With the Houston Rockets’ 2015-16 campaign getting off to a rocky start, general manager Daryl Morey is faced with two options: work the phones in hopes of turning things around before it’s too late or admit defeat and prepare to get after it again next year.
On the one hand, Houston is currently among the top eight teams in a deep Western Conference, and while the team has been a trainwreck thus far, it still possesses a talented roster led by MVP candidate James Harden.
On the other, injuries, abysmal defense and inconsistent effort cast doubt over whether the Rockets can compete in a conference led by a Golden State Warriors team gunning for the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls, a still-dangerous San Antonio Spurs dynasty and an Oklahoma City Thunder squad that contains two of the six best players in the league.
Given the way Morey has aggressively built the Rockets over the years, it doesn’t seem to be in his nature to throw in the towel this early into the season, even with the odds of winning a championship getting longer by the day. Additionally, now that we’ve made it past Dec. 15, opposing general managers now have more assets to deal, thrusting us fully into trade season.
That’s why, in keeping with the holiday spirit, I drew up a list of needs Morey must address if he hopes to get the Rockets on the right track this season.
1. Defense, Defense, Defense
More than anything, Houston’s lackluster defense is the biggest reason for the team’s struggles this season. Opponents are finding great success converting shots against the Rockets, which has led to the team ranking near the bottom in defended field-goal percentage from various spots on the floor.
The team is also allowing 106.3 points per game (27th in the league) and has a defensive efficiency rating of 105.0, which is tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for 24th in the NBA.
Injuries have obviously played a role in the team’s inability to get stops. Three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard has been in and out of the lineup due to a bad back. Forwards Trevor Ariza and Donatas Motiejunas, two of Houston’s better defenders, have also missed time with back troubles. Former Second Team All-Defense member Patrick Beverley has dealt with his share of injuries, as well.
However, there are those who can’t use poor health as an excuse for their defensive woes. After making strides as a defender last season, Harden currently owns a defensive box plus/minus of minus-0.8, which is the second-worst effort of his career. Meanwhile, point guard Ty Lawson has a defensive real plus/minus of minus-1.90, which places him 53rd among all NBA point guards.
The Rockets found themselves in need of defensive help around this time last year. Morey responded by swinging a three-team deal for Corey Brewer and signing Josh Smith shortly after his release from the Detroit Pistons.
Now, he’s back in that same position. In addition to needing better health from his premier defenders, Morey must find someone who can put pressure on opposing scorers.
2. Point Guard
The Rockets thought they finally filled their hole at point guard when they acquired Lawson in a five-player deal over the summer. The 28-year-old was expected to lighten the offensive load on Harden’s shoulders and give Houston another play-maker in the backcourt.
Instead, Lawson is posting career-lows in points per game (5.9), field-goal percentage (32.9) and three-point percentage (29.4) despite logging the fourth-most minutes of anyone on the roster (655). The former Tarheel’s 4.2 assists per game is his worst effort since his rookie season back in 2009-10. Making matters worse, Lawson was removed from the starting rotation just 11 games into his first season with the team. He’s now behind journeyman shooting guard Marcus Thornton and 38-year-old Jason Terry in Houston’s pecking order.
With a two-game suspension for a 2014 DUI arrest on the horizon, Lawson is back on the trading block, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski. While Lawson’s non-guaranteed 2016-17 salary makes him appealing to teams looking to clear future cap space, his porous play and the potential for further discipline makes him a tough sell for opposing suitors.
Regardless, Houston needs someone who can thrive playing alongside Harden in the backcourt. Beverley is a fine role player, but he’s mostly utilized for his defense and his offensive skills are inconsistent. Terry can be productive in a reserve role, but he’s too long in the tooth to be trusted beyond that. A facilitator who can stroke the occasional three-ball and be passable on defense would be an ideal fit.
A couple of names that come to mind are the New York Knicks’ Jose Calderon and Cleveland Cavaliers’ Matthew Dellavedova. Another intriguing target could be the Los Angeles Clippers’ Lance Stephenson, who was a solid defender during his time with the Indiana Pacers and is capable of playing either guard spot.
While the Rockets’ title hopes are looking grim, the good news is there’s plenty of season left. However, Morey needs to act fast and upgrade the roster while there’s still time for everyone to mesh together.