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Are the Rockets This Year’s Thunder?

Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets’ slow start is reminiscent of another supremely-talented team who failed to live up to its lofty expectations: the 2014-15 Oklahoma City Thunder.

With a young core led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, last year’s Thunder looked like a team that could finally get over the hump and bring home its first NBA championship. Instead, a rash of critical injuries caused OKC’s season to come apart at the seams almost immediately. Durant missed the first 17 games of the ’14-15 campaign following surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his foot. Westbrook suffered a broken hand two days into the new season and didn’t return until late-November. By the time the Thunder buddies made their first appearance together on Dec. 2, the club was 5-13 and facing an uphill battle to get back into playoff contention.

The 2015-16 Rockets’ injury woes aren’t quite as severe as Oklahoma City’s, but they still play a role in the team’s struggles. Patrick Beverley, arguably the team’s best perimeter defender, missed time with a concussion and is currently sidelined with a sprained ankle. Dwight Howard and Donatas Motiejunas, the leaders of the Rockets’ front line, have both been hindered by back problems, with the latter yet to make his season debut. Rookie forward Sam Dekker is expected to miss up to three months following back surgery, while Terrence Jones has been present for just nine of the team’s first 14 games. The unrelenting injury bug has forced Houston to give playing time to a combination of untested youngsters (Montrezl Harrell, Clint Capela) and off-the-street pickups (Chuck Hayes). Last season, the Thunder utilized a similar strategy with guys like Sebastian Telfair, Ish Smith and Perry Jones.

However, the biggest absence felt by the Rockets is a player who won’t be found on the team’s injury report. A year after nearly taking home his first MVP award, James Harden’s follow-up campaign has been less than stellar. While “The Beard” is still fourth in the NBA in scoring (27.9 points per game), that offensive output is due to some heavy volume. Harden is firing a career-high 20.5 shot attempts per game, which wouldn’t be as galling if not for his 178 misses (tied for the league lead with Damian Lillard, as of Nov. 23) and paltry 38 percent mark from the field.

Harden’s insistence on forcing the issue is akin to Westbrook’s desire to carry the Thunder offensively during the early part of last season. While many will remember Westbrook’s 2014-15 season for the gaudy final numbers (28.1 points, 8.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds) and multiple triple-doubles (11, most in the NBA), his first-half numbers aren’t far off from Harden’s stat line this season.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com

If Harden is Westbrook, then Howard is Durant. Like KD, Howard has shown flashes of his old dominant self when he can muster up the strength to suit up. In nine games this season, D12 is contributing 13.8 points, 13.6 rebounds and two blocks per game. Four of Houston’s five wins so far have come with Howard in the lineup, though the team is 4-5 overall when Dwight plays. In the 27 games Durant played last season, the Thunder went 18-9. Two of the Thunder’s three longest win streaks also occurred while Durant was able to play.

The final similarity between the two teams is the lackluster defense. While the Thunder got off to a decent start defensively (101 points allowed per 100 possessions before the All-Star break) by using a mostly zone scheme, the team fell apart not long after the acquisition of defensively-challenged center Enes Kanter. Kanter finished with the worst defensive real plus/minus of any center in the league last year (-3.87), and the Thunder gave up an average of 107.2 points in its last 29 games.

The Rockets have been equally bad at impeding opposing offenses this season. The team is 28th in points allowed per game (107.1) and 24th in opposing field goal percentage (45.9 percent). Then there’s Harden, whose defensive rating of 107 is tied for the second-worst of his career, and his lack of effort on the defensive end has produced clips like this:

When you combine the injuries, lack of effort and poor defense together, you get a Rockets team lucky to be 5-9 despite a relatively soft early schedule. The Thunder went 3-11 in its first 14 games before rallying to finish 45-37. Ultimately, OKC came just short of making the playoffs and fired longtime coach Scott Brooks days after its season came to a close.

The Rockets, possibly fearing a similar fate for them at season’s end, didn’t wait as long to can Kevin McHale, who just signed a three-year extension with the club last December. The team waited just 11 games before opting to fire McHale and replace him with assistant J.B. Bickerstaff. Since the move, the team is 1-2, losing back-to-back games to the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks.

The 2014-15 Thunder were a cautionary tale of what can happen when a potential championship contender stumbles out of the gate early. So far, this year’s Rockets appear headed in that same direction. They have the fourth-worst record (5-9) in a deep Western Conference while failing to establish an identity on offense or put their foot down on defense.

There’s still plenty of season left for Houston to turn things around. Will they succeed where Oklahoma City failed or will they become the latest blueprint for how not to live up to the hype?

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