Impressive as they sometimes look, the Houston Rockets just can’t seem to string a sustained streak of strong play together.
Part of that is due to injuries. James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley have all missed serious time—not to mention Omer Asik. With all the new moving parts on the roster, including Dwight Howard, it’s been hard to create optimal chemistry without health and continuity.
However, a larger cause of the Rockets' bumps along the road is their playing style. Their hard-pressing approach makes them predictable when they overdo it—which they do.
Their running and gunning is impressive, but teams can regularly manipulate it to their favor by not being scared of its bluster. The Rockets are then quite easy to trick out of their style and into a half-court game where they look flaccid.
Nevertheless, the team stubbornly charges forth with this attack.
If the team’s style doesn’t evolve soon, it will only be a matter of time before a majority of the league figures out any number of ways to thwart its paradigm.
A possible solution to this problem could lie in placing more responsibility on the team's biggest set of shoulders—Howard’s.
Aside from a handful of extra screen-and-roll and post-up opportunities, the Rockets are essentially using him the same way as they did Asik last season—as a top-tier defense-and-rebounds man instead of a schematic centerpiece.
Harden is still far and away the focal point of their offense, attempting an average of 16.2 shots per game to Howard’s 11.4.
In fact, Howard isn’t even second on his team in shot attempts per game. Chandler Parsons averages 13.0.
Considering that D12 is shooting 58 percent from the field on the season—first on his team and good for fifth in all of the league—it would seem that the Rockets should develop more half-court action which allows him to take residence near the rim and act as a more consistent alternative to isolation calls and unchecked three-point shooting.
Howard and the Rockets would also benefit defensively from a less eager flip to transition opportunities. The more comfortable they become with the plodding pace that all of their scariest rivals—the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies—are accustomed to, the better.
Howard is the best center in the Western Conference and a former Defensive Player of the Year. Perhaps his team should stretch more toward his style—not the other way around.
This is not to say that the Rockets need to sacrifice their scoring blitzkrieg entirely. They just need a healthier diet and enough repetitions as a slower team for half-court-oriented squads to not completely derail them.
Another way of saying things is that the Rockets simply have too many options to always be running the same actions.
Their philosophy turns nearly all of their players into running, three-point- and layup-shooting speed robots. That assemblage may look good from the perspective of certain exploratory statistical reports, but the reality of its implementation is that human opposition too easily pins down such monotony.
Houston should be playing at as many paces as possible as it builds chemistry, looking into the gray areas of each other's games in order to find out just what works best. The Rockets are a team playing to extreme when they don't need to—they've got the resources and personnel to be more of a chameleon, beating teams in many different ways.
They aren't at the moment.
Watching the Rockets will continue to be an exercise in frustration until they realize that and become the versatile beast they need to be in order to truly compete.