NBA Progress Report: Five Ways The Rockets Can Rebound From a Bad Start
Coming into the season, Rockets fans certainly had reason for optimism.
Their star center was returning, the Rockets finally added a reliable back-up for him, Kevin Martin would be entering his first full season fully healthy, and numerous young players would be due for improvements.
However, the Rockets have started the year 0-4 and put a damper on much of the optimistic predictions for them this season and now seem to be struggling just to wrestle away a playoff spot in the dangerous Western Conference.
Many are writing eulogies less than 1/20th the way into the season, but while the start is no doubt troublesome, this team is not going to go 0-82 on the season. Without Yao or Miller, the Rockets won 42 games, and surely they are deep enough to make the playoffs.
Thus, while it may be an unpopular proposition for unruly fans, sticking with it may be the most practical solution to the problem.
However, as many will not tolerate weeks of losses (rightly so I must add), changes must be made. So, what will those changes be?
Play Jordan Hill More...At Power Forward
After two games in which Jordan Hill did not play a single minute, Rick Adelman admitted that he may have overlooked the intriguing big man in the rotation and that his talents certainly merited more playing time.
After a decent showing in just four minutes against Denver, Adelman played Hill over Brad Miller as the back-up center against the athletic front court of the New Orleans Hornets and was rewarded with a solid performance. Hill only had four points in 26 minutes; however, he proved his worth with nine rebounds and three blocks while limiting himself to just one turnover, a statistic which he has struggled with in his career thus far.
However, if the Rockets want to utilize Hill's talents to their fullest potential, they need to play him at his natural position, power forward, and ideally play him alongside Yao Ming. While he stands a full 6'10" and is fairly athletic, he is going to struggle against most centers because of a lack of bulk and length.
Alongside Yao Ming, however, he would fit absolutely perfectly.
Because of his complete lack of mobility early in the season, Yao has struggled to block shots from the weak side when wings let their match-up past them. Hill, on the other hand, excels at blocking shots from the weak side and would help cover up Yao's defensive inadequacies.
Additionally, while Yao is adept at gathering rebounds near the rim because of his size, Hill's mobility and ability to chase down rebounds further from the basket would allow the Rockets to overcome some of their defensive rebounding issues that have plagued them earlier in the season.
Offensively, while Hill's jump shot is a work in progress, he has shown the ability to make the mid-range jumper when consistently open. Getting open looks more often would only help him.
If the Rockets are going to get better, they need somebody to improve significantly and make a big contribution. Looking up and down the roster, other than fellow lottery pick Patrick Patterson, Hill is the only player who could easily make that jump. The Rockets need him to do make that jump and the only way to see if he can do it is to give him the chance.
Regain The Composure in The Fourth Quarter
Four games into the season, the Rockets have led each of their games at halftime and have lost each and every one of those games. Part of this inability to finish out games is attributable to poor third quarters, but each game thus far has been winnable in the fourth quarter only to see the team collapse like lawn chairs under the pressure.
Against the Hornets, the Rockets were unable to secure defensive rebound after defensive rebound, and the Hornets were able to claw back and take the lead with just two minutes left. It went downhill from there for the Rockets.
After a back and forth minute and a half, the Rockets were down five with just 38 seconds remaining but were gifted a technical foul by an overzealous David West. Almost on cue, Kevin Martin missed the free throw and committed an offensive foul, precipitating an Aaron Brooks ejection and another crushing loss for the Rockets.
When the stakes have been at the highest, the Rockets have failed, and this cannot continue. Kevin Martin needs to demand the ball and score, as his three second half points are not going to cut it if the Rockets want to be successful. He is the team's most incandescent scorer, and he needs to demand the ball late if he ever wants to be a star.
A personnel change would be ideal, but if the Rockets stick with who they have now, their best players need to step up.
Acquire a Franchise Player
After years of avoiding the trade rumors that are so prevalent in our age of technology, the Rockets have uncharacteristically been mentioned in numerous scenarios involving the trades of elite players.
First, the Rockets made no secret that they were going to target Chris Bosh very quickly from the start of free agency in an attempt to bring him to Houston to pair with Yao Ming. Next, they were briefly mentioned in the Chris Paul sweepstakes before those rumors cooled off this summer.
