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Today’s Fastbreak Roundtable: The State of the Rockets

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The Houston Rockets just fired Kevin McHale, so Today’s Fastbreak Managing Editor Jason Patt, Assistant Editor (and Rockets expert) Kelly Scaletta and Rockets contributor Dave Leonardis got together to talk the state of the team.

Jason: The Houston Rockets started the season 4-7 with embarrassing loss after embarrassing loss. That pathetic start got Kevin McHale fired. What in the heck has gone wrong and did McHale deserve his pink slip?

Kelly: This is a complicated issue because it extends beyond the 11 games they played this season, even though they made the Western Conference Finals last year. Think of it this way. Last season, with a plethora of injuries the Rockets somehow dragged themselves to a No. 2 seed in the West, which you don’t have to admit was a pretty heroic team performance.

Meanwhile, McHale only got 13 third-place votes for Coach of the Year, meaning 13 out of 130 voters saw fit to give him any of the credit at all for the Rockets last year, and I’m not sure how much he deserves. The schemes are famously Daryl Morey’s. I mean we call it Moreyball for a reason.

The defensive improvement was due to the hiring of J.B. Bickerstaff, who it looks like will get to wear the interim tag for a bit.

You could give him credit for the development in the low post by Donatas Motiejunas, which was pretty impressive, but aside from that, what did McHale ever really do to make the Rockets successful? He’s not a genius with on-court maneuverings, in-game changes, lineup management or any of those things.

The main thing he was good with was being a coach that kept the locker room together. And the players had a players-only meeting yesterday. So he looked like he was losing that.

So, I guess my point is that yes, he did deserve the pink slip, but not just because of the 11 games.

Dave: I agree with Kelly. I don’t think you can look only at these first few weeks, as awful as they were for the Rockets, as the sole reason for Kevin McHale getting the ax. I’ve always felt like McHale was on borrowed time in Houston, dating back to a couple years ago when Houston was eliminated in the first round by the Blazers. Even back then, there were signs that McHale’s guys were underachieving on his watch. We overlooked it last year because they overcame so much adversity to make a deep playoff run and seemed like a team that finally put it all together before running into an iconic Warriors team.

I do think McHale got dealt a bad hand though. He was knocked for “losing the locker room,” but it’s hard to truly develop chemistry in the NBA when the roster fluctuates so much on a year-to-year basis. Look at your successful teams over the last decade or so: San Antonio, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Miami and Cleveland with LeBron. For the most part, they managed to keep their core intact each year.

Meanwhile, Houston seemed like it was always trying to re-invent itself. It started by stockpiling picks and young talent. Then they traded for James Harden, who had no history of being “the guy” and was now being forced into a superstar role. Next, they signed Dwight Howard. They went hard after Chris Bosh, but ended up with Trevor Ariza instead and let Chandler Parsons walk. In between that, they took chances on guys with either track records of being problematic (Howard, Ty Lawson, Josh Smith) or huge notoriety (Jeremy Lin). It’s difficult to get guys on the same page when the man putting everything together treats the roster like a fantasy football team.

With all that said, things got bad fast for Houston this season, starting with the three straight 20-point drubbings to start the season. The effort at both ends has been lackluster, especially on defense. Championship windows don’t stay open for long, and if Houston was ever going to live up to its potential, they couldn’t afford to look back five or six months from now and wonder if they should have done something sooner.

So, yes, McHale deserved to go because there were no signs of improvement, but I’m not sure Bickerstaff is the guy who can get them back on track either.

Nov. 13, 2015 - Denver, Colorado, U.S - Rockets JAMES HARDEN, center, runs into the Denver defense by Nuggets GARY HARRIS, left, as he runs to the basket during the 2nd. half at the Pepsi Center Friday night. The Nuggets beat the Rockets 107-98 (Photo by Hector Acevedo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Hector Acevedo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Jason: To me, it’s hard to say a guy deserves to get fired after just 11 games a year after getting a contract extension and the Western Conference Finals (as much of a fluke as that may have been thanks to the Clippers’ utter collapse and Josh Smith/Corey Brewer somehow going scorched earth from three in Game 5).

Still, it seems like this was a team in need of a major shake-up, even if that wasn’t totally McHale’s fault. Injuries have played a factor and the players need to have some pride for their own pathetic effort, but I don’t completely fault the Rockets for being rash and making a change

That being said, should we expect this team to all of a sudden turn it around? Will James Harden actually give a s*** on the defensive end? This dude is supposed to be the leader of the team, and every single night you can put together a lowlight reel of embarrassing defense. And it’s not just him either.

Kelly: Indications are that two people got called out in the team meeting that preceded the firing of McHale. One was McHale. The other was Harden. Hopefully he takes it to heart and does something about it. If he doesn’t, this team has no hope. None. Zilch.

