Are the Houston Rockets the Real Deal?

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Are the Houston Rockets the Real Deal?
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

After a hyped-up offseason, preseason and first few games of the regular season, Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers finally snapped the Houston Rockets and all the fans mesmerized by what seemed to be a budding super team back to reality with a 135-118 loss Monday night.  

Follow that up with a loss to the Kobe-less Los Angeles Lakers Thursday night, and the Rockets have a real reality check.  The Rockets may have a lineup full of talent, but they are far from title contenders.  

Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets started the season strong, going undefeated in their first three games.

The 6'11" big man averaged 15 points per game and 17 rebounds per game, including a 26-rebound game in the Rockets season opener, in his first three games as a Rocket.

Omer Asik and Dwight Howard were starting together with apparently no drama in the two-starting-post saga, although the offense has been a little crowded.

Nevertheless, everything seemed peachy.

But Chris Paul and the LA Clippers shut that down, giving Houston a much needed reality check.  The Clips scored 135 points on the Rockets who start two shot-blocking big men, including three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard.

Chris Paul had 23 points and 17 assists, and J.J. Reddick led the Clips with 26 points.  

The Rockets, on the other hand, were led by Omri Casspi with 19 points off the bench.  Houston totaled just three blocks for the game.  The much smaller Clippers totaled seven blocks.

So what happened to the 3-0 Houston Rockets who had everyone buzzing about a new title contender?

The Rockets had yet to be tested before their game Monday.  Here is a list of who Houston played when they were undefeated this season.

 

Date Played Team Played Score Record Last Season
Wed, Oct. 30 Charlotte Bobcats W 83-96 21-61
Fri, Nov. 1 Dallas Mavericks W 104-113 41-41
Sat, Nov. 2 Utah Jazz W 104-93 43-39

 

None of these teams made the playoffs last year, and as you can see, only one was above .500 last season—and the Jazz were barely above .500.

Compare these teams to the teams the Rockets will face in the Western Conference in their pursuit of an NBA Finals appearance: Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder.

All the hype and championship buzz surrounding this team is completely undeserved.  Before playing the LA Clippers, the Rockets had yet to be tested.  

And when they were tested, they failed.

The post-heavy Rockets were unable to guard LA on the perimeter, allowing the Clippers to hit 15 three-pointers.  The Clippers exposed Houston's backcourt, proving they really need to improve defensively.  

James Harden selectively defends, as Ethan Strauss points out.

But, apparently, he doesn't want to very often.  His defensive rating, a stat that estimates points allowed per 100 possessions, was 104.4 last season per NBA.com.  He has improved to 97.3 this season, which improved from 100.3 after last night's game against the Lakers.

His defensive rating of 97.3 isn't as far down the list of players as last season, but is still a far reach from Roy Hibbert at 76.6, who leads the NBA in defensive rating for players with substantial minutes.

Jeremy Lin's defensive rating has improved from 104 last season to 99.1 this season.  Let's not forget the NBA season has just started, and these improvements in defensive rating will likely even out during the long, 82-game season.

Here's a video of the highlights from the Houston/Clippers game.  Most of the highlights are the Clippers on offense, so you're sure to see some of the lackluster Houston defense, but notice at 1:32 Chris Paul takes Jeremy Lin off the dribble.  From there, there are several poor defensive clips of Lin.

Especially in a league full of quick point guards like Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, it's hard to imagine Lin being able to keep up defensively.

Houston's defense on the perimeter isn't the only problem.  Even with a daunting frontcourt, the Rockets still managed to give up 50 points in the paint against the Clippers.

Maybe the Clippers game was just a fluke.  Maybe I'm being too hard on the Rockets.  They did follow up their loss to LAC with a win.  Maybe I should give them credit for that.

Nope, I shouldn't. 

Although the Rockets did bounce back from their embarrassing loss to the Clippers, they bounced back with a win against another non-playoff team, the Portland Trail Blazers.

Houston gave up 101 points to a team who averaged 97.5 points per game last season.

The Rockets' defense currently ranks 22nd out of 30 teams in the league, allowing 103 points per game. 

A team with that much height protecting the pant absolutely should not allow 103 points per game.

And although they only gave up 99 points to the Lakers, they only scored 98, losing to a team without much star power. 

So, although the Rockets started the season 3-0 and have tons of star power, they definitely still have some problems.

Although there was no drama surrounding the Twin Towers tactic of playing Asik and Howard in the same lineup, it hasn't exactly been an effective lineup, as Tyler Conway of Bleacher Report points out.

"Through the first five games, the Rockets are averaging 92.3 points per 100 possessions and giving up 95.7 with Asik and Howard on the floor together.  With only Howard on the floor and Asik on the bench, they score 119.6 points versus giving up 103.  Throw Asik in for Howard, and Houston is even better, scoring 110.2 against 96.7."

In today's guard heavy NBA, it's hard to play a lineup with two bigs, clogging up the paint and creating less space for the guards to create.  It's not impossible, but it is tough, especially when neither post has a very consistent jump shot outside of the paint.

Check out Dwight Howard's shooting chart from last season, courtesy of Basketball-reference.com.  

And here is Omer Asik's.

Neither is an offensive threat from outside the paint, so there is no way to create spacing.  If one steps out of the paint to create space, only a very dumb defender would follow them, allowing defenses to clog the paint.

The Houston Rockets have extraordinary talent on their roster, but talent doesn't always mean an immediate championship.  

Even the Miami Heat struggled to find their rhythm as a team during LeBron James' first season in Miami, losing their first game to the Boston Celtics, and ultimately losing in the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. 

The Rockets have a lot of competition in the West, as I mentioned before.  For them to beat teams like the Spurs, who have played together for years, or a young team like Golden State, who have great chemistry after a few years of being together, they will have to figure out how to play together.

They will also have to defend on the perimeter (see GSW's Splash Brothers) and inside (see LAC's Lob City).  

Dwight and Houston may have created a media frenzy buzzing with championship expectations, but there is a lot more to a championship team than talent.  The Houston Rockets are not the real deal, not this year at least.

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