Finally, the Rockets were considered one of the front-runners early on in the Carmelo Anthony bidding as Anthony apparently had voiced a willingness to sign an extension in Houston.
All of this proves is that while Daryl Morey has outwardly pitched the Rockets as title contenders built on depth and effort, he realizes that a change is needed if they are truly going to be able to contend in the West.
Whether it is Carmelo Anthony or Andre Iguodala, it is clear that the Rockets need to make a move to be able to compete. Part of it is the aforementioned inability to close out games in the fourth quarter, and part of it is just having somebody as the face of the franchise.
Yao Ming was supposed to be that guy, but unfortunately the Rockets really have nobody to build around. Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks can be unstoppable at times, but neither are players that defenses have to build a game-plan for.
Carmelo Anthony is that kind of player. With an outrageously diverse offensive game, Anthony can score from anywhere on the floor and carry a team. While some may point to his inefficiency as a deterrent to acquiring him, there is no substitute for a player that can make shots like he can.
The team needs somebody like that desperately, especially now. Despite the potential high costs in players and salaries, the team needs to make it happen.
Look To Trade Aaron Brooks
The final act the Rockets must do to turn the page and get better is undoubtedly an unpopular proposition—to trade Aaron Brooks.
After a season in which he won the Most Improved Player of the Year, Aaron Brooks' value has surely never been higher. He scored nearly 20 points a game last year, improved his assist numbers, and carried the team as the featured scorer.
However, as the Rockets have transitioned into a new era with a renewed focus on defense (or at least an attempt to refocus on defense), Brooks has been left behind. His defense is as bad as it has been his entire career, he's enduring a shooting slump, and he seems to be giving less effort on a team that needs him less.
All of this is not to say that he does not have tremendous value to this team—in fact he is one of the team's most consistent scorers and has carried the team in fourth quarters in the past—but perhaps the team would be more successful with a different point guard at the helm—whether it be Kyle Lowry or another guy.
Brooks has struggled to get the ball to Yao, has lost his composure on numerous occasions (most egregiously against the Hornets where he picked up two technicals and was ejected with just 30 seconds left in a crucial game), and one has to wonder whether he has a future with the team.
His contract is up at the end of the year, and with the Rockets matching a lucrative four year agreement with Kyle Lowry this off-season, and it appears as if the Rockets could be headed in a different direction at the point guard in the coming years as it would seem illogical to commit $13-14 million to one position without an elite player there.
For these reasons, it would help the Rockets both now and in the future to trade someone who many consider to be a franchise cornerstone.
Play The Other Young Guys
Early on in the season, the Rockets' age is showing. Shane Battier is noticeably slower, Chuck Hayes' lack of size has been exposed, and Brad Miller has lumbered as much as any player in the league.
While playing Jordan Hill more will help remedy this lack of youth, the other young players need to get more playing time to help the Rockets improve. The fact is that what the Rockets are doing is not succeeding, and injecting some youth into the equation can only help.
Shane Battier has struggled to defend some of the best scorers that he usually slows down—he kept Kobe from going off but could not contain Monta Ellis as he went off for 46 points in the second game of the season, and this trend has continued. When the Rockets need stops, they used to be able to count on Shane Battier to force the other team's best player into a bad shot, and now he doesn't even merit closing the game.
Against the Hornets, Rick Adelman allowed Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill to close out the game with the starters and was rewarded with two strong performances. Those two players appear to be Rockets regulars for years, and the added playing time at the end of games is necessary.
Additionally, if Kevin Martin keeps up his worrying trend of disappearing in the fourth quarter, Adelman must at least consider playing Courtney Lee to close out games. With Martin's inability to close out games, the Rockets will not really lose much offensive production, and his defense is strong.
His ability to lock down wing scorers would be critical as the Rockets have been unable to stop anybody in the fourth quarters this year. As arguably the Rockets' best defender, it's difficult to keep him off the court to close out games.
The fact is that without a trade, the Rockets are stuck in a transition period—no stars and a lot of role players—and while it's unlikely any of the Rockets young guns emerge into stars, they surely can be no worse than some of their older counterparts.