Where's Waldo? And who are we?
Pressing questions like those are facing both the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, two appointed contenders desperately searching for an early-season identity, as they prepare to meet for the first time this season.
To this point, they've each found nothing; discovered nothing.
One night, the Rockets look like they have a championship foundation in place; the next, they're unable to capture a statement win against a fellow powerhouse. Or, in a more extreme case, incapable of putting down a supposed tanker.
Buried in lineup confusion, the Knicks continue to distinguish themselves by quarter. On any given night, there's no predicting what we'll see. Will they be up big? Down big? Competing? Disinterested? Their lack of continuity is staggering and, more often than not this season, has proved fatal.
Heading into their first matchup of the season, time has kept the critics at bay (sort of). It's still early; no use getting worked up with 70-plus games still to play.
Eventually, it will no longer be "early." The Knicks and Rockets won't be able to preach patience or brush off stammering struggles. Soon enough, they'll be out of excuses.
Out of time.
Who Are the Rockets?
Last season, this wouldn't have been a question without an answer.
The Rockets were a run-and-gun, shoot-first, shoot-second, shoot-third, defend-fourth outfit. Their spread-heavy offense ranked sixth in efficiency, and they were identifiable by the number of threes they made (867), points they scored and days they went without shaving.
James Harden, in his first year as The Man, finished fifth in scoring with 25.9 points per game and became just the fifth player in league history to average at least 25 points, four rebounds, five assists and 1.5 steals in the same season before his 24th birthday, joining LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas.
Led by the Bearded wonder, a surprise double-double machine in Omer Asik and the burgeoning Chandler Parsons, the Rockets clinched a playoff berth for the first time in three years. And after falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder, they wanted more.
In came Dwight Howard over the offseason, the player who would push the Rockets over the edge. They were now built to score and defend. To run and prevent running. They were a legitimate title contender.
Nine games into 2013-14, however, they're in the infant stages of mediocrity.
Their sixth-ranked offense from last year has dropped to eighth, while their 16th-ranked defense has improved to 13th. Plagued by floor-spacing issues, the team who drilled 10.6 treys a night has been replaced with one hitting 8.7.
Noticeably more restricted on offense and only marginally better on defense, the results have been predictably underwhelming. Houston is an unimpressive 5-4. If the playoffs started today, the Rockets wouldn't be in them, and while it's still early, they weren't supposed to be here. They weren't supposed to be questioning the makeup of their team.
Head coach Kevin McHale abandoned his bigger lineup in favor of a smaller one against the Philadelphia 76ers, but to no avail. The Rockets still lost.
Some might be willing to give them a pass, because they were without Harden. But I'm not.
Philly was down rookie sensation Michael Carter-Williams and still found a way to win. Teams like the Rockets don't lose to a tanker, don't shrink when games are on the line, Harden or no Harden. Not with one of the best centers in the game. Not when Jeremy Lin goes bonkers.
Not if they're a true contender.
Leading into their matchup against the Knicks, the Rockets are 0-3 when facing 2013 playoff teams and they've been pushed to overtime their last two games, both of which came against outfits who don't figure into the playoff picture. Suffer another loss, and they'll be at .500, in danger of being leap-frogged by ostensibly inferior opponents like the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets.
Lose in New York, and the Rockets' brandless style of basketball will have won once again, clouding their immediate future more than ever.
Who Are the Knicks?
Panic has set in for the Knicks. You can sense it.
Following a win over the Atlanta Hawks, the narrative should begin to change. But it can't, because we've seen this before. The Knicks win—or almost win over the Chicago Bulls—and we think they've turned a corner. Then, they come out and lose to the Charlotte Bobcats at home. Or get blown out on their own floor by the San Antonio Spurs.
Panic. That's what the Knicks have done since Tyson Chandler went down. It's what they've done all season.
Coach Mike Woodson has already started four different lineups. Four. In seven games. The most recent switch had reigning Sixth Man of the Year, J.R. Smith, enter the starting lineup.
With his promotion, came a blitz of trade rumors. Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported that the Knicks inquired about a potential Kenneth Faried-Iman Shumpert swap, which Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowksi says the Nuggets rebuffed:
More panic. Typical teams won't go back and forth this many times, this early in the season. Title contenders don't look at 2015 when it's still 2013.
Even with Chandler out, the Knicks, until their win over the Hawks, were lost. And until they put together a grouping of performances that prove otherwise—not just one—they're still lost.
Threes continue to be launched (25.6 a night), but not like last season. Not like the team that made and attempted the most long balls in NBA history. Their offense and defense currently rank 23rd and 16th in efficiency as well, middling marks at best.
Nothing about their start has been consistent or dominant. There has been no one area of expertise. Chandler's absence hasn't helped, of course, but it's more than that.
It's Andrea Bargnani starting at center. Shump being dangled less than 10 games into the season. A fluctuating rotation littered with guys who cannot play every night. The best version of Carmelo Anthony being wasted.
Correct, this is the absolute best version of 'Melo we've seen with the Knicks. His 23.4 points a night pale in comparison to the 28.7 that won him a scoring title last season. Volume scorers knocking down a mere 40.4 percent of their shots aren't symbolic of excellence, either. But in terms of making the right pass, keeping his teammates involved, playing defense at least half the time and attempting to lead by example, Anthony is changing. He's evolving.
Under normal circumstances, his adjustments would be embraced. A welcomed sight. Long overdue. This year, they're further indication the Knicks don't have a collective face.
'Melo is a different player, because that's what the Knicks need. He thinks. They think. Really, they don't know yet.
"Well, the bottom line is we’re here to win and when we step on the floor, I expect guys to win and play to help us win," Woodson said, following New York's win over Atlanta, per the New York Daily News' Peter Botte. "I thought tonight it was a total team effort for everybody."
They'll need a similar team effort to beat the Rockets. The same, consistent effort that has eluded them all year.
Searching for Something
Who are the Rockets? Who are the Knicks? What is each team made of? Where are they going? Not even the Rockets and Knicks themselves know.
This is more than one game to them. More than an opportunity to notch another win.
This is a chance for the Knicks to string together two victories for the first time all season, to lay a foundation for success. This is a chance for the Rockets to beat their first "contender" of the year, to show they're more than floor-spacing conflicts and squandered opportunities.
It's the chance for both teams to make statements. To provide answers to questions that don't yet have one.
*All stats compiled from Basketball-Reference and are accurate as of Nov. 13 unless otherwise noted.