Christened answers have become a part of the problem for the Houston Rockets.
Together, James Harden and Dwight Howard solved everything in Houston; they covered all the Rockets' bases. Howard would anchor the defense, while Harden would continue to headline last season's sixth-most efficient offense in the NBA.
Off the bat, that's held mostly accurate. Harden is averaging 24.7 points per game, and the Rockets rank fifth in offensive efficiency. But they currently rank 20th in points allowed per 100 possessions, down from 16th last year. Superman's presence hasn't prompted the type of defensive awakening Houston was hoping for, helped in large part by Harden's frequent collapses.
Inconsistent performances from the Rockets' two best players, from their bona fide superstars, have left the team a middling 4-3. Two of their four victories have come against outfits presently sitting above .500, but they're a 0-3 when facing 2012-13 playoff teams.
The Omer Asik-Dwight Howard pairing was supposed to be the biggest obstacle Houston would face. While that coupling has been less than perfect, it's the play of Howard and Harden on opposite ends of the floor that's most hurting the Rockets.
More than it ever should have.
Can Howard Make a Free Throw? Pretty Please?
Sit down, because this is big: Howard is not a good free-throw shooter.
You're shocked, I know. For almost a decade he's been the poster boy for efficient freebies...in practice with his eyes closed, that is.
Houston knew what it was getting in Howard—a defensive stopper with an unpredictable offensive effort and inability to knock down free throws. The latter has been a career-long battle. Howard is shooting just 57.6 percent from the foul line since entering the NBA, a clip that has worsened over the past couple years.
The last time he converted more than 50 percent of his free throws for an entire year was 2010-11. Since then, he hasn't cleared 49.3, his current mark.
Early on, his poor shooting has hurt the Rockets. In their most recent loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, he was just 5-of-11 from the charity stripe. Against the Los Angeles Lakers two nights previous, he was worse, going 5-of-16 overall and 5-of-12 in the fourth quarter. Houston ended up losing by one point following a game-winning three from Steve Blake.
"Guys just kind of messed up on the play," said Howard afterward, per CBS Sports' Ken Berger. "It happens. ... There are a lot of things we need to work on."
Guys messed up on the play, Dwight? Really? That was a game that shouldn't have come down to one play. Had he made two more of his free throws, the Rockets would have won. Hell, had he made one more, the game would have gone into overtime.
Through seven games, Howard is shooting 12-of-25 at the free-throw line during the fourth quarter. If he's unable to start hitting these completely uncontested looks at a higher rate, he's going to kill the Rockets—who are being outscored by .7 points per game in the fourth quarter, according to NBA.com (subscription required)—all year.
Howard will always be a weak link at the foul line, and that will likely never change. But if he cannot at least approach competent, Hack-a-Howard isn't going anywhere, and the Rockets won't be fit to win close games.
"D" Is for Defense, James
Harden's defensive effort has been inconstant, and that's me being kind.
You wouldn't know it by looking at all the numbers, but he's not playing well on that end of the floor. Never mind that Houston's defensive rating is better with Harden in the game (100.1) than with him on the bench (106.3). Such can be the benefit of playing alongside Howard and Asik.
At times, however, Harden has been truly terrible. Like in the Rockets' first loss to the Clippers. Watching Harden in that one was difficult.
This play was especially brutal. Harden begins it by keeping an eye on Chris Paul, who has the ball, while presumably keeping track of J.J. Redick in the corner:
As the play develops, Harden's attention is still focused on the ball:
To this point, Redick has remained stationary, allowing Harden to play off him and stay idle himself.
Eventually, Redick goes baseline, and Harden responds by barely turning his head:
When he does look over, it's the wrong way. He has no idea that Redick has flown from the strong-side corner. By the time Harden realizes where his man is, Redick is about to catch a pass from Blake Griffin to the left of the basket:
Pay attention to how far away Harden is. You could fit a few NBA-sized players in that gap and still have room to do some yoga. There's no way Harden is going to close out in time.
And he doesn't:
That entire game is littered with defensive mistakes (shown below), the kind that the Rockets cannot afford to make.
Howard can only have so much of an impact on his own. The rest of the team needs to follow suit, especially Harden, who must lead by example.
The bearded wonder has never been heralded as a top-tier defender, but we've seen what a defensively engaged Harden can do. When he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was as close to a Kobe Bryant stopper as there was.
Knowing that he has the potential to play better defensively is frustrating. Potent offenses are only half of a championship recipe; he needs to play defense to ensure Houston has the other half.
Starting shooting guards are averaging over 18 points a game against the Rockets. Redick has notched an average of 24 through two games, an alarming figure when you consider Harden is at 24.7 himself.
Failing to lock up opposing 2-guards, then, minimizes the gap that is supposed to exist between Harden and everyone else. The Rockets cannot watch that gap dwindle in any way with their defense being as porous as it has been. And now, with Harden being day to day, according to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, forget it.
James Harden day-to-day with bruised left foot.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) November 8, 2013
"Our offense dried up and conversely our defense started drying up," coach Kevin McHale said following his team's second loss to the Clippers, per Rockets.com's Jason Friedman.
Soon enough, if Harden isn't both healthy and actively involved on the defensive end, the wins will dry up too.
Finding Their Groove
The Rockets need Howard and Harden to dominate their respective crafts while holding serve in other areas.
Both have kept up one end of the bargain. Harden has been close to an offensive stud—though three-point shooting is a concern—and Howard continues to notch double-doubles and block shots. In other aspects of the game, they're coming up short.
Howard still cannot find his touch from the foul line. There's a tendency to downplay his struggles and assume a "that's just how it is" stance, but it cannot be that way anymore. As we saw in Houston's setback to the Lakers, missed free throws can be the difference between a win and loss.
Strong defensive sets aren't much different. If Harden can put forth an unwavering effort on defense, the Rockets are better equipped to weather close games. Reinventing the defense begins with Howard, of course, but it must continue with Harden.
How many games will it take for Harden and Howard to transform the Rockets into a powerhouse?
Houston is built for contention. Howard and Harden together make for a Western Conference powerhouse. That's what we've been told, anyway.
Until now they haven't been enough, because they haven't done enough.
Pet-parrot style, it's still early. That's what we'll continue to hear on a loop, and it's partially correct. We cannot judge them too soon. But they're not above doubt.
Even this early, we're free to doubt the two players who were supposed to be the Rockets' answers to everything—not the primary sources of pressing problems.