The Rockets were flying high on February 4.
A double-digit win in Memphis was the team’s seventh in eight games, and after dealing with distractions, injuries, and COVID the team pushed its record over .500 for the first time in the Stephen Silas era. The vibe around the team extraordinarily positive after the James Harden fiasco overshadowed it for months, but fast forward 24 days, with another game against Memphis on tap, the Rockets have crumbled.
They haven’t won since that Thursday night in Memphis and it’s time to examine why.
It all started that Thursday night at FedEx Forum. Christian Wood, who was playing at an All Star level after spending the last half decade as a basketball nomad, badly sprained his left ankle in the third quarter. In the nine games he played after the Harden trade, the Rockets were outscoring teams by 14.6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, holding teams to fewer than 97 points per 100 possessions. Wood didn’t control the ball in the Rockets offense, but he was involved in everything and a threat from every spot of the floor. On the defensive end, Wood’s versatility allowed Houston to play to play multiple defenses which is why the team sported the NBA’s best defensive rating, allowing 102.2 points per 100 possessions over the first 12 games it played after the Harden trade.
There was no plan B with Wood out of the lineup. The Rockets tried DeMarcus Cousins, but at this stage of his career and with all the trauma his low body has dealt with over the last three years he wasn’t a fit, so the team released him and it has mostly reverted back to small ball with a couple of minor cameos from Ray Spalding Justin Patton, and it hasn’t worked, especially on the defensive end where the team’s defensive rating has ballooned to 117.3 over the last 10 games. With the team playing without a center Silas has turned back to a switch everything defense, which was the team’s bread and butter the last three seasons, but it doesn’t have the personnel familiar to that scheme and that’s led to all sorts of breakdowns, and the Rockets offense has sputtered due to the lack of stops at the defensive end.
In the 12 games that followed the Harden trade, the Rockets were playing at a 102.92 possession per 48 minutes pace, fastest in the NBA, but because they have to fish the ball out of their own net more often than not, their pace has slowed and an already shaky halfcourt offense has collapsed. Their offense rating is down to 102.9 during the last 10 games, 29th in the league, and they are scoring just 9.3 fast break points, fourth worst. That has put the pressure on their shooters, and they haven’t been up to the task.
Only the Jazz and Blazers attempt more three-pointers per game than the Rockets, unfortunately, no team shoots it worse from long distance. They have connected on just 33.9 percent of their threes this season even though they are getting great looks.
Going into Sunday's game against Memphis on a 10-game losing skid, the Rockets offense was generating 40.5 three-pointers that are classified as open or wide-open (where there is no defender within four feet of the shooter) per game, five more than the first 21 games of the season.
But while the shot volume has increased, the accuracy has dropped from 37.4 percent to a putrid 30 percent, and it doesn’t help that one of their best three-point shooters has been sidelined.
Wood’s sprained ankle happened at the worst possible point in the Rockets season. Compared to most teams, the Rockets schedule at the start of the season was rather painless. They spent a lot time at home and it was four weeks into the season before they played their first back-to-back, but February has been a gauntlet.
The team’s February 1 game in Oklahoma City started a 17 game in 29 day stretch, and Wood sprained his ankle in game three. Two nights after winning in Memphis, the Rockets returned home to play San Antonio, and then the schedule really took a turn. It started with a back-to-back in Charlotte and New Orleans. John Wall and Eric Gordon were held out of the first game, while Victor Oladipo sat out the second. Two nights later, both Oladipo and P.J. Tucker suffered injuries that held them out of multiple games. The Rockets starting lineup has been a revolving door and substitution patterns have been just as inconsistent.
The Rockets weren’t as good as their 7-1 stretch before this current slide might’ve indicated. They were fortunate enough to face some bad teams along with teams missing key players, but all that good fortune has flipped over the course of the last 10 games and a once fun season has turned into a slog that isn't even halfway over.