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3 Issues the Houston Rockets Must Correct Before the NBA Playoffs

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2016

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) gestures in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Friday, March 11, 2016, in Boston. Harden scored 32 points to lead the Rockets to a 102-98 victory over the Celtics. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets are a dichotomy. They were either the best bad team in the NBA last year, or they’re the worst good team in it this year.

It's hard to explain why a squad that won 56 games, earned the No. 2 seed and made it to the Western Conference Finals a year ago has been so volatile this season.

General manager Daryl Morey was live from the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference with FiveThirtyEight.com’s Hot Takedown podcast. With an open degree of honesty, he answered some questions about the Rockets’ struggles and what needs fixing.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Particularly, three things he said offered a peek into what the Rockets need to solve if they’re to have some modicum of playoff success.

Stabilize the Defensive Effort

When he was asked about his defense and why it was good last year and isn’t good this year, Morey said:

If there was a straightforward ABC [that] needs to be corrected and we’re gonna apply solution XYZ, we would have done it, so we’re assessing, we’re trying to find (answers)….

(Our due diligence) is all we work on. Every team that’s underperforming, you can go to them and say why are you underperforming and why don’t you fix it? We’re in this competitive league with its very well-run teams, as we’ve talked about.

It’s a candid answer, even if it seems like something of a non-answer. Essentially, he’s admitting that the Rockets don’t know the solution. But it’s true: If they did know, they probably would have done something about it by now.

And it’s not just that it’s “bad” that’s a problem; it’s a roller coaster that’s just getting worse. In fact, based on Basketball-Reference.com’s advanced game log, the Rockets' last two contests were their best and worst defensive performances of the season.

Their defensive rating of 81.1 against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 14 was the lowest of the year, and the 133.4 they yielded to the Los Angeles Clippers was the highest.

While there were some schematic issues, that’s not the reason they got destroyed. As coach J.J. Bickerstaff pointed out to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

The intensity wasn't there. We watched too much film, prepared too well, played against these guys enough – you know what to expect. They're not coming in with something new, something different. We just weren't on our toes. We were on our heels to start the game. We didn't come out with any force defensively.

This is the sort of thing he meant:

And while many blame James Harden for all the Rockets’ defensive misfires, Dwight Howard is hardly the champion of effort. Against the Clippers, he looked far more interested in where he was playing next season than where he was at the moment. As a result, DeAndre Jordan wrecked the Rockets for 23 points with 100 percent shooting and 16 rebounds.

Playing top-10 defense might not be something Houston can rekindle from last year. But playing defense period is in its control.

Without a steady effort, nothing else really matters.

Avoid Bad Losses

Despite the Rockets’ struggles, Morey still believes they can make noise in the playoffs. He told Hot Takedown:

We feel like we can absolutely pull this together. The teams in the first round—that we feel like we match up with—some of the teams in the first round, not all of them. If we get to the right matchup, we can advance. And once you advance usually you’re playing well, and things can happen from there. We feel like the teams we would face in the first round, we match up well. Once you advance, you’re playing well, and things can happen.

That’s not as outlandish as it might seem at first brush. Clearly, the top four teams in the West are categorically better than the bottom four playoff teams.

The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are on pace to be two of the best teams in NBA history. The Rockets have a 1-5 record against those two and have lost by an average of 13.1 points. That suggests those aren’t the matchups Morey wants.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JANUARY 29: Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder blocks James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets during a NBA game at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on January 29, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknow
J Pat Carter/Getty Images

However, against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Clippers, who are third and fourth, respectively, the Rockets are 3-3 and have lost by an average of just 2.1 points. And bear in mind Morey’s comments came before the evisceration by the Clippers. Furthermore, the Rockets actually beat the Clips in Staples Center this year.

Add to that the fact that Houston sent Los Angeles fishing last season.

So, if the Rockets, who are one game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the No. 6 seed, can move up in the standings, they have a chance at playing one of their preferred teams.

According to PlayoffStatus.com, there’s a decent chance of that happening if they win the games they’re supposed to. Their opponents the rest of the season have an aggregate winning percentage of just 49 percent. Portland’s opponents have won 52 percent of their games. The battered Memphis Grizzlies have a five-game cushion for the No. 5 seed, but their opponents’ winning percentage of 59 percent for the rest of the season represents the second-toughest schedule in the league.

Houston’s last four games of the season are against the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings—all lottery-bound teams. A sweep could move it into its preferred playoff position. But this is a group that has stumbled against the likes of the New Orleans Pelicans, Brooklyn Nets and Denver Nuggets this year too. The Rockets can't take any win for granted. 

They shouldn’t worry too much about jockeying for position and “aiming” for either the Thunder or Clippers, but if they can climb to sixth or fifth in the standings, they can face a beatable opponent.

Get the “Mojo” Back

The third thing that Morey told Hot Takedown might be the most compelling of all:

People like [to] say we have bad chemistry this year. I don’t agree at all. I don’t remember any articles saying we had good chemistry last year when we won 56 games and made the Western Conference Finals. It’s just a convenient thing to point to. The reality is that that team last [year] is the same team as now. And it’s not like our group that had very good chemistry last year just suddenly doesn’t.

Chemistry is underrated in the NBA, and it can mean one of two things: fit or morale.

“Fit” is the difference between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Warriors. The Cavs are flush with talent in Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and LeBron James, but their trio doesn’t work together quite as well because there’s so much overlap regarding both strengths and weaknesses. The Warriors, on the other hand, are a perfect meshing of talent mixed in the lab of Jerry West and Bob Myers.

"Morale" is a matter of how well the team is working together. That’s the difference between Houston this year and last year. There is something missing, and it’s impossible to put a number on it, but it’s visible in the play.

It's what sparked the epic comeback against the Clippers in last year's playoff and is absent from the Rockets at this juncture. 

The good news for Houston, as Morey points out, is that it knows this collection of players does fit together—that’s why it won so much last season.

Now, the Rockets need to get their mojo back. It’s hard to identify the distinction between this squad and the one from 2014-15 with numbers, but last year’s squad had a personality. It took all the criticism and “hate” and ate it for lunch. That team lived to prove the naysayers wrong.

During the 2015-16 campaign, Houston has gone from playing with a chip on its shoulder to infighting. Jason Terry rhetorically asked NBA.com's Fran Blinebury before the All-Star break: "Genuinely do we like to play with each other? That's as simple as I can get it; X's and O's take care of itself. We're talking about basketball, and if you can't get five guys on the court that can function as a unit, you're not going to have much success."

Nothing helps morale like winning. If Clutch City can have some consistent defensive performances against bad teams, put together a winning streak and move up in the standings, it can recover its “clutch” again.

And if that happens, maybe the players start feeling good about themselves. Added confidence can only help team morale, which could be the final boost needed to make this group a threat once again in the playoffs. 

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