Houston Rockets: Not Out Of The Woods Yet

The Houston Rockets’ slow start to the season and supposed subsequent resurgence took a complicated twist Wednesday night against the Brooklyn Nets.

The Rockets lost their first three games of the season in fairly ugly fashion to the Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat, losing all three games by exactly 20 points and having the ignominious honor of being the only team in NBA history to lose their first three games by that exact amount.

Following that three-game start, the Rockets seemed to have gotten things together and reeled off four straight wins. In those games, Houston didn’t look like the Western Conference finalists of a season ago, struggling with the the Orlando Magic and the Sacramento Kings, but they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers, teams expected to make a lot of noise in the West this year.

The Rockets had what seemed to be a rejuvenated James Harden at the helm during this stretch. He was named the Western Conference player of the week, averaging 38.5 points per game and shooting a much-improved 46.4 percent from the floor. He even prompted me to write a post declaring that the Rockets are back.

The events of Wednesday night are leading me to scale back on that optimistic point of view.

The Rockets hosted the winless Brooklyn Nets and were the biggest favorite of the whole Wednesday slate, favored to win by 11. In what seems to be a continuing trend, the Rockets played to the level of their opponent and were dominated in both the second and fourth quarters, losing 106-98 to a team expected by many to be one of the worst teams in the NBA this season.

The Rockets allowed the second worst three-point shooting team in the league to shoot 47.1 percent from long range on 8-of-17 shooting, and on their own end shot just 8-for-34 from three, good for 23.5 percent. The Rockets have dropped to 28th in the NBA shooting just 26.8 percent from three-point range while shooting the most threes of anybody in the league at 32.1 per game.

These stats continued what has been a worrisome trend for the Rockets so far this season. Houston is allowing their opponents to shoot 37.3 percent from three-point range, which is the fifth worst percentage in the NBA.

The only teams who are putting up worse three-point defense numbers are the awful Philadelphia 76ers, the Washington Wizards, the injury-riddled New Orleans Pelicans who can barely roll out an NBA-level roster right now, and the Memphis Grizzlies who have faced the red-hot Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors twice in their first nine games.

Speaking of three-point ineptitude, it’s hard to run an effective offense when this is something you do:

While Marcus Thornton had the unfortunate fate of taking this shot, he’s been a bright spot for the Rockets this season. He has started all six games he’s played, and he’s scoring 17.3 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting, and 39.1 percent from long range. He’s adding 4.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.7 steals per game, while just averaging one turnover.

He’s been a very pleasant surprise, as has Clint Capela.

Capela has been less of a shocker thanks to breakout playoff performances last season and playing big minutes and posting big numbers in the preseason, but he’s been a stalwart for this team when he comes into the game at center to relieve Dwight Howard.

In spite of getting three starts so far, Capela is only averaging 17.8 minutes per game, but he’s making the most of it when he gets on the floor, averaging 17.2 points and 12.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. He’s also leading the NBA in shooting percentage with a fairly preposterous 79.5 percent clip.

Perhaps most impressive, in spite of the small sample size he’s had, his offensive rating is 134 and his defensive rating is 103, meaning that in this messy and noisy start to the Rockets season, his net rating is +31.

That’s about where the sunshine and rainbows end for this team though.

Ty Lawson has been inconsistent at best, shooting just 34.2 percent. Trevor Ariza has been even worse, shooting 33.7 percent. Corey Brewer has been worst of all, shooting 31.3 percent.

When this trio shares the floor, they are outscored 102.4 to 88.9 points per 100 possessions, and they’re getting outshot 39.5 percent to 16.3 percent from three-point range.

This is a team that is too deep and too talented to get beat at home by teams like the Denver Nuggets and the Brooklyn Nets, but that’s a thing everybody in the NBA thought about the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers as well.

That was a talent-laden team that was expected to challenge for a championship, underachieved through the regular season, and then got smoked 4-0 in the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs. We don’t need to talk about what the Lakers are today, and nobody would have seen such a thing coming that season.

This is of course a worst-case scenario, and the Rockets are still a team that can hang with the best in the NBA when they decide to turn it on, but that’s a risky game. Sometimes the switch doesn’t flip when you want it to, and you find yourself easy prey for the Warriors, Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers of the world.

To Rockets fans, again, I say don’t panic. But keep a close and concerned eye on this team. They are trending in an uncomfortable direction.