The Houston Rockets remain the NBA’s most confounding team. Some nights, the stars align, and they look like the championship contender some projected them to be in the preseason. That talent has shined through in huge wins over elite competition such as the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers (twice) and the San Antonio Spurs.
On other nights, Houston seems more determined to crack the lottery than the playoffs. The defense, which has been a problem all season, falls apart. The effort is woefully inconsistent, and the ball tends to stick rather than move around. These are the kind of obstacles that tripped up the Rockets in losses to the Denver Nuggets (three times) and Brooklyn Nets (twice). It was also among the main reasons Kevin McHale was relieved of his duties as head coach less than a year after signing a three-year extension and eventually leading the club to the Western Conference Finals.
New head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who is hoping to parlay his interim status into a long-term gig, acknowledged his team’s Jekyll and Hyde act this season, via Houston Chronicle‘s Jenny Dial Creech.
“I want us to be the good Rockets. We’ve been the good Rockets against good teams. Then we’ve been the bad Rockets. I want to see us be the good Rockets more nights than not. The way we play one night can be so different from the next. We have to be more consistent, and I think the difference is how we enjoy playing with one another.”
The most recent example of the “bad Rockets” rearing their ugly head came in the team’s Dec. 26 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Rockets coughed up a seven-point lead going into the fourth quarter, and James Harden was held to just 1-for-5 shooting in the final eight minutes of the game. Afterward, Bickerstaff publicly called out his squad’s priorities, via ClutchFans.net.
“Our issue is doing things right because it’s the right thing to do. Not because it’s going to get me a bucket, not because it’s going to get me a shot, not because I get the glory. That’s not what this is about. And that’s what our problem is right now. We played San Antonio last night (and) played a wonderful game, a beautiful game on both sides of the ball. We come out here tonight, things aren’t easy, things don’t go our way and we turn into the ugly Rockets again. It’s frustrating for me, it’s frustrating for all of us I’m sure, but it’s not treating the game the right way. Over and over again we’ve disrespected the game. Our priorities need to be clear and I need to do a better job of playing the people whose priorities are clear. Winning is the only priority. If they’re not playing with that priority in mind, then they’re doing other things. Winning is the only priority that matters. That’s the message that should be loud and clear. We haven’t played to that level enough this year.”
Bickerstaff is more than justified in his anger. Christmas weekend put the deficiencies that have plagued Houston all season on full display. In a nationally televised game, the Rockets held one of the best teams in the league and the third-most efficient offense to just 84 points. One night later, they let a then 9-20 Pelicans team come back and drop 110 points on them. While fatigue is certainly a factor when playing the second part of a back-to-back on the road, this was a game Houston should’ve won, and it opens up some concerns about the rest of the season.
While the team is 12-9 since Bickerstaff replaced McHale on Nov. 18, there hasn’t been enough improvement in need areas to suggest the ship will be turning around anytime soon. The defense, which ranked 26th in efficiency before McHale’s upheaval, has only moved up three spots since Bickerstaff took over. Houston is also giving up three fewer points per game under the new regime, shifting from 29th under McHale to 26th. Additionally, Bickerstaff’s recent rant suggests he isn’t having much more success reaching his team than McHale did earlier this year.
Furthermore, while the Rockets currently holds the seventh seed in the West, they are only 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers, who are outside the playoff picture. With Houston facing a tough five-day stretch that includes the Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors and a rematch with the Spurs, the team’s grasp on a playoff spot could be slipping.
With Bickerstaff’s odds of being retained becoming longer with every inconsistent effort his team puts forth, this season is rapidly becoming a lost cause. Even if Houston manages to make the postseason, the club’s struggle to establish an identity will make them easy pickings in a tough conference.
The Rockets are in desperate need of a change, but if it hasn’t come by now, how can we expect it to come at all?