Dave: With McHale gone, the bullseye is square on James Harden’s chest. There’s no more excuses for him not taking charge of this team. As Kelly mentioned, many fingers are already being pointed at Harden and teammates are annoyed by his style of play and personality. Oddly enough, none of this was an issue last season, when he nearly won the MVP, so you have to wonder what changed between now and then. Is he distracted by his relationship with Khloe Kardashian, who seems to be the female equivalent of the Madden jinx? Was it the arrival of Ty Lawson, who Harden pined for but hasn’t exactly clicked with? Is it the pressure of finally being recognized as one of the best players in the game? It’s hard to pinpoint it.

All I know is Harden made some strides last season, particularly on defense. Now, it seems like he’s regressed. With the team’s defensive struggles and the added pressure on Harden’s shoulders now, he has to be the man that carries this team on both ends. Otherwise, the Rockets are just treading water.

I also think Dwight Howard’s jovial demeanor plays a role in this, too. The greatest players ever are the ones who take the game seriously: Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, etc. Howard’s main focal points are dunking and hitting the Nae Nae. For as long as he’s been in the league, there hasn’t been a huge improvement from when he first arrived.

As far as shaking things up, I’m not on board with that. This team has already gone through so much change these last few years. Plus, who’s out there that makes this team better? Boogie? DeRozan? Noah? I wouldn’t try do anything with this roster until I see what Bickerstaff brings to the table because whoever takes over next year is going to want a say in how this roster is rebuilt.

Jason: I didn’t really mean a shake-up in terms of the roster. Meant more in terms of the coach. I honestly didn’t think McHale would get fired so soon, but I’m not all that surprised.

I’m not totally sure how much blame Howard’s demeanor should get for this. I’d blame the fact that he’s not healthy and playing at a peak level anymore, but maybe Kelly could speak to that better since he follows the team closer.

Kelly: I think there’s  “long-distance narrative” about Howard being too jovial and not caring enough. I think a huge portion of that is perpetuated by bitter Lakers fans who were fine with it until he left them for Houston. Now they all “always had a problem with it.”

I mean, Howard’s been hurt. I can’t find a fault with a guy for being hurt. He works hard to get back on the court and he works hard when he is on the court. But I guess in the NBA smiling makes you a bad person.

Dave: To be fair, Howard’s been labeled “soft” in the past by his own peers. Obviously, playing through a bad back and a busted knee in last year’s playoffs would counteract those claims. My perception of Dwight from what I see is someone who is very laid back because his physical gifts have allowed the game to come very easy for him. He just doesn’t seem to have the same drive as a Kobe or a LeBron. Shaquille O’Neal was kind of the same way, albeit with a few more championship rings.

I’m not faulting Howard for being hurt, but I do wonder if we’ll ever see him fully healthy again. Back injuries are particularly tricky, especially for big men with as much mileage as Howard has on him.

To bring it back around, I think the bright side for Houston is there aren’t so many critical flaws that they can’t turn things around with 71 games left to go. Bickerstaff was credited with improving the defense last season, and it will be interesting to see if he can do more now that he’s the top guy. Hopefully, they can get everyone back healthy soon and we’ll see where the real problems lie. Maybe they aren’t a top two or three team in the West, but could they be a dangerous team as a lower seed at full strength? Absolutely.

Icon Sportswire

Icon Sportswire

Jason: To the point about Howard not being fully healthy again, that’s a legitimate concern. He’s still clearly very good as is, but he’s not the dominant player of a few years ago and won’t be again.

With his free agency coming up, should the Rockets pay him the big bucks?

Dave: I’d be reluctant to pay Dwight “big bucks,” He’s going into his age-31 season next year, and while that isn’t necessarily a death sentence, you have to consider he’s been in the league since he was a teenager and hasn’t been healthy for quite some time.

More importantly, you have Clint Capela waiting in the wings. He’s not as polished as Dwight is, especially offensively, but he’s been one of the few bright spots for the Rockets this season and he’s only going to get better.

If Dwight can string together a few healthy months and he shows his old form, I might reconsider, but I think giving him a huge contract next summer is a huge risk that Houston can’t afford.

Jason: The Capela thing definitely plays a factor. If Dwight can play well the rest of the year, I think I’d be comfortable paying “big” on a short-term deal, but a long-term max seems like a disaster waiting to happen. What say you, Kelly?

Kelly: I agree, and I think that raises an interesting point. People were assuming he would have max money waiting for him at the end of this deal when he left it on the table in LA. It shows there’s something to guaranteed money still.

And I love Capela. I call him Awe because he does things that leave you in awe.

I am not ashamed to sing the praise of Awe Capela.

Jason: Should’ve known an awful pun was coming there. Thank you for delivering.

Humorously, as we speak, the Rockets have made a huge comeback against the Blazers tonight. To overtime!

Jason: And the Rockets finished off that comeback! Huge game for Beard! Hugs all around!

But seriously, the Rockets still stunk for much of the game, and they needed a ridiculous Harden performance to win plus a circus shot from Corey Brewer, who has been horrible this year. Ty Lawson was a disaster yet again. What’s going on with him? It’s too early to call that trade a mistake, but he’s been an unmitigated disaster.

