What a difference two weeks can make! At the start of 2013, the Houston Rockets were one of the most exciting, promising teams in the league.
Their record stood at 21-14 and they were continuing to march up they Western Conference ladder, thanks to the excellent play of James Harden, who was looking more and more like a serious Most Valuable Player candidate.
Now, however, the Rockets are stuck in a rut. They’ve dropped seven in a row, falling back to .500, and are on their way to falling out of the No. 8 seed in the West. The spark just hasn’t been there lately.
Harden is still putting up solid numbers, but he’s fallen off considerably in the past two weeks, and while Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons have been solid, it hasn’t been enough to earn this team that elusive win.
So, what’s the cause of all this? Primarily, it’s youth. The Rockets are the youngest team in the NBA and while they are frisky enough to scare any team on any given night, they aren’t used to handling the trials and tribulations of an 82-game NBA season.
Consider how inexperienced their starters are–Asik was a backup with the Chicago Bulls last year, Jeremy Lin only started 26 games with the New York Knicks, Parsons was starting last year but with fewer minutes and even Harden was used as a sixth man with the Oklahoma City Thunder. None of these guys are used to the wear-and-tear of a full season and lately it’s really been showing.
Additionally, Harden’s biggest problem has been rearing its ugly head: inconsistency. Everyone knows he’s extremely talented, and a force to contend with on any given night. But what keeps him from being in the same company as LeBron James or his former teammate Kevin Durant is that he’s very vulnerable to rough stretches.
Harden will play extremely well for a long time (see his run of 14 straight 25-point games), but when he falls into a funk, it can be brutal to watch. Anyone who watched his woeful performance in Wednesday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks can attest to that. When Harden falls into a slump, he has trouble shaking it off; he was dogged by the same problem in the NBA Finals.
Now, this really doesn’t detract from Harden’s game a great deal. He doesn’t fall into these slumps very often and when he’s on his game, he’s amazing. But on a team like the Rockets that lives and dies by his performance, it can bring everyone down. As Harden goes, the Rockets go, so they won’t be able to bust out of their slump until he starts getting some shots to fall.
My guess is Houston will break out of this skid and make the playoffs. While they certainly have issues, they’re too talented and too fast to be counted out. When this team is operating on all cylinders, it’s a marvel to watch.
While their youth can cause problems with regards to inexperience, it’s also a big part of why they can be so entertaining. They have a high-powered offense reminiscent of the Seven Seconds Or Less Phoenix Suns; it’s up-tempo and any player might get a wide-open look before the defense even knows what hit them. At some point, things will start clicking again on the offensive end; the Rockets will go back to being a fearsome team.
Even when the Rockets were winning, no one expected them to contend for a title this year. They’re not experienced enough and they lack a second star player who can bail out Harden when he’s having a rough night.
Still, they have enough talent, and enough chemistry that there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to squeeze their way into the playoffs. They’re going through a rough patch right now, but they are strong enough to work they out of it, and go back to playing the way they did before they ran into this wall. They’re too skilled–and too much fun–to be taken down by their case of midseason blues.
Expect to see the Rockets start winning sooner than later, and expect their round one opponent to have some serious trouble taking them down.
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