schedule. One that allows for some wins to really come in. Their next five games are against the Pistons, Cavaliers, Wizards, and Mavericks. Not exactly top tier teams at the moment. However, if this is to be the turnaround, then Houston cannot get complacent and think its all back to normal.
While Ennis and Gary Clark have done well in their new roles, Houston needs some other guys to step up, or look for more help elsewhere. Particularly, Eric Gordon and Gerald Green really need to improve. P.J. Tucker could also improve his offensive output also, but his 1.3 steals a game is a big boost to the defense. Gordon, especially from three point land, has been dreadful. In fact, he’s shooting 24% from beyond the arc this season. Green too has been bad from beyond the arc, 29% from his attempts. And as a team, the Rockets are shooting 33% from three point range.
Overall, things are starting to look up for Houston. However, let’s see how the season continues to play out. Perhaps Melo leaving really was a boost. But, this team needs to get their defensive swag rolling and out score their opponents. Besides, Moreyball means making the most shots and scoring the most points.
Red Nation, let’s hope this turnaround leads to sustained success down the line this season. Next up, Detroit at home at 7 pm Central Standard Time.