Houston closed 2013 with a record of 21-13. This leaves them somewhere near the middle of the pack in terms of Western Conference teams. Had it not been for several negative factors, this Rockets team would have had 25 wins or so to start the new year.
That's not to say there weren't several things to be happy about. Jeremy Lin is enjoying a breakout season, Chandler Parsons continues to improve, Terrence Jones has stepped up in a big way and the team has gotten several big contributions from bench players.
Not even those positives have been able to overshadow the downfalls of this team at times, though. They need to put in some work in 2014 to correct these issues.
If they do, then the sky is the limit for this bunch.
James Harden is shooting a career-low 31.3 percent from beyond the arc so far. A career 36.3 percent shooter from three, Harden's inability to convert on open looks this season has hurt the team's fluidity on offense.
He's attempting essentially the same numbers of threes per contest this season, but the shots just haven't been falling for him thus far. He's not necessarily taking bad shots, nor is he forcing threes in unnecessary situations. The ball just hasn't been hitting the bottom of the net.
Harden has found other ways to score. He's still averaging 24.0 points per night, and while that's a small drop from the 25.9 he posted each night last season, a drop was to be expected with newcomer Dwight Howard in the offense.
Just imagine if Harden starts connecting from long range. Couple that with the scoring he's been able to do without that aspect of his game and he becomes and even bigger threat to the Western Conference.
Unfortunately, Harden is also the crux of the issue when it comes to the team's propensity to turn the ball over. A huge reason why Houston's defense is lacking is because they give up so many easy looks off turnovers in transition.
Harden accounts for 3.8 of the Rockets' 15.7 turnovers per game. That ranks them 28th in the NBA in terms of coughing the ball up. Other major contributors include Dwight Howard (3.3), Patrick Beverley (2.6), Chandler Parsons (2.4) and Jeremy Lin (2.3).
The Rockets aren't a particularly strong passing team, and that certainly contributes to their high volume of turnovers. But another part of their game that causes turnovers is their aggressiveness.
Houston, as a team, is not afraid of driving into the lanes and getting to the basket. Defenders converge when they put the ball on the floor, though, and that's when turnovers get forced.
In 2014, the Rockets will simply need to be more careful in those situations. It's not worth changing their offensive game plan over.
Sorry if it seems like it's "Pick on James Harden Day." It really isn't, but it can't be overlooked that certain aspects of his game in 2013 were detrimental to the team's success.
His defense has been simply atrocious. He's horrible at getting through screens, incapable of using his peripherals to watch both the ball and his man and certainly not proficient at playing on-ball defense.
He's not the only one that needs to improve, though. Outside of Dwight Howard and Omer Asik, this team needs to really focus on playing defense in 2014. Their offense is strong enough to carry them past most teams, but playing in close games with a poor defense usually ends with losing.
The perimeter defense needs to step up the most. Houston's guards are not good at preventing opposing guards from driving into the lane. This sets up opponents along the perimeter with open threes when the rest of the Rockets crash inside to defend the player going to the basket.
Communication is an issue. Footwork is an issue. Simple on-ball defense is also an issue.
Despite his best efforts to prove otherwise, Dwight Howard is still a horrible free-throw shooter and a liability when fouled in the act of shooting.
In fact, the line has been anything but charitable toward Howard in 2013.
His 55.4 percent mark is but a slight improvement over the 49.2 percent he posted last year with the Los Angeles Lakers. He put in serious work this offseason to improve that aspect of his game, but the amount of work he put in should have translated to a percentage somewhere in the low-60s.
Instead, he's still below his career average of 57.6.
Howard isn't playing to his full potential with Houston as a result. When he's fouled, Houston is only getting one point instead of the two he would have gotten if he converted on the basket. Three-point plays are an anomaly in themselves.
In 2014, Howard needs to shoot closer to 60 percent. Every single point counts when you have a defense that can't be relied on to hold teams.
Why in the world iso-ball with James Harden still exists in Houston is beyond me.
Don't blame the player, though—blame the coach.
Head coach Kevin McHale hasn't really evolved this season with his team. He still relies on iso-ball with Harden in the latter portion of games, and that simply isn't a key to success. It's been broken down time and time again, but here's a brief example of why it doesn't work.
When Harden plays iso-ball, he has a tendency to hold the ball until the shot clock reads about nine seconds or so. At that point, he makes his move. When he's met with multiple defenders, he dishes the ball out to one of his teammates. Unfortunately, they don't really have time to make moves—they have to chuck up a shot to beat the clock.
Needless to say, that strategy is not a good way to close out games.
Either iso-ball or McHale has to go.