HOUSTON — The once high-flying Houston Rockets, who had the best record in the NBA last season, have plummeted back to earth this season with a humbling 1-5 start.
Last year, the Rockets blasted off to a blistering 5-1 start, and they didn't lose their fifth game until December 20, when their 122-116 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers put them at 25-5.
Now, six games into this NBA season, they are off to their worst start since 2010-11 and are tied for the worst record in the West after suffering yet another blowout loss Tuesday night, this time a 104-85 drubbing by the Portland Trail Blazers.
"We've lost our swagger," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said bluntly.
"Last year, we played well. Right now, we're playing like crap. We're just not playing well. That's the bottom line. We gotta figure out why. We'll look, and we'll fight it."
The Rockets are not supposed to be this bad, but the setback against Portland is a microcosm of how things have trended in the wrong direction.
Defensively, Houston's identity still revolves around switching, and it has been executed to satisfaction in small doses, usually in the first quarter. But over the course of the game, as players continue to miss shots, a lot of them open, they noticeably lose focus and try to defend with their hands instead of moving their feet, and communication starts to break down.
Despite D'Antoni's pledge to ditch the switch after the 133-113 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Rockets are sticking with it.
Problem is, they don't have the personnel to carry out that scheme this year. They'll have to make adjustments.
Outside of that, the biggest thing they can do to improve team defense is buy in and commit to maximum effort even when shots aren't falling. PJ Tucker is the vocal leader on defense, but he can't cover every position. He's going to have to hold everyone else accountable, and that includes Carmelo Anthony.
Health can also turn things around on the low block. This year, the Rockets rank last in opponent points in the paint. They have no one outside of Tucker and Clint Capela to challenge shots in the lane. When Nene and James Ennis return, that should shore up the middle.
To offset the average scoring margin and opponent efficiency (28th), they'll need to mix in some man-to-man coverage, enlisting their best defender to shadow the other team's best player—much like Tucker did with LeBron James. In Houston's 124-115 win over the Lakers, Tucker disrupted James' output in the fourth quarter, helping to hold him to six points on 1-of-8 shooting.
"When you're desperate, it's good on defense, because your hair should be on fire," D'Antoni said. "But it's bad on offense. Offensively, we weren't calm and we didn't have that poise and didn't hit anything for a while."
Houston's inability to hit the open shot has been the theme throughout its recent slide. The Rockets are shooting 41.2 percent from the field, which is the second-worst in the league. Last season, they ranked 15th at 46.0 percent.
But what's really telling is the Rockets' lackluster shooting from deep.
Morey-ball can't survive if no one can hit the long ball consistently.
The Rockets still lead the league in attempts at 41.5 per game, but they are only connecting on 13.8 (33.3 percent) of them. Last year, they attempted 42.3 threes per contest and drained 15.3 (36.2 percent) of them.
The past six games for the Rockets have been a blatant reminder that, as currently constructed, they are far from being the elite team they were last year.
Sure, a few losses were to be expected; James Harden went down with a hamstring injury, and Chris Paul has had to shake off the rust after serving a two-game suspension for his part in a brawl with Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo.
But the Rockets still should have been able to score enough to at least be .500.
That's difficult to do, though, when Paul is shooting as poorly as he has—a combined 9-of-32 since his return. Paul is a nine-time All-Star, so he'll likely bounce back, but his shooting is down across the board: 39.3 percent from the floor (a career low), 34.8 from three (third-worst percentage of his career) and 83.3 from the free-throw line (second-worst).
Paul isn't alone in his struggles. Free-agent addition Michael Carter-Williams is shooting air balls on wide-open corner threes, and Eric Gordon, expected to shoulder the scoring load in Harden and Paul's absence, is making a horrid 23.4 percent of his long balls. That's a big part of what's gone awry in Houston.
"When it goes bad, it goes bad," Anthony said. "Right now, I think we've just got to keep biting at it, keep fighting, keep playing. I'm big on staying the course and figuring it out. Whatever we have to figure out, I'm sure we will do it."
The Rockets' poor shooting from long distance is also proof that they have a dearth of sharpshooters. Last year, eight players shot 35 percent or better from behind the arc (Paul, Harden, Gordon, Tucker, Gerald Green, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Luc Mbah a Moute). This year, only four meet the mark: Harden, Tucker, Ennis and rookie Gary Clark. D'Antoni should find some minutes for Clark, who's playing under eight per game.
"Not making shots, not making foul shots, not making layups," D'Antoni said. "Just searching for a basket every once in a while would be nice. But ... it's a classic, 'You're in your struggle.' And we got to get out of it. These guys are good guys. We'll find something and hopefully it's not too late, but we got to get back on the horse. We got to get James back. Obviously, that's a big part of our offense."
If the Rockets can get on a hot streak, with or without Harden, they can nip some of their troubles in the bud. Namely, get back the floor spacing that made them successful. That open space also creates opportunities for Capela, who feasted on a steady diet of lobs and putbacks last season.
Harden is putting up MVP-caliber numbers (28.5 PPG, 9.0 APG, 46.8% FG, 44.1% 3PT), so when he gets back, he should be able to help shore up most of Houston's offensive woes.
But in the loaded West, the Rockets can't afford to slide any further while they're waiting for him to return.
"It's still early if you're in the Eastern division, it's late if you're in the Western division," D'Antoni said. "That's the bottom line. We talk about it, but we do have 76 games left. I think—I'll ask the analytic guys, but I think we're still in it mathematically."
Things can change, but the numbers don't look good for Houston.
If the Rockets want to see a repeat of last year, where they pushed the reigning champs to the brink in the Western Conference Finals, they'll need to engineer a few significant winning streaks to get back in the hunt.
That, or roll the dice on a seismic trade.
Jimmy Butler can't solve all of the Rockets' problems, but he would immediately make them more efficient on offense and reinforce their ability to switch on the perimeter. That alone could go a long way toward making this team recognizable again.
"For us, it's about figuring out what it is and getting it right," Paul said. "We gotta see what if feels like to win, first and foremost. But we are gonna keep competing. Ain't nobody gonna feel sorry for us, and we don't feel sorry for ourselves. We gotta get better. No excuses. But to everybody, we're figuring it out. We're just not winning and figuring it out too."
Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Maurice on Twitter, @ReeseReport.