The beginning of a new year is when most people worldwide have an epiphany and decide to start changing their lives for the better. Whether it’s agreeing to hit the gym more or quit smoking or merely just trying to a better person, New Year’s resolutions have become an annual tradition that rarely make it past Valentine’s Day.
In the NBA, this kind of turnaround usually occurs at the trading deadline in mid-February, where teams do some last-minute roster shuffling in an attempt to alter their fate.
However, at their current rate of ineptitude, the 2015-16 Houston Rockets can’t afford to wait until Feb. 18 to resolve their issues. At 16-18, Houston went from potential championship contender to possible lottery participant in the span of two months. The team still holds on to the seventh seed in the West, but its brand of matador defense and inconsistent effort puts that playoff spot in jeopardy.
Fortunately for James Harden and Co., someone was nice enough to carve out a list of things they need to do to right the ship…because helping others is one of my 2016 life goals.
1. Trade Ty Lawson
And Corey Brewer. And Marcus Thornton. And maybe even Terrence Jones.
The combination of Houston’s struggles and Daryl Morey’s aggressive desire to win now means it’s time for a change. While Morey could use anyone not named James Harden as trade bait in an attempt to save his job, the aforementioned four gentlemen seem like the most likely candidates to be moved.
Lawson has been an unmitigated disaster since arriving from the Denver Nuggets over the summer. He’s struggled to find a rhythm on offense while also being a walking turnstile on defense. Houston’s net rating of minus-4.2 when Lawson is on the court is the fourth-worst of anyone on the roster. As a result, the 28-year-old has gone from starter to sixth-man to seldom-used role player over the last few weeks. After the league hit Lawson with a two-game suspension for a prior DUI arrest, the Rockets began to shop Lawson, but haven’t found any takers for a point guard averaging 6.5 points per game who is owed $12.4 million this season. With the Phoenix Suns (Eric Bledsoe) and Utah Jazz (Alec Burks) both suffering huge losses in the backcourt, perhaps the trade market for Lawson will pick up in the coming weeks.
Brewer was given a three-year, $24 million deal in the offseason to be a 3-and-D guy off the bench, but he’s converting just 27.4 percent from behind the arc and opponents are shooting 2.8 percent better overall with the 29-year-old defending. Thornton was a nice surprise earlier this year, earning a spot in the starting lineup and averaging 11.4 points in November. However, his playing time took a sudden dip and he’s grown frustrated with his limited role. Jones’ name came up in early December as compensation in Houston’s reported pursuit of Suns forward Markieff Morris. Jones has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career, but he has the talent to be a solid two-way power forward.
The Rockets don’t have a ton of needs, but it’s obvious the team needs to shake things up sooner rather than later.
2. Show Some Effort On Defense
The most disappointing aspect of the Rockets’ campaign is the just how terrible the defense has been. After finishing sixth in defensive efficiency last season, Houston is currently sitting at 24th this season. It’s not like the team lacks impact players on that end of the floor. Dwight Howard is a former three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Patrick Beverley made the All-Defensive Second Team two years ago. Trevor Ariza is one of the game’s better perimeter defenders. Even Harden made some strides as a stopper last season.
The Rockets defense is making me think of all my regrets from 2015. Including watching them play defense since April.
— Matt Moore CBS (@MattMooreCBS) January 1, 2016
Even with all that talent, Houston is giving up 105.8 points per game (27th in the NBA). Furthermore, the team continues to let opponents back into games due to its inability to get stops. In this week alone, the team allowed the New Orleans Pelicans (seven points) and Atlanta Hawks (19 points) to come back from big deficits while also failing to capitalize on a Steph Curry-less Golden State Warriors team. The latter two losses came AFTER interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff publicly criticized the team’s priorities.
If Houston is going to turn things around, it’s going to need to ramp up the intensity and give a much more spirited effort than we’ve seen so far this season. As tough as the competition is out West, the Rockets’ biggest opponent going forward will be themselves.
3. Stop Turning The Ball Over
Turnovers have been an issue in Houston for the better part of the last three years. Since 2012-13, the Rockets have been in the bottom-three in both total turnovers and turnovers per game.
Sadly, this season is shaping up to be even worse. After averaging just over 15 turnovers per game in each of the last three seasons, Houston is coughing the ball up 17.7 times per game this year. At their current pace, the team is projected to finish the season with close to 1,400 turnovers (1,397, to be exact).
The biggest cause for Houston’s carelessness is Harden, who has led the league in total turnovers in two of the last three seasons. “The Beard” sits atop the leaderboard again this season, turning the ball over 152 times already.
In years past, the Rockets could compensate for their inability to squeeze the orange with steady defense and dynamic offense. However, this season, the offense has struggled to find an identity beyond Harden’s usual fireworks and the defense has been especially bad. This is yet another example of Houston’s uninspired effort coming back to haunt them. By taking a little more pride in their performance as a team, the Rockets wouldn’t be constantly shooting themselves in the foot. With so many things going wrong this season, this is an issue that can’t continue to fester.
4. Feed Dwight Howard The Ball Or Get Him Out of Town
Dwight Howard might not be the dominant force he once was, but he’s still an eight-time All-Star and one of the 10 best centers in the league. However, despite reports of his alleged unhappiness and desire to opt out this summer, the Rockets haven’t shown a willingness to get their prized big man involved on the offensive end. Howard is averaging just 8.3 field-goal attempts per game, which is fifth-most on the team and tied for the lowest output of his career. In the entire month of December, D12 put up double-digits in takes just five times in 15 games. His 13.5 points per game is his worst scoring effort since entering the league as a 19-year-old rookie in 2004.
While Howard maintains he’s happy in Houston, he clearly didn’t sign up to be a fifth scoring option when he agreed to a deal with the Rockets three years ago. To their credit, his teammates realize they need to their star big man more involved, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.
“In order for us to be successful, he definitely needs the ball,” point guard Pat Beverley said. “Everyone understands that. We just try to find him in the flow of our game. In early quick hits when the defense is not paying attention to getting him the ball like that. He’s the best big man in the NBA. For us to accomplish the things we want to accomplish, he has to be a priority.”
Despite the decrease in production, Howard is more concerned with being consistent than how many touches he’s getting (or not getting) down low.
“I can’t control that. I can’t speak on it. I just know when I do get it down there, be decisive and make smart plays. If it is to score, score. If they double, kick it out. I can’t control that stuff. The only thing I can control is how hard I play. That has to be more consistent. All the other stuff, that’s not in my control.”
Still, it’s hard to understand who would pay a star player $22.3 million and continually ignore him on the offensive end. While Howard hasn’t publicly made a stink about his usage, how much longer will that last, especially if the Rockets continue to lose?
Houston only has two options: find a way to make Howard the superstar sidekick he was brought in to be or find a new home for him.
If Howard does indeed opt out at season’s end, the Rockets can’t take the chance on letting him walk for nothing. Even with back and knee troubles wearing him down, Howard still has value as one of the few centers who can still dominate offensively, defensively and on the boards. In last year’s playoffs, he contributed 16.4 points, 14 boards and 2.3 blocks despite playing with a torn MCL and meniscus in his knee. Imagine what he can do if he’s healthy and utilized properly.
With the Rockets’ season spiraling out of control, the best way to turn things around is to put one of their most valuable assets to good use, whether it’s on the floor or as a trade bait.