El Nuevo Herald/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

El Nuevo Herald/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Kelly: He has been. I really have no idea what to do there. It may have been a mistake. I was worried a bit about this. Lawson is more of a “creator who can shoot” than a “shooter who can create” (think Klay Thompson), and Harden is effective with the ball in his hands and making the decisions. I really have no idea how to make that work, and apparently, neither did McHale.

There has to be some way to work it out. Maybe Morey should have open auditions for the head coaching job and do a “Shark Tank” style thing where potential coaches come in and pitch how they could get Harden and Lawson to work together?

Jason: Having not watched much of them yet, how much has Lawson played without Harden? Is he often out there running the second unit? It’d seem like that’d be a good way to get him going. And then once he gets comfortable maybe him and  Harden can work better together.

It’s funny, because last year one of the big problems was that the offense was too predictable with Harden dominating the ball so much. So you’d think adding another creator would help that. Instead it’s still a problem and maybe even worse.

Kelly: That’s what I mean by a shooter who can create. It’s a thin line. You want a guy who can create but not just a different guy who is going to dominate the ball less effectively. Harden has struggled on his own too, but it’s pretty clear he’s not as good of a player when he’s sharing the court with Lawson. That survives the stat test and the eye test.

And it’s not just on offense. Based on what I see, he’s less engaged on defense when Lawson is in the game. It’s almost as if he gets his energy and gets more engaged when he has the ball in his hands. Watching Lawson work puts him in spectator mode — on both sides of the ball.

And it works the other way around too. Lawson’s assist rate goes way up when he doesn’t have to share with Harden. I think we’ve seen this a few times in the last few years with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade first, then James and Irving.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of ball-dominant players needing a little time to figure out how to work together.

Dave: We’ve also seen this in the past with Harden and Jeremy Lin as well as Harden and Patrick Beverley. The latter turned out to be a better fit than the former at both ends. It doesn’t help that neither Harden and Lawson are particularly great defenders. I always thought the need to install Beverley in the starting lineup as well as sign someone like Trevor Ariza was to compensate for Harden’s turnstile defense.

Also, let’s remember that it’s early and Lawson is going from a Nuggets team that was rarely competitive to a Rockets team that’s a legit contender. That’s a transition that will take more than 12 games to make. So far though, it’s been a train wreck, minus the allure of Amy Schumer.

Jason: Yeah, there’s still a long way to go, so plenty of time to try to fix this. The talent IS there for the Rockets to turn it around, although I can’t really take them seriously as a contender at this point.

Looking ahead, who’s the best man for the job long term? Kelly looked at some possible candidates. Obviously Bickerstaff will get a chance to prove his worth. But if not him, who and why?

Dave: Guys like Steve Clifford, Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks have been mentioned, but I’d consider taking a run at Luke Walton. He has championship experience as both a player and as an assistant. He’s doing a remarkable job filling in for Steve Kerr, and the strength of this Rockets roster is on the offensive end. Obviously, it’s irresponsible to expect him to get the same results in Houston as he’s getting in Golden State, but he’s a fresh face with a good pedigree that would be a better option than the more notable retreads.

Kelly: I’ve heard Walton getting buzz, but he’s sitting on the world’s nicest jet with the autopilot on. I’m not sure that means he’s ready to take over a team so dysfunctional that just got their head coach fired. But that’s the conundrum here. The coaches are all either too old school or too young. I think the most important thing is it has to be someone who can mesh with Morey. Walton fits that bill.

Dave: This is completely out of left field and who knows how interested he is in being a head coach, but I think Shane Battier could be a sneaky good choice. Classically trained by Coach K at Duke. One of the smartest guys in the game as a player and a really good defender. Great leader and locker-room guy. Plus, he has a good relationship with Daryl Morey, despite DM trading Battier to Memphis a few years ago.

Jason: Well now that’s an interesting and fun thought. I know Battier is an analytics guy, so he’d fit right in to Moreyball.

I’m no good at identifying head coaches for teams, but I know Thibs has been brought up a lot, and I just don’t see it. Yeah, maybe he helps the defense, but I just can’t see the personalities meshing in that situation.

Kelly: That is out of left field. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong though.

You definitely can’t fit a Thibodeau-shaped peg in a Morey-shaped hole. Wait, that sounds kind of dirty.

Dave: You two can probably speak more to this than I could since you’re both Bulls guys, but didn’t Thibs have a rep for running guys into the ground? If so, that might be a problem on a Rockets team that can’t stay healthy.

Kelly: One of the reasons why I just don’t see it working. And he’d bench guys who make any mistake on defense. So, unless you’re ready to see Harden slashed to 10 minutes a night while Ariza plays 40, it’s probably not going to work.

Jason: Well Thibs isn’t THAT crazy to play Harden 10 minutes a game, but yeah, point definitely made. It’ll be interesting to see what direction the Rockets go and how they respond to McHale’s firing. Long season ahead.

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