The gift and the curse of the brand-new NBA season is that it opens up waves of overreaction. Every win is deified, every loss magnified. Every team is evolving, trying to seamlessly work in new talent, find the chemistry that they were humming with this past April.
Which is why it's important to not take too much seriously at this point. Even the two-time defending champion Miami Heat are working through some chemistry issues. Over an 82-game sample, things tend to even themselves out and regress to the mean, as the cool kids like to say.
But that doesn't mean all early observations are meaningless.
Such is the case for the Houston Rockets, and specifically their shiny new acquisition Dwight Howard. Houston is 4-1, so things are going mostly swell. Howard, James Harden and the lot are all saying the right things, and there seems to be a general camaraderie in the locker room that was wholly lacking during Howard's time with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Things just haven't been as ideal as Houston's record makes it seem. These Rockets are still very much finding their way, working on developing a workable chemistry between last season's "run, run, run" bunch and the slower pace in which Howard prefers to work.
Tuesday night's win over Portland, which came on the road on the second night of a back-to-back, was about as solid as you'll see this team look.
Everything presented here comes with a "for now" signifier. Samples are still tiny. There is plenty of time to work out any kinks, and I suspect the Rockets will look to do just that on their day off.
But let's check in right now on a couple areas of weakness that the Rockets must work on going forward.
The Howard-Asik Combination Hasn't Been Working Offensively
Houston is no stranger to the Twin Towers concept. The team drafted Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984 with the express purpose of playing him alongside Ralph Sampson, and the pairing nearly took the NBA by storm until Sampson's injuries got the best of him.
Kevin McHale, who was on the 1986 Boston Celtics team that took down Olajuwon and Sampson in their only finals appearance together, almost certainly saw something similar bubbling when he decided to pair Howard with Omer Asik in the starting lineup.
Howard is nearing 100 percent health and can handle the more fleet-footed 4s of today's NBA; Asik single-handedly saved Houston's defensive efficiency last season. Together, they could be expected to dominate inside and help atone for the other defensive problems on the floor. The offensive stuff could figure itself out over the course of the regular season.
Only it hasn't worked—at all.
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.
The problem begins where everyone thought: spacing. Howard has shot just 10-of-28 in post ups this season, per Synergy, but his problems have been exacerbated with Asik in the game. Opposing bigs know they don't have to worry about Asik knocking down a weak-side jumper, so they've been able to over-help to Howard's side and constrict his posts to one side of the floor.
If you've watched Howard's game over the years, you should know by now that one of his go-to moves down low is a hook where he comes across the lane with a two-step start. With Asik on the floor, Howard hasn't been able to pull off that move and has rarely even tried because he knows help and a possible turnover are coming.
The trickle-down also affects the way the rest of the team likes to operate on offense. Houston has still been very good on pick-and-rolls because James Harden and Jeremy Lin are good enough to get Asik—who has served as the primary screener this season—and his man on skates.
Isolations have been dreadful. On the play below, Harden initially rejects an Asik screen, and he goes to the left side of the floor to ostensibly create false actions designed to lull the defense away from the strong side. But the Clippers aren't fooled for a second, as Harden dribbles around to nowhere in particular for about five or six seconds and then launches what can nicely be described as a questionable three-point attempt:
Four Clippers are within a step or inside the paint. Chandler Parsons has good inside rebounding position on J.J. Redick, but that's about the only positive one could draw from that offensive possession. Houston was averaging only 0.76 points per possession on isolation heading into Tuesday night, per Synergy Sports, and plays like that are littered across the film.
The problem here is that there's no definite solution. Asik and Howard both deserve starters' minutes on this team, and no answer has emerged at the 4. The Rockets have generally done well going small with four out and one in, but good luck explaining to Asik why his minutes have diminished or to Daryl Morey why his biggest trade asset isn't getting a proper showcase.
The Rockets Still Can't Defend Consistently on Perimeter; Howard Isn't Protecting Rim
The one area where the Asik-Howard combo was supposed to help was atoning for the team's weak perimeter defenders. Houston came into the season with a known deficiency in that department. It's very likely that that knowledge is why Patrick Beverley began the season as Houston's opening-night point guard over Lin. Beverley isn't a perfect defender, but he's willing and represents a marked step up in lateral quickness from Lin.
Well, Beverley's stint in the starting lineup lasted all of about 10 minutes. He returned last night after suffering a partially torn muscle in his stomach, but in the meantime, Lin returned to the starting lineup and one Aaron Brooks got extended minutes.
Shall we go into how that's gone so far? Wait, what? It's actually gone not-so-terrible? That was a twist I wasn't expecting.
The Rockets currently rank 27th in defensive efficiency per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, but much of that is attributable to their run through Clipper Land. They've been somewhat better than expected from every area of the floor, and that includes the two sieves on the perimeter. And in saying that, I merely mean that they've been trying, which is more than what one could say last season.
The results have been anything but consistent. Harden and Lin were train wrecks against the Clippers. I know it's Chris Paul here, but why is Lin resting on Blake Griffin's shoulder on this play and actively inviting a pick that was never really coming?
Or Harden here, watching the ball all the way and completely missing the back screen from DeAndre Jordan?
You'll be shocked to know that both plays ended in easy buckets for the Clippers. Paul pulled up and knocked down his wide-open jumper from the corner, and Redick ran Harden ragged across the court before catching a pass and curling for a jumper from the elbow. The duo combined for 49 points. Paul made seven shots himself out of pick-and-roll situations, per Synergy Sports, to go with the numerous opportunities he provided for his teammates.
The Clippers were a bastion of offensive efficiency. They hit 15 threes, scored 50 points in the paint and were almost ghosts from midrange outside of good, open looks.
Now, this was expected. It was, frankly, the impetus of signing Howard. In order to atone for perhaps the league's worst defensive backcourt, the Rockets signed one of the game's best defensive stoppers in the middle. Then, they paired him with a similar player.
Few accounted for the fact that Howard wouldn't be the show-stopping interior defender he once was.
Prior to Tuesday night, Howard was seeing 9.3 shot attempts at the rim per game, per the NBA's SportsVu stats. That ranks ninth highest in the league, and all of the guys above Howard are usual suspects—weak defenders, players who are surrounded by bad teammates on the perimeter, etc. Asik isn't very far down that list either at 7.8 attempts against per game.
This isn't a surprise; the Rockets aren't a great defensive team on the perimeter. As such, they like to keep at least one big—almost always Howard or Asik—roaming the middle.
What is a surprise is how effective opposing teams have been against Howard. Among players who have received "significant" court time and have faced at least five shots at the rim per game, Howard's 56.8 field goal percentage against is the seventh worst in basketball. (As an aside, it's shocking to see Marc Gasol on this list as well. Remember, small samples, people.)
Asik, on the other hand, has been the fourth-best when using the same criteria. He's among the Anthony Davises and Roy Hibberts of the world.
Over the course of the season, this almost certainly won't keep up. There was an entire paper presented at last year's Sloan Conference highlighting just how much of an effect D12 has against opposing attackers. (It was using 2011-12 data from SportsVu, but still. The Lakers were two completely different teams with Howard on the floor defensively last season.)
But if Howard even regresses somewhat—say among the 10- or 15-best interior defenders rather than top three—Houston won't be getting what it paid for. Even with the Rockets off to a solid start, these are the things we need to look at in assessing whether this team has a shot at having a meeting with the golden Larry O'Brien.
The results are promising, but it's the process that could be their undoing.
All advanced stats are courtesy of NBA.com, unless otherwise stated.
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