The Rockets currently find themselves fifth in the Western Conference with a record of 25-14 (as of Jan. 14). They are 5.5 games behind San Antonio for both the Southwest Division lead as well as the top spot in the West. Houston has won two straight and four of its last five contests.
On paper, the Rockets have everything you'd want in a possible champion. They have a dominant low-post presence on both ends of the court in Dwight Howard. They have a scoring machine in James Harden. They also have emerging stars in Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin.
Still, the first two-and-a-half months of the season have exposed some flaws, and for the team to make good on its goal to "win now," those concerns need to be resolved quickly.
Here are five things the Houston Rockets must do in order to reach their full potential.
One of the biggest thorns in Houston's side has come at the charity stripe. Through 39 games, the Rockets lead the league in free-throw attempts with an average of 31.7 a game. However, only Detroit shoots worse than Houston's 69 percent from the free-throw line.
A large part behind the Rockets' abysmal showing at the line is center Dwight Howard. D12 is converting just under 54 percent of his freebies, which trails only Los Angeles' DeAndre Jordan for the league's worst mark (among qualified leaders).
Howard isn't the only one who needs to get his act together at the line. Terrence Jones is currently shooting 60.5 percent. Francisco Garcia is shooting just under 59 percent and injured center Omer Asik is shooting 64 percent.
Improving at the free-throw line helps Houston out in a number of ways. One, it's the easiest way to put up points in the NBA. For a team that gets to the line as frequently as Houston does, this should be a huge advantage instead of an Achilles' heel.
Second, Howard proving capable of hitting his free throws consistently takes the "Hack-a-Dwight" strategy out of the opponent's game plan and makes him less of a liability on the floor in close games.
Howard is second in the league in free-throw attempts for a reason. Opponents know that's the best way to hinder the big man's offense. Until he can make teams pay for sending him to the line, the Rockets will continue to suffer.
The Houston Rockets should be a team that can beat you in many ways. Every game, they should be forcing defenses to pick their poison. Do you guard their bevy of shooters on the perimeter? Do you double-team Dwight Howard down low? What about Jeremy Lin and James Harden attacking the basket?
Instead, Houston's offense doesn't seem to have any rhyme or reason. Coach Kevin McHale has relied heavy on three-point shooting and a steady dose of isolation plays for James Harden (where he's 41-of-114, according to mySynergySports.com).
Much like their free-throw numbers, the Rockets take a ton of shots from behind the arc but don't hit a great percentage of them. Houston's 1,010 three-point attempts lead the league, yet it only converts 34.5 percent (22nd in the league).
Living and dying with the three ball is the biggest crapshoot in the game of basketball. A cold shooting night can single-handedly snatch victory out of your grasp, while a hot streak will make it tough for any team to keep up.
The lack of offensive variety starts with McHale. It's odd that a man who had so many go-to moves as a player suddenly has very few as a head coach. Going forward, Houston should try to mix it up. Try running more pick-and-rolls for Howard or establish its dominance in the paint and work inside-out.
Until the defense gets better, the Rockets' best chance of making a playoff run will be overwhelming opponents with the third-best scoring offense in the league (105.3 points per game). To do that, they have to find ways to keep defenses on their toes.
Dwight Howard was brought in to give the Rockets a boost on defense. For the most part, D12 has done what he's been paid to do. According to 82games.com, opponents are shooting 47.9 percent against the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He's also ninth in the NBA with 1.7 blocks per game.
It's on the perimeter where Houston's defense has sprung the biggest leak. James Harden's lapses on defense have become so obvious that someone dedicated a YouTube video to them earlier in the season. The team's other stars on the wing have tried to hold their own, but their focus is clearly on offense.
Here is how opposing perimeter players have fared against the Rockets in the last five games:
- Jan. 3 vs. New York Knicks: Iman Shumpert (26 points), Carmelo Anthony (25 points)
- Jan. 8 vs. Los Angeles Lakers: Nick Young (25 points), Jodie Meeks (21 points)
- Jan. 10 at Atlanta Hawks: Kyle Korver (20 points)
- Jan. 11 at Washington Wizards: Trevor Ariza (23 points)
- Jan. 13 at Boston Celtics: Avery Bradley (24 points)
Granted, with the exception of the close loss to the Hawks, the Rockets walked away with victories in all of those contests. However, look at the quality of opponent as well as the guys scoring on Houston.
The solution to this issue probably isn't on the roster (although the return of Patrick Beverley will help). With a couple intriguing trade chips (Omer Asik, Donatas Motiejunas, Ronnie Brewer, to name a few), Houston should start looking for a Thabo Sefolosha-type stopper before the deadline.
Howard and (to a lesser extent) Terrence Jones are capable of holding down the defense inside, but it is imperative that Houston find someone capable of putting a body on the West's elite perimeter scorers before the postseason.
Since the preseason, the uncertainty over the status of center Omer Asik has generated plenty of buzz. Since July, the 7-footer has fluctuated from the trade block to the starting lineup to the injury list. The big man hasn't been seen on the hardwood since Dec. 2 due to thigh and knee ailments.
There isn't a clear timetable for Asik's return, but he seems to be progressing.
"I'm just trying to to get back on the court and get healthy," Asik told The Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen on Jan. 6. "That's it. I feel much better. I never had pain. It was just the swelling. That was the weird part. The swelling is...down."
Once he returns, the question becomes what happens next? Houston only has two options. It either makes nice or makes Asik go away.
If it keeps Asik, the team receives a boost on the defensive end and on the glass. It will strengthen the second unit and make an already formidable bench deeper. The downside is how Asik's unhappiness will affect team morale. It's tough to win a championship with a mopey big man.
If the Rockets trade Asik, they'll have to find proper value as well as a way to incorporate the new pieces. Asik is too valuable to just dump for salary relief. Whoever is obtained in return has to be capable of contributing right away. Philadelphia's Spencer Hawes and Cleveland's Anderson Varejao are a couple of names that make sense.
According to CBSSports' Ken Berger, the Rockets are likely to hang on to Asik past the Feb. 20 deadline. Regardless of whether that holds true or not, Houston must make quick work of what has become a longstanding problem.
The Houston Rockets' turnover troubles have been an issue that's been beaten into the ground for quite some time. Unfortunately, they are still a problem.
The Rockets average the third-most turnovers in the NBA with an average of 15.5 per game. Their turnover differential is plus-2.4, which is second only to the Los Angeles Lakers. Houston's 1.29 Assist-to-Turnover ratio is also the league's worst.
By now, fans are familiar with the main culprits. Only three players average more turnovers than James Harden's 3.8 per game, and his 126 giveaways are fifth-worst among all players. Dwight Howard isn't far behind Harden with 122 turnovers.
Jeremy Lin has 83 turnovers (2.9 per game) but has played 10 fewer games than Howard and four less than Harden.
This issue is where all of the Rockets' problems come full circle. If you turn the ball over, you give the other team extra possessions. Those extra possessions lead to more opportunities to exploit a leaky Houston defense. Generally, that leads to a less-than-favorable final score.
Solving this problem falls on both the players as well as Kevin McHale. They have to do a better job of taking care of the orange, and McHale needs to be a bit more firm when they don't. When players make mistakes without fear of repercussions, that's a quick way for a coach to lose his team.
The turnovers aren't something that suddenly fell on Houston's doorstep. It has been a problem for years, and it has happened on McHale's watch. This year, things must be different.
The roster is retooled. The expectations are higher, and on paper, the Rockets have a realistic chance of making a title run.
That doesn't happen, however, if McHale doesn't find a way to take the reigns and keep things from spiraling out of control.