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Can the Rockets Launch Themselves Back to Contention?

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows the big red button, right? The one in movies with the glass case around it to make sure no one accidentally pushes it? Well, the Houston Rockets took off the case when they fired Kevin McHale, and the button is just out in the open for someone to launch the missiles with a major trade to shake up their roster. I’m here to tell Daryl Morey that the only winning move is to not push that button, and that riding it out with this roster is probably the Rockets’ best shot at a championship.

The Rockets were 4-7 when they fired head coach Kevin McHale. If ownership, or the players who allegedly wanted him gone, were thinking the team would bounce back after the firing, they’ve since been disappointed by their mediocre 4-4 record since the coaching change. The truth is, at some point we have to recognize the fault of the players for the team’s struggles to start this season and their responsibility to turn it around.

McHale was around last season when the Rockets went 56-26 record and took second in a stacked Western Conference. His game plans and motivational strategies weren’t a problem then, so what’s changed? They lost Josh Smith, added Ty Lawson and are still awaiting Donatas Motiejunas’s return from his back injury. While these changes have clearly hurt the Rockets, it hardly seems like a big enough change in the roster to knock the Rockets from a 56-win team to a sub-.500 squad. The core of last year’s team is still intact, and it’s there that I place the lion’s share of the blame for Houston’s fall from the top of the West.

James Harden has gone back to being atrocious at defense, as every night you can find Vines of him giving little to no effort on that end of the floor. Compounded with his slide in defense is his dip in shooting efficiency. Harden’s scoring total is up this year, but he’s taking more shots to get there and his shooting percentage has gone down. The Rockets rely on Harden a lot, and they need him to get back to the player he was last year. He’s the heart of the team, and when he’s lazy on defense and careless on offense, his teammates are going to follow his example and put up less effort than it takes to be a contender in the West.

The big thing about all the Rockets’ problems is that most of them are reversible. Motiejunas has been cleared for practice and will be rejoining the team. Harden showed last season that he’s capable of trying on defense, and if he brings that effort back, I’d expect the rest of the team to follow suit. The point guards in particular have been abysmal, and any improvement on that end would go a long way to help Houston get better. Patrick Beverley is working his way back into the lineup. Hopefully he can cover some of Harden’s defensive shortcomings, and maybe the competition will push Lawson to play better, and he really has nowhere to go but up.

Dwight Howard also needs to pick up his production if he still wants to be considered an elite center. 13 points and 12 rebounds a game isn’t nothing, but it hardly inspires me to call you “Superman,” no matter how good your rim protection is (which hasn’t been that great this year). If Howard gets healthy and plays up to his potential, if Harden shows that he cares about defense and if the rest of the team follows where they lead, this team should be able to climb back to the upper echelon of a Western Conference that seems to have dropped off significantly since last year.

They may not be able to catch the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs (or even the Oklahoma City Thunder) in the regular season, but when you look at their roster, is it crazy to think they can finish better than the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies to take the four seed? They may continue to wallow in mediocrity and lackadaisical effort, but the team is too close to contention to tear everything down and start over. Maybe there’s a trade out there that can fix everything, but I suspect the answer to the Rockets’ issues starts and ends with the players in-house.

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